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Good, gooey & glorious: Grilled cheese sandwich provides comfort, nostalgia in many forms

Good, gooey & glorious: Grilled cheese sandwich provides comfort, nostalgia in many forms

They can go from simple to gourmet, but whatever the case, grilled cheese sandwiches are gooey goodn

They can go from simple to gourmet, but whatever the case, grilled cheese sandwiches are gooey goodness, and Americans love them, cooking about 2.2 billion at home each year.

The three basic ingredients, all of which are likely to be on hand in any kitchen, are bread, cheese and butter. Whether your sandwich is average or to-die-for depends on the quality of those ingredients.

“The secret to making any good sandwich is starting with really good bread and putting a good cheese with it,” said Nancy DiIanni, owner and manager of Peaches Cafe in Albany.

The variants that come from these three basic ingredients are endless. Peaches makes an Italian grilled cheese with mozzarella on Italian or focaccia bread. But when you start with the add-ons, the sandwich goes from ordinary to outstanding.

“What makes it taste a little better is putting something with it, like tomato or roasted red pepper,” DiIanni said. Plain grilled cheese isn’t the most popular menu item at her restaurant, but when you add up all the different items made with grilled cheese, the popularity soars.

DiIanni said American cheese is a favorite, so even if you’re using other cheeses, slapping on a slice of American cheese as well is a good bet.

Chefs compete

Tim Walker, who founded the annual “Grilled Cheese Invitational” in 2003, demonstrates just how many different variations of grilled cheese there can be. Chefs from around the country and home cooks from California gather in the Los Angeles area to see who can craft the best grilled cheese sandwich in various categories — plain, ingredients added in, and sweet sandwiches.

The contest originated as a dare between friends about who could make the better “grilled cheese sammich.” Walker held the first contest at his loft in downtown Los Angeles with 16 competitors and 100 judges. The idea caught on and last year the contest attracted more than 100 competitors and about 1,500 judges. Kraft Singles took notice and signed up to sponsor this year’s contest, which will be held on April 25 at a yet-to-be-disclosed location in the Los Angeles area.

Walker said that at last year’s event, there were over 1,000 people screaming for a sample of a “sammich” as the competitors were making them. “It was pure pandemonium and unbridled joy,” he said. “I used to think I was the crazy one for starting this event, but when I saw over 1,000 people screaming for a smidge of a grilled cheese sammich, I realized that I wasn’t the only one who was nuts.”

And why do we like this simple combination of bread, cheese and butter so much? The answer seems to lie in nostalgia and comfort. “I think the best thing about grilled cheeses is that they provide nearly instant comfort,” Walker said. “They also connect us back to those innocent times as kids when our parents could make almost anything better by whipping up a quick sammich and some tomato soup.”

Wisconsin native turned Denver resident Dirk Bruley believes that comfort food is making a comeback, and that sparked the idea for his business, Chedd’s Gourmet Grilled Cheese restaurant, which he opened in 2003. Customers can come in and purchase grilled cheese sandwiches from the menu or made to order. Bruley hopes to franchise the business.

Certain rules

Bruley follows some rules, though. He uses only Wisconsin cheeses in 35 different varieties, noting that cheesemakers are open to making gourmet cheeses that rival some of their exotic European counterparts. There are 12 different types of bread to choose from, 12 meats and about 15 vegetables. A customer once tried to calculate the number of possibilities, and it came up to over 1 million.

Employees at Chedd’s cook the sandwiches in a panini grill. They can also be cooked up in a frying pan or even on the barbecue at home. Walker likes to use a cast iron pan that holds the heat well. “Then be sure to use real butter and slow down,” Walker said.

“Beyond that, don’t be afraid to experiment and create your own champion sammich. Not anyone can be a chef in this life, but everyone can be a grilled cheese champion.”

Tim’s Favorite Grilled Cheese

Recipe by Tim Walker.

