A Good Grilled Cheese Can Change Your Life
By Jeanne Carpenter | Photos By Jim Klousia and the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board 0
Do you remember your first good grilled cheese? I’m not talking about the one your childhood babysitter made from Kraft singles and Wonder bread; I’m talking about the one that changed your perspective on a hot cheese sandwich. Maybe it featured—gasp—two different cheeses, a chutney or something other than butter and was toasted on artisan bread?
Anna Thomas Bates, 2015 winner of the professional classic division of the Wisconsin Grilled Cheese Championship and co-owner of Landmark Creamery, remembers her first good grilled cheese. Like many moms, hers served up a classic white bread and Velveeta sandwich with Campbell’s tomato soup on rainy days. But the sandwich Thomas Bates remembers most fondly was made by her first boyfriend at age 15.
“He used mayonnaise on the outside instead of butter, which was way before his time,” Thomas Bates says. “It was just regular sandwich bread and real cheddar, and by all accounts, a classically delicious grilled cheese sandwich. But it was the first ‘meal’ made for me by someone who loved me who wasn’t in my immediate family. It was magical—perhaps enhanced by the serious make-out session that followed.”
Her sincere appreciation for grilled cheese continued in college. Every so often, she and a friend would scrape up enough cash to get a good grilled cheese at the local café near their dorm. The sandwiches cost $8, a small fortune for a freshman, but they were big enough to split. “We’d either opt for the five-cheese grilled cheese—muenster, havarti, provolone, cheddar and Swiss—or the East Sider, which had double cheese, broccoli, mushrooms and peppers. That sandwich was probably the healthiest thing we ate all week.”
Grilled cheese sandwiches have come a long way in the past decade. In Madison, it’s hard to find a restaurant that doesn’t offer a grilled cheese—and it’s no longer just an item on the children’s menu. Some devote entire menus to this iconic food, with ingredients ranging from brie to bacon to bourbon. Lindsay Christians, food and fine arts writer for the Capital Times in Madison, was an early adopter of bacon on her grilled cheese. It started nine years ago in graduate school, when she was working at Barriques on Monroe Street. The owners had just decided to add sandwiches and salads to their coffee and wine business. The prep kitchen would pre-cook bacon, and when a customer ordered a sandwich, employees would crisp it up on a panini press.
“I would take the heels of Madison Sourdough bread, put two strips of bacon on the panini press, shred up Hook’s 5-year cheddar and slice some granny smith apples very, very thin,” says Christians. “After the bacon was done, I would put it and the apple into my sandwich and then slide the whole thing back onto the press to cook in the bacon fat.”
Christians says those early toasted cheese sandwiches with bacon and apples have shaped her view on grilled cheese. “Asian pear is surprisingly good. I might change the cheese or use a blend, but I usually cook grilled cheese in a tiny bit of butter now instead of bacon grease because I’m an adult and aware of my own mortality. Still, if there’s bacon in the fridge, it’s going on my grilled cheese. That’s non-negotiable.”
So what’s the key to making a good grilled cheese? Experts agree a combination of two different styles of cheese is key—one for flavor and one for melting. Using butter as a browning tool is now often replaced with non-stick cooking spray or mayo for added flavor. And when it comes to bread and accompaniments, anything goes.
Take, for example, the 2016 winners of the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board’s national Grilled Cheese Recipe Showdown. The gold medal went to Grace Gutierrez of Longmont, Colorado, for her “All-American” with aged cheddar and mascarpone, churro-battered challah bread and homemade apple pie filling.
The “Bloody Mary,” from Lacey Muszynski in Glendale, Wisconsin, took silver with cheese curds, mozzarella and parmesan, bloody mary relish, heirloom tomatoes, celery leaves, bacon and homemade parmesan-olive bread.
Bronze went to Lauren Katz of Ashburn, Virginia, for her grilled cheese called "The Speakeasy," with havarti and gouda, caramelized bourbon-brown-sugar apricots, candied bacon, marmalade-mustard spread, and fried sage leaves sandwiched between two crisp, buttery slices of pumpernickel bread. (Is your mouth watering? You’ll be happy to hear that we’ve included that recipe in this issue and on our website. You’re welcome.)
While the trend toward super-gourmet grilled cheese seems only to be growing, sometimes going simple is best. Local foodie Jane Burns, who has written about artisan cheeses for years, never thought of ordering a grilled cheese in a restaurant until recently because she thought of it as an easy food she could make at home.
“I was with my sister at Sjolinds Chocolate House in Mount Horeb a few years ago, and she ordered a grilled cheese. I thought, ‘That kind of looks good.’ So I ordered one and it totally won me over with its simplicity,” Burns says. “Made with cheddar and mozzarella on French bread, it was so much better than anything I had ever made at home. Now, I often order grilled cheeses at restaurants and from food trucks.”
From simple to complex, the era of grilled cheese has dawned. Depending on one’s mood and what’s in the fridge, a grilled cheese can be the perfect comfort-food ending to a hectic day.