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A Glorious, Gooey Concoction

THE WASHINGTON POST

It’s hot and crisp and gooey at the same time. Decadently fatty, yet somehow austere-looking. A worthy choice when you want to sink into something “comfortable” on a raw, cold day. Sigh.

Wait a minute. A grilled cheese sandwich is not exactly a late-breaking recipe.

Think again.

Grilled cheese is more than what you ate for dinner every other night in the first grade and more than the cheese-crisped crusts you now snitch from your kid’s plate. It’s historical.

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“Bread and cheese. . . . This is probably one of the most ancient combinations,” says Francois Dionot, president of L’Academie de Cuisine, a Washington-area cooking school.

A grilled cheese sandwich is “comfort food to the max,” oozes Steven Jenkins, author of “Steven Jenkins Cheese Primer” (Workman, 1996).

No wonder the NPD Group Inc., a market research firm in Rosemont, Ill., says that Americans make 2.5 billion of them at home each year. And no wonder every cuisine has its version. Quesadillas, mozzarella in carrozza and croque monsieurs: They’re just grilled cheese sandwiches for grown-ups.

As strange as it may seem, there’s an art to making a perfect grilled cheese. Not a fine art, mind you, but a methodology nonetheless, especially if you don’t have one of those classic stove-top sandwich presses.

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“It’s hard to do very well,” says Dionot. You wouldn’t know that from the flawless results you get when following Dionot’s method. But his caution does raise questions.

Which kind of pan do you use? What level heat? Which kind of bread? Cheese? Does the butter go on the bread or in the pan ? Do you cover the pan or do without?

When it comes to grilled cheese sandwiches, everybody has an opinion. And each opinion produces surprisingly different results.

If there’s anybody who has studied the fine points of grilled cheese sandwiches, it would be someone at Kraft Creative Kitchens, we figured. And we were right.

Sara Kline, consumer food associate in the cheese division of Kraft Creative Kitchens, test kitchen facility for Kraft Foods, the country’s leading manufacturer of cheese, reports that the company has learned through focus groups that people want a sandwich that is “crispy and crunchy on the outside and warm and ooey-gooey on the inside.”

To this end, Kline recommended white bread over whole-wheat or rye (“it tends to get more crisp”) and processed cheese (no surprise) for the “best creamy melt.”

She also suggested softened butter or margarine for spreading on the outer sides of the bread and reported that reduced-fat margarines, which contain more water, will make the sandwich soggy. Agreed.

As for the cooking method, Kline said to preheat a regular or nonstick skillet for 3 minutes over medium heat and cook the sandwich for 2 to 3 minutes per side.

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We weren’t expecting grilled processed American on Wonder bread from Julia Child, but we weren’t expecting grated hard cheese on bread machine white with mustard, mayonnaise and onions either.

“I don’t like that bread that tastes like birdseed,” quipped Child from her home in Cambridge, Mass. Instead, she likes the white sandwich bread she makes in a bread machine, which she spreads with Hellmann’s mayonnaise, a little mustard, then some thinly sliced onion, a layer of grated cheese (“whatever kind I happen to have around”) and another layer of onion. The top piece of bread is a mirror of the bottom, spread with mayo and mustard. Then the whole thing is cooked slowly in a nonstick pan lightly coated with olive oil or clarified butter.

The result is a gutsy sandwich that would go better with a bottle of beer than a glass of chocolate milk. If you like reuben sandwiches, you’ll like Child’s take on grilled cheese. (Not surprisingly, she makes open-faced reubens, too. “I love sauerkraut,” she revealed.)

But Child’s somewhat untraditional grilled cheese methods pale in comparison with a story from her assistant, Stephanie Hersh, whose Aunt Naomi had five sons to feed. The only way she could make grilled cheese simultaneously for her hungry brood was to wrap the sandwiches in foil--and iron them.

Speaking of toasted cheese sandwiches, cheese expert Jenkins says he’s raising his 11-year-old son on this open-faced version: a slice of sourdough or rustic white bread topped with Gruyere de Comte, Beaufort, Fontina d’Aosta, Valais Raclette or Vacherin Fribourgeois, drizzled with extra-virgin olive oil, sprinkled with freshly grated Parmesan and broiled in the toaster oven until it melts. Hey, they’re not making that in the school cafeteria.

For himself, Jenkins uses two thin slices of the same bread and the same selection of cheeses, grinding a few twists of fresh black pepper into the interior. He spreads a thin layer of sweet butter on the two slices of bread, then browns it all in a nonstick skillet over medium heat for about 2 minutes per side.

Barbara Kafka, cookbook author and opinionated palate, insists you can’t use a nonstick skillet: “You won’t get as good browning.” Use a cast-iron skillet that’s well seasoned or any other pan of good weight. Then brush the outside of the bread with melted unsalted butter and place the sandwich in the skillet, Kafka directs.

Use medium heat, although not so hot that the bread burns before the cheese melts and “whatever else is in there fuses into one glorious, gooey concoction,” she says.

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But the “critical phenomenon here” is weighting the sandwich while it cooks, she said. That means placing on top of the bread a flat object that is smaller than the pan in which the sandwich is being cooked and that is as large as, but not larger than, the sandwich. A small pan or flat (not domed) pot top will do the trick. Then as the sandwich cooks, “don’t play with it,” Kafka says.

After one side is golden, turn it over, adding butter to the pan if necessary.

The best advice we got, though, came from Dionot, who starts with softened butter, zapped in the microwave oven to make sure it’s truly spreadable, and a nonstick skillet. He assembles the sandwich, spreads a thin layer of softened butter on one side of the bread and places it butter-side down in the skillet.

Then he weights it, too, using the method explained by Kafka, a method often used by diner cooks and replicated by those waffle-iron-like croque monsieur makers.

But no one else made this suggestion: Cook the sandwich very slowly over very low heat. That means up to about 6 minutes on the first side. Leaving the sandwich in the pan, butter the top piece of bread, flip it over and cook for another 3 minutes or so until golden.

“The longer it takes to cook, the crispier the bread will be,” Dionot explained. And he was right. The bread had a lacy-crisp texture, and the interior was warm with just the perfect ooze. The contrast was simple but spectacular.

“It doesn’t make any difference what kind of bread or what kind of cheese you use,” Dionot said, adding, “There’s something about melted cheese on bread which is wonderful.”


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