I’ve always been proud of the fact that the Foodie children know how to function in the kitchen. The Girl knew how to crack an egg by the time she was three years old. The Boy has long been adept at making a batch of cookies, when the craving strikes. But, as I mentioned a few weeks ago, we’ve just recently started sharing responsibility for making dinner. I talked The Boy through making a batch of French toast last weekend, and then on Monday evening he asked his sister to explain how she’d made the spaghetti we were eating. I love that he’s taking an interest in learning to make his favorite meals, since that means he’ll be able to make them for himself whenever he wants them.
Tonight–which was Do-Your-Own-Thing Night–The Boy asked me to talk him through making a grilled cheese sandwich. I was taken aback by the fact that, in all the years of making these for him, I’d never thought to explain the process–and he’d never thought to ask. It’s a pretty basic skill, to be sure, but between learning the recipe for French toast and the skills for grilled cheese, The Boy is basically ready to make lots of fancier things (like a patty melt or a Monte Cristo sandwich, for example), should he ever want to do that. Also, grilled cheese doesn’t mean one thing. I’ve made sandwiches with various kinds of bread and cheese, sandwiches with onions or a slice of fresh tomato. Once you have the grilling skills in place, the experimentation can begin.
And the skills, I must say, aren’t self-evident, because I’ve eaten a lot of disgusting, soggy, greasy grilled cheese sandwiches. I’ve also heard a lot of people say “I love grilled cheese, but I can never make it like they do at a restaurant.” So, in the interest of saving The Boy (and all other beginning chefs) from that fate, this evening we went through the basics–starting with two slices of plain white bread.
Butter both slices of bread thinly but completely, getting all the way out to the edges. If you’re OCD, like me, you’ll want to make sure that one piece of bread is the mirror reflection of the other–that way, they’ll match up when you make your sandwich. Also, you don’t absolutely have to use butter. We normally use Brummel and Brown spread, which contains yogurt and tastes as delicious as butter with slightly less fat.
Now’s the time to add your cheese. The Boy likes basic American cheese, and though I think it lacks something in flavor, it does melt nicely and help to heat up the ingredients of your sandwich. I’ll sometimes use one slice of American cheese combined with another type (usually cheddar) for flavor. You don’t have to use American cheese, though. Just be sure that whatever you use, it’s grated or very thinly sliced. A big hunk of solid cheddar cheese isn’t going to melt by the time your bread is toasted.
Now plop the two halves of your sandwich together and butter the top, thinly and evenly. Too much butter and you’ll end up with a soggy sandwich that collapses in the center. (Sorry about the blurry knife. I tried to catch The Boy in a pause, but that’s no easy task.)
Once you’ve buttered the top, let your sandwich sit for a moment and turn your attention to heating your skillet. I turn the heat to high and let it sit on the burner until I can feel the heat from the pan with my flat hand about two inches from the surface. This isn’t an exact science, but you’ll know you got it right if, when you place the buttered side of your sandwich in the pan, it gives you a nice sizzle. If it does, turn the heat down to medium-low (on my electric cooktop, that’s setting 4.) If it doesn’t, leave the heat on high for a couple more minutes, then turn it down. Starting with high heat will give your sandwich a nice crust, and turning down the heat will melt the cheese without burning the bread.
While the underside of your sandwich is grilling, butter the top. Then wait three or four minutes–from here on out, you’ll be working accord to preference. Use a spatula to lift the sandwich and check the color of your sandwich. If it looks brown enough for your taste, slip the sandwich over and let the other side toast. If not, give it another minute. This is how we like it:
Once the bottom matches the top, transfer the sandwich to a plate. Let it sit for two or three minutes, so the cheese can stabilize a bit. This is a great time to slice up an apple (The Boy’s favorite accompaniment to this sandwich), dish up a bowl of soup, or just anticipate the bliss that only a truly great grilled cheese can provide.
There’s no end to the variations on this staple: add ham or turkey along with the cheese. Use grated mozzarella instead of American cheese, then add fresh basil leaves or a drizzle of pesto sauce. A friend once made me a version on sourdough bread, with sharp cheddar and thinly sliced green apple, that was pretty close to divine. If you have a favorite version of the grilled cheese sandwich, feel free to describe it in the comments and give the new chefs among us new options to add to their repertoire.