Hello And Welcome to Kitchen Catastrophes, an ongoing insight into the depths of human despair, and the difference between plums and pears. I’m your produce-picking guide on a culinary safari, Jon O’Guin. And with winter now settling in about us, it’s time for the simple things. Things to warm us through these trying times, that make us feel warm and content. So I made a grilled cheese sandwich that was a heart attack waiting to happen! Let’s talk all about it.
Yes, sorry. I know. I had to get it out of the way EVENTUALLY, so there you go. Cheetos joke out of the way, we can all move on.
Well, not all of us. Sorry, Chester.
Now, let me open this up with something of a confession. I’m really into cheese. It’s one of the defining characteristics of a functioning civilization: the ability to produce cheeses or alcohols. They represent a wide infrastructure, a grasp of food safety and preservation, and the ability for a people to be patient with their resources. THAT’S why wine and cheese are the universal symbols of the Wealthy Elite: that shit takes TIME and MONEY to make.
Nowadays, of course, prices for such things are much more reasonable. My mother and I have a habit of snagging a couple odds and ends from our local supermarket’s cheese counter bargain bin, which may be one of the most amazing ideas I’ve ever encountered. Because cheese, especially good cheese, has a problem with “sticker shock”. If you’re unaware of the concept, “sticker shock” is when you read how much a thing costs, and are, well, shocked by the number. And cheese runs into this problem a lot, because the better cheeses at your local supermarket probably run in the range of $20-30 a pound.
Having to buy your cheese by the 10th of a pound is somewhat shameful.
That sounds bad, until you really think about it. Think about a cheeseburger. It probably costs, what, a quarter more than a normal burger? Fifty cents? Because, yeah, Cheese doesn’t need a lot of mass to convey a lot of flavor. Your average slice of deli cheese is around two-thirds of an ounce. Meaning it would take 24 of them to make a pound. So that $25 pound of cheese is basically a dollar a slice, able to spread out over 24 different sandwiches or burgers. In more reasonable terms, you're rarely going to need more than 1/4 of a pound at a time, so you're realistically looking at $6-7 a brick.
So, with all these options for sandwich fillings, which do you pick? I’m glad you asked, definitely another person, and not a rhetorical device at all. I’m glad you asked.
A Brie-f History of Everything
Now, I could easily spend over a thousand words talking about cheese. And I will. Wednesday. But today, let’s just throw out the real quick summary: Of the four main categories of cheese, the two you’re most likely to use and see in Grilled Cheese Sandwiches are the semi-soft and Firm. And further, you’re generally not going to see too many extra-sharp cheeses. The reason for the first one is simple: the other two categories are A: more potently flavored and therefore more difficult to balance, and B: generally considered the more “fancy” categories. Soft Cheeses like Brie and Camembert are immediately classified as “rich people appetizers”, and their pungent flavors are hard to properly incorporate. Blue cheeses have a similar problem, especially in terms of flavor balance. That’s not to say it’s impossible: A Rye bread sandwich with softened apples and blue cheese would likely work great. But any normal bread is going to get its crumb kicked.
Heck, there's neither of those here, and this bread is already getting buried.
Now, I also wanted to address some personal history here. The Seven Cheese Grilled Cheese is an important dish to me. Back when I was in High School, I hadn’t yet really gotten into cooking. My first forays actually came in the form of spice and sauce mixes, because my friends and I were consistently eating fairly generic foods, like baked French fries, and Chicken Nuggets. I got bored with them one day, and made my own toppings, and my friends pushed me on. “That was Great,” they’d say. “Make something more!” Eventually, one day, hanging out in the basement, a friend asked for something, and I realized I knew what I wanted to make: A Seven Cheese Grilled Cheese. So I trotted upstairs to the kitchen, and got to work.
Now, I’m not afraid to admit it: My first seven cheese grilled cheese cheated. I used a Mexican 4 cheese Blend, and then 3 other cheeses we had lying about. To this day, I don’t remember what they were. I think there was a Provolone, or Swiss. I DO remember that, looking at my cheese mixture, I decided it was too dry, and mixed in peanut butter. And then, to hide that taste, I hit it with like, almost a teaspoon of spices. It was served on an English Muffin loaf, and my friend lost his mind when he had it. He loved it. He demanded the recipe, which I had already forgotten. It was the first time I really had a strong positive reaction to my cooking, and it’s probably a touchstone moment for why I took it up as a hobby.
