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Grilled Cheese, Please!

April 11th, 2011

by Laura Werlin

When friends learned I was embarking on my second book about grilled cheese, their reaction went something like this: “Really?” Their measured response made it clear that they were doing no less than questioning my sanity. Why on earth would anybody write two books about grilled cheese? To be honest, that unspoken question was not without merit. Why, in fact, would someone (me, in this case), write two books about a food that most of us learn to make before we learn to cook, one we usually eat just after getting molars, and a food that requires absolutely no recipe? To this cheese lover, the answer was obvious: it was all about the cheese.

With several hundred varieties, types and styles of Wisconsin cheeses, many of them artisanal and all of them extraordinarily delicious, I decided that these and other great cheeses from around the world deserved to be celebrated in new and yet familiar ways. It wasn’t rocket science. I loved cheese and I loved grilled cheese sandwiches. Say no more.

Armed with a whole lot of amazing cheeses and loaves of spectacular breads (walnut bread, anyone?), not to mention a host of other ingredients along with not just a little stubbornness, I forged ahead on, yes, my second book on the world’s best sandwich.

Because I’d had the experience of writing one book about grilled cheese, I figured my learning curve wasn’t terribly steep when it came to technique. Think again. Fact is, I learned even more about perfecting this sammie while writing Grilled Cheese, Please!. Really, though, the main discovery along my sandwich-making journey was that a great grilled cheese sandwich is about imagination, not just technique. Of course, coming up with 50 new recipes wasn’t always seamless.

Some of my ideas for sandwiches, a few of which seemed like good ideas at 3:00 a.m.  (ahem), didn’t always work (Vegemite just didn’t translate). But the best ones called on my own creativity and ultimately on what I like to eat. For instance, I knew I loved Wisconsin Colby Cheese. Knowing that led me to think about what other sandwich fillings might go well with this famous melting cheese. I then thought about something else I love – fruit. I like it even more when it’s nestled in between the folds of a melted cheese like Colby (think apples and cheese). A trip to the farmers’ market where I could get both the cheese and the fruit and voilà! Inspiration for a fresh-from-the-market grilled cheese sandwich. Okay, so my fruit turned out to be more vegetable-like – I chose an avocado (yep, it’s a fruit) – but the result became my recipe called Cheese, Chips, and Guacamole.

Then the real magic occurred. I realized that I didn’t have to confine the flavor elements of a grilled cheese sandwich to just the filling. I could put additional flavor on the outside of the bread. How? In this case, I crushed tortilla chips, mixed them with butter, and spread the whole thing on the outside of the bread. I’ll never forget that first bite – melted Colby, creamy guacamole, crisp bacon (did I mention that?), all encased in tortilla chip accented super crunchy bread. Talk about having me at hello.

I then went a little wild with this concept. What else could I put on the outside of the bread? Why not cheese? The result mimicked those toasty bits of cheese that ooze out of the sandwich and end up on the bottom of the pan. By putting cheese and butter on the outside, the entire surface of the bread was covered with a thin layer of cheesy toasty goodness. Now I was in love.

Technique is a little more rigid than imagination, though. So here’s what I do to get my sandwiches perfect every time.

Grate the cheese – The cheese melts quicker so the bread is less likely to burn.

Butter the bread, not the pan – Spreading butter on the bread ensures an even coating and great flavor.

Use a nonstick pan – If you use a conventional pan, you run the risk of the oozing cheese acting like glue between your sandwich and the pan.

Cook it low and slow – Cook it too fast and the bread will burn before the cheese has a chance to melt thoroughly.

Cover it while cooking (mostly) – Don’t worry that the sandwich will steam. It won’t. Cover it until the final flip and the cheese will melt beautifully.

Press firmly – Pressing the sandwich helps create the perfect bread-to-cheese ratio, which is the key to a great grilled cheese sandwich.

Okay, so my unadulterated love for all things cheese was the inspiration for a second book on the subject, but it was the cheeses like the homegrown ones from Wisconsin that acted as the fuel that ignited my grilled cheese burners. The rest, as they say, is (grilled cheese) history. Find more recipes from my book, Grilled Cheese, Please!, here.

Don’t miss Grilled Cheese Night, tomorrow, April 12 at 8 p.m. CST. I’ll be chatting with Wisconsin Cheese about our favorite grilled cheese recipes, revealing easy grilled cheese tips, and we’ll be giving away some fantastic prizes!

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