How To Build A Newer, Better Grilled Cheese

During the comfort food renaissance of the past few years, the lion's share of attention has fallen to splashy, big-ticket items: groaning racks of barbecued ribs, crispy piles of fried chicken or rich slabs of pork belly. But as anyone who remembers the slingshots and arrows of childhood can attest, the deepest comfort doesn't come from complicated cuts of meat or the alchemical wonder of a great barbecue sauce. Rather, it comes from the everyday foods that are simple, constant and reassuring.

In this regard, the highest pinnacles of the comfort food pantheon belong to the grilled cheese sandwich. The height of simplicity, grilled cheese can be made in an instant, quickly deployed to deal with the ache of bruised feelings or the sting of skinned knees. The recipe could hardly be less pretentious: between two slabs of fried white bread sits a slice of yellow American cheese — two, if your day was REALLY bad. That's it, unless you decide to go whole hog and throw in a side of tomato soup and a glass of ice cold milk.

Over the past few years, the grilled cheese has come back into its own, albeit in a vastly evolved form. Gone are the Wonder bread and Kraft slices of the OGC (original grilled cheese): at restaurants across the country, the sandwiches are coming packed with capers and camembert, asparagus and asiago, and other exotica galore. But while Chicago's Grahamwich, San Francisco's Tartine and New York's Queens Kickshaw are exploring the outer reaches of the grilled cheese galaxy, even their most impressive creations are, at their heart, little more than a handful of cheese between two slabs of bread.

If you're interested in breathing fresh life into your grilled cheese — and, really, if you weren't, you probably wouldn't have read this far — the first step lies in expanding your cheese repertoire. After all, Kraft slices, for all their simplicity and familiarity, tend to be one-note. The first key to really stretching your grilled cheese muscles lies in mixing two or three different cheeses and letting their relative strengths blend into a richer whole.

For your base note, try starting with a mild, gooey cheese, like medium cheddar, havarti, Colby, Leicester or mozzarella. In addition to providing a solid, easily melted base, these cheeses have a nice texture and a comforting flavor that you can build on. The next step is choosing a middle note — a cheese that will add more richness without overpowering the sandwich. Good choices here include mild brie (be sure to include the rind), Emmenthaler, gjetost, asiago, raclette or gruyère. This secondary cheese can help fill out the flavor of your sandwich, adding a little more lactic richness without taking over.

For your top note, pick a cheese with a solid flavor kick. I like to go with blues, especially Stilton or gorgonzola, but if your tastes tend toward the more exotic, you might try sprinkling in Limburger. Taleggio, Camembert or another stinky soft curded cheese.

When mixing your cheeses, try thinking seriously about what each one is offering. Bleu, for example, can easily overpower your other cheeses, so you'll want to pair it in smaller amounts with flavors that fill out its weaknesses. With this in mind, try pairing a gorgonzola with a rich brie or a creamy Stilton with an assertive emmenthaler. Mix and match a few different flavors to see what works for you. Another thing to consider when using a mix of cheeses is that you need to account for their respective textures and melting points. With that in mind, you might consider slicing, crumbling and shredding your ingredients to help them work together more effectively. It also helps if, before you grill your sandwich, you give it 20 to 30 seconds in the microwave.

As a starting point, the following recipe demonstrates some of the key elements for mixing cheeses, including other ingredients that you might consider adding to improve the texture and deepen the flavor. Have fun, and remember: when it comes to grilled cheese, you're only limited by your creativity! Here's what you'll need to make The Blue Apple:

  • 2 slices crusty bakery bread
  • 1 oz medium cheddar, shredded
  • 1 oz double-crème brie, thinly sliced
  • ½ – ¾ oz mild bleu cheese, sliced or crumbled
  • ¼ of a Granny Smith apple, cored and thinly sliced
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • Balsamic reduction, to taste — simply simmer balsamic vinegar until reduced by about 3/4. Here's a guide.

To view the step-by-step as a gallery, just click on the first photo.