The “Secrets” of Grilled Cheese, Revealed:

I was contacted by someone at Esquire.com back in April, looking to get my perspective on grilled cheese as a perfect food, per my “noted expertise in food science.” (BAHAHAH.) They ran a month of grilled cheese features and reviews for grilled cheese month, which was pretty glorious. At the time, I could have recommended five other bloggers more qualified for the task. But I’m not an idiot. So we emailed back and forth for a week or so, during which time I wrote the below, in response to her request for the “secrets” of the perfect grilled cheese sandwich. Well, grilled cheese month came and went and they never ran it, and it just seems like a shame to let all this wisdom go to waste. I figured that my 50th post was a good time to take a small deviation. So here it is. Certainly not “secrets,” but the guiding principles at my house.

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Use great ingredients, if you can. No one will argue that Wonder Bread and Kraft aren’t a classic. Sure, you can make a pretty alright grilled cheese for 40 cents – that’s what’s so great about grilled cheese. This is just the beginning, though – a springboard for delicious possibilities. So, bread is important. It’s not just a delivery system for what’s inside. If you wouldn’t eat it with butter slathered on it straight out of the bag, you can do better. (Me, I happen to think my grocery store makes a pretty great Pane Di Altamura – so you don’t necessarily need to make a special trip, or spend a lot.) Cheese possibilities are endless, and can be intimidating. If you’re feeling paralyzed by choice, traditional rules will tell you that the “best” cheeses are the high fat varieties that melt well, (e.g., Gruyere, Fontina, Cheddar.) That said, I find these kinds of hard rules unnecessarily restrictive. Use more than one cheese, by all means, and use what tastes delicious to you.

number 2

Use a sandwich press. Not the countertop appliance, the pan. Getting a solid crunch and even browning on bread requires pressure. Invest in a decent press and griddle pan, preferably one with ridges. You can get decent one for around forty bucks, but if you’d rather spend that on artisanal cheeses, you can still accomplish the same thing with some ingenuity. (Cover a plate in tin foil and stack a few cans of soup or a book on it. 2 – 3 lbs is what you’re after.

number 3

Experiment. While it’s true that simple grilled cheese can be great, it’s also a blank canvas. There’s (almost) no such thing as a bad grilled cheese, I’ve found, and the most successful sandwich is often one you pulled out of your hat with what you found in your fridge. As a for instance, butter is not necessarily an absolute. Try grilling with mayonnaise, instead of butter. Dredge the buttered side of your bread in fresh grated (anything) before you grill it. Do you have bacon? Why isn’t that in there? Experiment with spreads inside the sandwich – aioli, tapenade, mustards. Just last week I accidentally blew my own mind with some red pepper hummus.

number 4

Finally, respect the cheese. Do not undermine its authority by crowding it out with too many other ingredients. Not sure? Here’s how you know you’ve done things right. Are your slices of bread firmly adhered to one another? When you cut your sandwich in half, does it hemorrhage, just a little bit? Yes? Then well done, my friend. Feast.

@ The Fallingwater Cafe, in Mill Run

We departed Philadelphia on the fifth day, and began the return west into Amish country. First stop, Intercourse. We’d both been looking forward to it for days. If I’m being honest, though, it was kind of a let down. Not much excitement, over pretty quickly. I did pick up some literature on the subject, though. If you’re into that sort of thing.

We reached Mill Run late in the day, and checked into our (first ever) bed & breakfast. We sat in floral print splendor and stared at each other until it was time to go to bed. In the morning, a bright and early reservation to see the most important building of the 20th century. And then there was this.

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“Ham and Asparagus Panini: Ham, Swiss and asparagus on wheat-berry bread.”

Despite Frank Lloyd Wright’s success in utilizing the cantilever design and attractive local materials in his design of Fallingwater, the café on site was unable to leverage these concepts in the construction of their panini. Let’s review:

Poor construction. Fallingwater was lovingly constructed over two years by local stonemasons. The “grilling” of this Panini was done hastily, with a dry heat method that failed to properly secure the lower level to that above.

Inferior materials. While Fallingwater’s horizontal trays were made of reinforced concrete, the horizontal trays of this panini were flaccid and unpalatable.

Structural issues. Fallingwater’s cantilever is anchored into the rock of the adjacent hillside. The back of this Panini was anchored in a precarious slaw pile.

Edgar Kaufmann Jr. called the house an “ever-flowing source of exhilaration.” I found this Panini to be a source of indigestion, and awarded it a 3.

But it was pretty hard to be mad.

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@ E’s on Main Street, in Middletown

We spent ten or fifteen minutes driving through Delaware on our way up to Philadelphia, and I found what was obviously something of a treasure in Middletown. We were only there a short time, but I got the sense that everyone who walked in had eaten there dozens of times, and was known by name. I later learned that E(ileen) was best known for her creamy tomato soup, and voted “Best Soup Downstate DE.” It’s cute that Delaware thinks it’s big enough to have regions.

E's

“The best in Middletown, guaranteed to eat the crust: Choose from American, Swiss, Jack, Provolone, or Cheddar on Texas Toast.” (Mine was ‘Merican, + bacon.)

