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Melt With You
By Laura Leon

The many ways to delight in the simplicity and goodness of a grilled cheese sandwich

I’ll make no bones about it: I’m a grilled cheese fanatic. Nothing in this world compares to the taste and the sensation of inhaling one of these babies for lunch or dinner: The bread lightly glistening with butter, its crumbs sticking to your fingers, and its gooey (but not too gooey) middle leaving stringy bridges connecting you to it. It’s simple, almost baby food; but really, in a world of processed meats and second-rate fillings, how can you go wrong with the grilled cheese?

Apparently, you can go very wrong, or, rather, restaurant kitchens go very wrong of late. Once considered a doable first recipe for every home- economics student, a properly cooked grilled cheese now seems as endangered as, well, Howard Johnson restaurants. Having survived the 1980s Silver Palate onslaught of gourmetization—whereby more than one cheese (neither of them American) was used in combination with fruit slices, olives and other things that typically just slide out of the sandwich while you’re eating it—the grilled cheese has become something that, for all its simplicity, many cooks don’t know how to construct. Consider the fact that Friendly’s, a chain at which you’d reasonably assume you could find a decent rendition, apparently has taken the grilled cheese out of its training rotation. On the last half-dozen or so trips I’ve taken to this venerable retreat, my grilled cheese sandwiches have featured orange cheese that isn’t properly melted and that—horror of horrors!—doesn’t congeal to the bread on which it’s supposedly been cooked. That bread alone should be enough reason to shut down the franchise: wimpy and overly laden with butter, creating a soggy mess. And I love butter.

My husband has the annoying habit of always reminding anyone who will listen how they used to do things back when he was a grill cook at Friendly’s, and, after a recent disappointing GC, I did him the huge thrill of actually asking him about this one aspect of his earliest career. He still does, after all, make one hell of a grilled cheese. He explains that you simply put your cheese slices (two) between two slices of bread, pat a small amount of butter on each of the outer sides of the bread, place on a grill that’s hot but not too hot—each side of the sandwich should brown evenly over a few minutes and not burn, so the cheese has time to melt properly into the bread—preferably applying some pressure (a spatula, say, or a light grill weight) to assist the browning. Voilà.

Marion Cunningham, in the Fannie Farmer Cookbook, advises the use of cheddar, swiss or American, and really any of these three works best. Provolone and mozzarella are delicious, but too creamy, and you end up with something that probably should have been a calzone or mozzarella en carozza. Cunningham also calls for white bread, and again I agree. White bread really does work best here: Wheat gets too hard, and the cheese seems to evaporate into nothing. If you like it, rye is acceptable, although I find it has the same problem as wheat.

I recently had a grilled cheese sandwich with ham and apple slices at Beff’s on Everett Road in Albany. It was surprisingly good—I’m not one to add too many extras to my GC—not too much ham or too many apples, and a pleasing, cohesive taste.

For a decidedly more modern take on the souped-up grilled cheese, consider the example set by Amy’s Bread in New York City. There, they concoct a spread of tomato paste, canned chipotle chilies, and molasses, which they use as a buffer between sourdough bread and extra-sharp cheddar, plum tomatoes, thinly sliced red onions, and cilantro—and, yes, Amy’s recommends spreading butter on the outside of the sandwich bread.

Shades of Green, on Albany’s Lark Street, has a sandwich of grilled cheese with vegetables that I crave (minus the tomatoes, which makes the whole thing too sloppy). They apply a Russian dressing and dark greens to the sandwich, which provides a nice tang and a little juice. Shades’ version, as it turns out, isn’t too far removed from some earlier recipes: My 1941 booklet 500 Tasty Sandwiches, edited by Culinary Arts Institute director Ruth Berolzheimer, includes, in its ingredients for rarebit sandwiches, American cheese, prepared mustard, Worcestershire sauce, milk, egg, tomatoes, toast and bacon. Granted, the rarebit sauce goes on top of the sandwich, not within, but the tang is similar. In her recipe for toasted sharp-cheese sandwiches, about as basic at this booklet gets with respect to the subject of grilled cheeses, Berolzheimer recommends melting butter, blending in flour and sugar, adding vinegar and milk, and when smooth, blending a combo of chopped hard-cooked egg, American cheese, minced onion and chopped pimientos. The resulting creamy cheese mess is spread on slices of bread, which is brushed with melted butter, and browned under a broiler.

When reading these decades-old recipes, it’s easy to be initially repulsed. But then again, my father, who was 18 when 500 Tasty Sandwiches debuted, was never one to turn down any cholesterol. He buttered both sides of his bread, and included a dollop of mayonnaise when adding to his grilled cheese any combo of tomato, ham and bacon. Contrary to my better instincts, these sandwiches rocked, delivering an awesome sensory combo of creamy, crunchy, tangy and sweet. So, I can’t say which would gross me out more: Berolzheimer’s recipes, or the fact that I could probably happily devour many of them at one sitting.

A final note: While grilled cheeses on their own (with no extra fixin’s) are the ultimate, much can be said for the utter simplicity of that other tried-and-true recipe, the grilled cheese and tomato. Of course, the success of this meal absolutely, unequivocally depends on procuring the freshest, ripest tomatoes—the kind that exude little drivels of sweet-yet-tangy red juice on your chin when you bite into the sandwich. A big beefsteak is ideal here, for when cut, it naturally covers the extent of your bread surface, and many’s the time I’ve enjoyed a summer lunchtime feast of freshly plucked tomato, dotted with a sprinkling of kosher salt, and added to a grilled cheese. Ah, heaven. But it’s a heaven too often desecrated by the dreaded, infernal pink tomato, whose hardness rivals the Rock’s biceps and whose cardboard or cottony texture delivers as much pleasure as, well, chewing on cardboard or cotton balls. Unless you absolutely trust the grill chef at your favorite eatery, opt away from the grilled cheese and tomato until the season when you, or your trusted companion/cook, can obtain the proper ingredients to make one at home.

Say what you will in favor of this or that cheese, or adding meats, tomatoes, greens or what-have-you to your grilled cheese, but nothing comes close to the original—particularly when it’s cooked to perfection. In that rare moment of finding the real thing and savoring my first chew, I am transported back 30 some years to Melvin’s Drugstore in Great Barrington, Mass., where, sitting on a counter stool, I was transfixed by the process unfolding before my eyes. The deft counter girl would slap butter down on the wide, black grill, then place my square bit of heaven on top. The soft sizzle as the bread sucked up the butter enchanted me, calling me like one of those hapless Argonauts lured by the Sirens. My mouth watered and I began to panic, slightly, at the possibility that the counterperson would get busy and forget to flip the sandwich before it got too brown. Not to worry. With an effortless thrust of the spatula, the sandwich would be flipped, revealing the golden, flecked with brown, still-shiny-with-butter facade of the bread. The final placement of the sandwich, on a maroon-circled plate with chips and a pickle (whose sweet-sour juices might be allowed to dapple slightly on one corner of my sandwich), sealed its appeal. The result was perfection: the crunch of the toast, the perfect ooze of the cheese, the sensory pleasure of bread, butter and cheese mingling into one simple but unforgettable taste. Thirty years and countless cooking trends later, that’s still as good as it gets.

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