One of the most comforting and simple foods had a foggy beginning. An investigation on the Internet revealed the first reports of the grilled cheese sandwich surfaced in the 1920s, shortly after Otto Rohwedder, an Iowa native, invented a machine to uniformly slice bread. A short time before that, a gentleman by the name of James L. Kraft figured out how to pasteurize cheese so it could be sliced and transported long distances without spoiling. Although cooks in the armed forces started preparing these crispy, creamy sandwiches in bulk for the troops, the sandwiches didn’t start appearing on American menus until the ’60s, more than 10 years after Kraft Singles appeared with regularity on grocery-store shelves.
Undeniably popular with adults and children alike, diners, lunch counters and casual restaurants often feature the molten melted cheese between two pieces of buttery, crunchy bread. April recognizes the quintessential comfort food — now considered an American classic — all month long.
Simple as they are, it takes an even hand to produce a really good grilled cheese sandwich. Experts say coating the bread (not the pan) with butter ensures an evenly golden product. And although it’s considered a quick meal, a pan heated to high, then turned down to medium-low after adding the bread, sometimes takes 6 to 8 minutes on each side to brown and crisp the bread.
Grilled cheese sandwiches are best served hot out of the pan, though in a pinch, they can be held, unsliced, for about 20 minutes in a warm oven. There are endless additions to grilled-cheese sandwiches, but the extras are best sandwiched between the cheese. A few very thin slices of baked ham, turkey breast, ripe tomato or 2 or 3 tablespoons of caramelized onions can add big flavor to the sandwich. A swipe of Dijon mustard or a dab of pickle relish can be spread on the bread instead of sandwiched in the cheese.
For a very special Southern treat, try the toasted pimento-cheese sandwich. And add the comfort food that perfectly complements grilled cheese — tomato soup. Enough said.
GRILLED PIMENTO-CHEESE SANDWICH
8 ounces sharp cheddar cheese, coarsely grated
8 ounces mild cheddar cheese, coarsely grated
1/8 cup sweet white onion, finely grated
5 shakes Worcestershire sauce
5 drops hot sauce (Tabasco preferred)
1/4 cup sugar
1 large jar chopped pimentos, with juice
Mayonnaise, at least 3/4 cup (Duke’s or Hellman’s preferred)
1 small jar pimentos, drained (optional)
Mix all ingredients except mayonnaise and the small jar of pimentos. Add mayonnaise until right consistency is reached.
Heat a heavy-bottomed skillet over medium-high heat. Butter bread. Spread 2 to 3 tablespoons of pimento-cheese mixture on one slice of bread. Place in hot pan, and reduce the heat to medium-low. Top with the other slice of buttered bread. With a spatula, check the bread after 3 minutes and every minute thereafter until lightly golden brown. Turn. Repeat until the other side is lightly golden brown. Serve immediately.
ULTIMATE GRILLED CHEESE
Adapted from Ina Garten, The Barefoot Contessa
Makes 6 sandwiches
12 slices thick-cut bacon, (such as Petit Jean)
1 cup mayonnaise, (Duke’s or Hellman’s brands preferred)
1/4 cup Dijon mustard
1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 loaf white or sourdough bread, sliced 1/2 inch thick (12 slices)
6 tablespoons salted butter, at room temperature
6 ounces Gruyere cheese
6 ounces extra-sharp cheddar cheese
Arrange the bacon on a baking rack set over a sheet pan in a single layer. Place in a cold oven. Turn the oven to 400 degrees, and roast for approximately 15 minutes, until bacon is crisp and nicely browned. Drain the bacon on paper towels and cut into 1-inch pieces.
Meanwhile, combine the mayonnaise, mustard, Parmesan, 1 1/2 teaspoons salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper in a small bowl. Lay 12 slices of bread on a board, and spread each one lightly with butter. Flip the slices, and spread each one completely with the mayonnaise mixture. Don’t miss the corners!
Grate the cheeses and combine. Distribute the bacon evenly on half of the slices of bread. Pile 1/3 cup grated cheese evenly on top of the bacon, and top with the remaining bread slices, buttered side up.
Heat a heavy-bottomed skillet over medium-high heat. Place sandwich in hot pan, and reduce the heat to medium-low. With a spatula, check the bread after 3 minutes and every minute thereafter until lightly golden brown. Turn. Repeat until the other side is lightly golden brown. Serve immediately.
QUICK HOMEMADE CREAM OF TOMATO SOUP
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 medium sweet onion, coarsely chopped
1 (28-ounce) can whole peeled tomatoes in their juices
1 1/2 cups low-sodium chicken broth or water
1/3 cup heavy cream
Heat oil and butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Once butter foams, add onion and a big pinch of salt. Season with freshly ground black pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until onion is completely soft and just beginning to brown, about 15 minutes.
Add tomatoes and juices to the pan, and stir to crush up tomatoes. Add broth, and bring to a simmer. Simmer until tomatoes begin to fall apart, about 10 minutes.
Remove from heat, and allow soup to cool slightly. Using an immersible or “stick” blender, carefully purée soup until smooth. Stir in cream. Adjust seasonings as desired.
Cook’s note: You can substitute the heavy cream with half-and-half, whole milk or evaporated milk (fat free is fine) in even amounts.