Well, that and a natural predisposition to hoarding and narrow delineations.
But, now, almost 10 years later, if I wanted to be cool, I’d have to step up my game.
We actually cook stuff
When I mix cheeses for a grilled cheese, I tend to stick to a ratio: 1 for texture, 1 for flavor. Fontina’s a great cheese for melting, but it’s even better when you use it as a vehicle for garlic cheddar flavor, that sort of combination. I also use this because sharper cheeses are less likely to melt cleanly, but the soft ones aid the process. So, I assembled a team of cheese from my family’s fridge:
- Kasseri, A greek Sheep’s milk cheese, noted for salty front notes, and a sweet finish.
- Butterkase, a German cheese of light yellow color, and a soft, buttery texture and flavor.
- Muenster, a white American cheese with a red rind, typically soft and mellow.
- Peppercorn Cheddar, a sharp cheddar cheese loaded with crushed peppercorns to cut the richness.
- Scharfe Maxx, a sharp Swiss Mountain Cheese. No, I don’t know what that means either. I got it because it had two ‘X’s in Maxx.
- Tillamook Extra-Sharp Cheddar. To add a little more orange coloring, and because, hey, it’s cheddar.
Now, the mathematically inclined will note that this 1-to-1 ratio (and list) of ingredients precludes the result of 7 cheeses. Firstly, who the hell still uses ‘precludes’? Secondly, you’re right. Which is why I relied on a secret weapon!
When it comes to building crust on the outside of a sandwich, there’s a scale: Butter’s the go-to, and it will get the job done. But Mayo will brown better, and get crispier. But the ultimate trick is to turn the outside of your sandwich into something I’ve heard described at various times as a Tuile, Frico, and finally, “A Parmesan Crisp”.
In short, you butter the outside of the bread, then grate Parmigiano-Reggiano onto the outside, and fry in the pan. You’ll want a fair bit of butter already in the pan, to keep the cheese from sticking. Which is a step I read before making the sandwich, reminded myself while putting it together, and completely spaced when the critical moment finally came. So, as one can guess, my sandwiches got a little…complicated on the outside.
Not my best work. But, better than that time I burned Easy Mac. Which, yes, is a real thing that happened.
But, in the end, the crust mostly worked. In fact, my biggest complaint with the sandwich was a pretty great one: ONE of my cheese choices was too much. Specifically, DAMN did that Peppercorn Cheddar overpower his brothers. So, if you’re feeling cold and alone this winter, just find a couple cheeses you’d like to try, and make your own grilled cheese. It’s an easy place to try new things, and you’ll get warm, gooey sandwiches in return.
NEXT TIME: JON SPENDS EVEN MORE TIME TALKING ABOUT CHEESES. PARTLY BECAUSE HE LIKES THEM SO MUCH, AND PARTLY BECAUSE HE HAS MORE PICTURES TO USE.
Seven Cheese Grilled Cheese
2 slices bread
5 tablespoon Butter, 1 tbsp softened
1 oz Parmigiano-Reggiano
1 oz Muenster
1 oz Kasseri
1 oz Butterkase
1 oz Scharfe Maxx
1 oz Extra Sharp Cheddar
1 oz Peppercorn Cheddar
- Grate your cheeses. You won’t use the whole ounce of all of them, (Or at least shouldn’t since that would be 1/3 of a pound of cheese) but taste them and grate to your preference. Do not include the parmigiano-Reggiano with the others.
- Set skillet on medium heat, and melt unsoftened butter in it. While butter is melting, spread softened butter on one side of the bread slices, sprinkle with parmigiano-reggiano, and press cheese into bread.
- Place one slice of bread, cheese side down, into heated pan. Top with the rest of the grated cheeses. Cook until crust has set and cheese is visibly melting, roughly 5 minutes.
- Top with other slice of bread (cheese side up), and flip. Cook another 3-5 minutes, until crust is set. Serve hot.