Challenge accepted, E. Now me, if I wanted to encourage crust consumption, I wouldn’t necessarily lead with Texas toast. It generally just leads to a bland, disproportionate let down. And a plate of crust. Perhaps Texas and Delaware have some kind of bread alliance, wherein they agree to send only inferior toasts to Wisconsin, and nothing but the finest of toasts to the good people of Delaware?

I’m on to you, Texas. I gave that shit a 7.

And this.

@ Big Pecker’s, in Ocean City

Cockadoodledoo.

Stay classy, Ocean City.  (If you’ve never been, and have some Axe body spray you can put it in your mouth, it’s a little bit like that.) Our arrival was met with a dousing of liquid sunshine that went on for 72 straight hours.  If we’re keeping score, it actually rained every single day in each of the 7 states we visited. It’s probably also pertinent to mention here that I was four months pregnant on this trip – although apparently the meal you see below is some kind of “give away.”

You must be pregnant.

Adequate.

“Grilled Cheese: Your choice of cheese, your choice of bread.”

I opted for American on white, and the results were adequate. The bread was unnecessarily saturated with whatever oily nonsense they grilled it with, but it was just distracting enough that I could pretend for a moment that my girly drink was legit. I was trolleyed right out of the land of make believe when a delightful woman at the bar broadcasted that “Only a pregnant girl would order a non-alcoholic daiquiri and a grilled cheese!” Despite my impulse to challenge her, I’ve come to understand that having the palate of a toddler should embarrass me legitimately, and probably not something I should continue to volunteer. I kept quiet, and I gave it a 6. ($5.99)

@ Grilled Cheese & Co, in Sykesville

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“The Sweetest Thing: Brie and Mascarpone cheese blended with raspberry preserve and chocolate chips.”

I have to confess something. I’ve been trying to mask this for some time, (so no harm would come to my cheese-loving reputation)…but here it is: I don’t like brie. I think it tastes like musty dirt curd, and it pisses me off that it’s allowed near food. I keep trying to like it, but inevitably become irked each time someone calls it an “acquired taste,” really just a pretentious way to say something tastes like shit until you get used to it. WHY FUCKING BOTHER?

Consequently, it was with trepidation that I sampled the gooey “treat” above. I will admit, it was not without merit, and it was by no means inedible. It was rich, and sweet, and messy – on paper, everything a good dessert grilled cheese should be. Unfortunately, my palate is not yet sophisticated enough to appreciate chocolate and wet basement mushrooms as a food pairing. I will keep working on it.  7/10.  ($6.99)

@ Grilled Cheese & Co, in Sykesville

Grilled Cheese & Co

We began day 2 of our trip bright and early, hurling down the highway towards the coast with eighty other rumbling german imports. The rally had a number of planned stops before we reached Ocean City, so I figured skipping one of those would easily afford me this (teeny) little 7 mile deviation off highway 70, right?

Grilled Cheese & Co 3

“The Fresco: Fresh mozzarella & provolone cheese, fire roasted red peppers, basil pesto and a balsamic glaze:

We lost the rally. A little bit. BUT LOOK AT IT. It’s hemorrhaging all things good, right there in my lap. Finally, 967 miles from home, a sandwich with enough heft and hot cheese to make my home state proud. If all that weren’t enough, (and it is, btw) they slathered the whole thing in peppers and pesto. Both tasted legitimately fresh, and came surfing out when I pulled the halves apart. Structurally, this bread was a delicate choice, barely equipped to support the load. Ultimately, though, it was perfectly grilled, and left a perfectly insufficient barricade between me and the best part of the sandwich. 9/10 ($7.99)

@ Steak ‘n Shake in Elkhart

Greetings, my cheese loving friends. Every year, Grilled Cheese Month somehow manages to reenergize me (i.e., fill me with guilt) and get me off my lazy, neglectful posterior. I hope this post finds you well, and appropriately celebrating comfort food’s finest holiday. I spent this past weekend in Madison, (swilling wine, abusing my credit card) and returned home with 5 lbs cheese in tow – including a 2 lb loaf of Tillamook Vintage White that I scored on my maiden voyage to a Costco. (YES, the very same cheese I forgot in a Portland refrigerator in 2010.)

The below begins a road trip I took out east in September of 2011. (I know, SHAME.) I convinced my husband that the largest VW show in the US would be much more fun than a drive west to see state parks, purely because the grilled cheese prospects west of WI looked positively dismal. This is the first (of nine) I ate on that trip.

I enjoyed the above (Grilled Cheese + Bacon) in Elkhart, Indiana – day 1 of our trip. I’ve only been to a Steak ‘n Shake once before, but have always thought of it as fast food. It’s not. This wouldn’t have been that important, except that we were trying to catch up to a rally, and needed to make it to Pittsburgh(ish) by nightfall. They weren’t busy, but we managed to escape the wait staff’s radar for a full 15 minutes. When she discovered she’d neglected us, she was loudly, wildly (and embarrassingly) apologetic. From here, things moved quickly.

The sandwich was good. The American cheese was melted and sufficient, bacon was decent, and it had a good crunch on it. I also noted that it was appropriately sized for an adult – not a kids menu item serving dual duty. I awarded it a satisfactory 6/10. The free milkshakes and cookies we were forced to take with us weren’t bad parting gifts, either. ($4.48)

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