2 slices of kalamata olive bread

2 slices cave aged Gruyere, sliced no more than 1⁄8-inch thick

1⁄4 cup of caramelized onions (can be made ahead of time)

2 tablespoons butter

Melt 1 tablespoon of butter in pan on medium heat. Add slice of bread to butter, let it soak up the butter. Add slice of cheese to bread and then layer of onions. Top off with the other slice of cheese and bread. Cook for about four minutes or until side is browned. Add final tablespoon of butter to pan, allow to melt and then finish grilling the other side, about four minutes. If the sandwich is cooking too fast, turn down the heat. You want to make sure that the cheese has melted fully to combine with the onions.

Italian Grilled Cheese

Recipe from Peaches Cafe in Albany.

1⁄2 roasted red pepper

2 ounces grated or sliced mozzarella cheese

Focaccia bread

Heat roasted pepper. Grill focaccia bread and cheese until cheese starts to melt. Add roasted pepper and close sandwich. Serve immediately.

Wisconsin Mascarpone And Dulce De Leche Grilled Cheese Sandwiches

Recipe courtesy of the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board.

4 ounces Wisconsin mascarpone cheese

2 tablespoons dulce de leche

1⁄2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

2 tablespoons butter, softened

8 slices cinnamon raisin bread

2 tablespoons raspberry preserves

In a small bowl, combine mascarpone, dulce de leche and vanilla extract. Butter one side of each slice of bread. Spread mascarpone mixture on the nonbuttered side of 4 slices of bread. Spread raspberry preserves on the non-buttered side of the remaining 4 slices of bread. Place one slice of bread with raspberry preserves on each mascarpone-topped bread slice, buttered sides out.

Place sandwiches on a preheated 12-inch stovetop griddle or skillet. Grill 1 to 2 minutes per side over medium high heat, or until bread is lightly toasted. Remove and serve immediately. The sandwiches are delicate — cut in half.

Double Delicious Grilled Wisconsin Cheese Sandwiches

Recipe courtesy of the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board.

3 to 4 tablespoons butter, melted

8 slices whole wheat bread, not too thick

4 3⁄4-ounce slices processed American cheese

8 vertical slices of dill pickle

8 thin slices ripe medium-sized tomato

12 to 16 red onion rings

4 11⁄2-ounce slices Sharp (aged) Wisconsin cheddar

Using a pastry brush, butter each slice of bread on one side, and place 4 slices, buttered side down, on a work surface. Place on each of these slices one slice of processed American cheese, 2 slices dill pickles, 2 slices tomato, 3 to 4 red onion rings and 1 slice of cheddar. Top with the remaining 4 bread slices, buttered side up.

Lightly butter and heat a griddle or heavy skillet until hot. Place 2 sandwiches in the skillet and weight with another heavy pan or skillet. Brown slowly on one side for 2-3 minutes before turning, with a spatula, and grilling the other side until brown and cheese melts. It may be necessary to add a bit of butter to the skillet.

Repeat with remaining two sandwiches. Serve immediately. If you like, spread mayonnaise or mustard on the unbuttered sides of the bread, before grilling.

Grilled Wisconsin Triple Cheese Sandwich

Recipe courtesy of the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board.

12 slices whole grain bread

1⁄4 cup whole grain Dijon style mustard

6 slices (1 ounce each) baked ham

6 slices (3/4 ounce each) Wisconsin provolone cheese

6 slices (3/4 ounce each) Wisconsin cheddar cheese

1 cup (6 ounces) Wisconsin Gorgonzola cheese

Prepare grill; heat until coals are ash white. Meanwhile, spread each slice of bread with mustard. Top each of 6 slices of bread with 1 slice ham, 1 slice provolone and 1 slice cheddar. Sprinkle with crumbled Gorgonzola cheese. Top each sandwich with remaining bread. Grill over hot coals, turning once, until cheese is melted (3 minutes per side.)

Picnic tip: Make sandwiches ahead and grill them at your picnic or simply serve cold. Bring along fresh fruits and vegetables.

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