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Ooey, Gooey, Golden Goodness

Dave Danhi

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from Fine Cooking #128, pp. 38-43

It’s the rare (and possibly lactose intolerant) person who can resist the lure of a good grilled cheese sandwich. And based on the rumble of all those grilled-cheese trucks rolling down streets across the country, the hundreds of thousands of grilled cheese sandwich photos posted on Instagram (#grilledcheese), and the ever-increasing crowds at the annual Grilled Cheese Invitational (the largest and, its sponsors say, craziest) grilled cheese cooking contest in the country, this perennial favorite is only gaining in popularity.

And though I have yet to photograph or tweet about it, I myself make a decent, if admittedly boring, grilled cheese sandwich. Wanting to take it to the next level, I decided to grill (get it?) a few chef-experts in the field about how to build a better one. While their methods differ, they all agreed on the two golden (and gooey) rules of a great grilled cheese: 1. The bread must be crisp enough that you can hear it crunch when you bite; and 2. The cheese must be completely melted. In honor of National Grilled Cheese Month (aka April), here are their favorite recipes, from their most basic version (just cheese and bread), described in a couple of sentences, to their more involved creations featuring scrumptious additions. With each recipe come practical tips that you can apply to creating your own killer grilled cheese. When you do, snap a picture; I’ll look for it on Instagram.

Dave Danhi
Brie, Peach, and Smoked Pork Grilled Cheese

Dave Danhi     Brie, Peach, and Smoked Pork Grilled Cheese
Dave Dahi     Brie, Peach, and Smoked Pork Grilled Cheese

Why he’s an expert

He’s the chef, founder, and self-described “big cheese” of The Grilled Cheese Truck, which is based in Los Angeles and is rolling out franchises across the country, including a program recruiting veterans to own and operate a truck. A former fine-dining chef, Danhi saw the potential for his business after seeing the throng of fanatics at the Grilled Cheese Invitational, which takes place in L.A. each spring. Explains Danhi: “The world needed more grilled cheese sandwiches brought to the streets.”

How to make it like Dave

  1. Butter + mayo = crispy. For crispy perfection, Danhi spreads a mix of equal parts mayonnaise and softened butter on the outside of the sandwich. “The mayonnaise raises the butter’s smoking point,” says Danhi, which means the sandwich can cook longer without the butter burning. If you use a quality mayonnaise (no “salad dressing,” please), you don’t taste the mayonnaise itself.
  2. Cook low and slow. Cook on medium low a few minutes per side. “If the heat is too high, it will burn the bread before the inside gets hot enough to melt the cheese,” says Danhi.
  3. Pair with pork. Danhi, whose most famous grilled cheese concoction features pulled pork and mac and cheese, likes to add pork in just about any form (smoked pork loin, shredded ribs, bacon) to his grilled cheese sandwiches. For one thing, he just loves pork. Also, he finds that pork has enough personality that a strong cheese like an aged sharp Cheddar doesn’t completely overwhelm it, yet it’s not so strong that it’s too much for a mild cheese.

His best basic
Brie on a good quality, sturdy sandwich bread. Why? “When it comes to meltability, Brie can’t be beat.”

Jason Sobocinski
Grilled Cheese with Bacon and Guacamole

Jason Sobocinski     Grilled Cheese with Bacon and Guacamole
Jason Sobocinski     Grilled Cheese with Bacon and Guacamole

How he knows his stuff

Between his restaurant/cheese shop Caseus in New Haven, Connecticut, its mobile counterpart, The Cheese Truck, and his tavern, Ordinary, Sobocinski makes three differently styled grilled cheeses, from a massive one on thick artisanal bread at Caseus to a daintier update of the classic diner-style at Ordinary. (His truck sandwich falls somewhere between the two.) “With grilled cheese,” says Sobocinski, “there is no right or wrong.”

Jason’s golden rules

  1. Use great butter. While it may be obvious to use good quality cheese, good butter matters, too. “Low quality butter won’t brown into a nutty deliciousness,” says Sobocinski. Be sure your butter is fresh and has been stored well so that it doesn’t introduce any off flavors.
  2. Melt first, stuff later. To keep addins like bacon crispy and guacamole cool on one of his truck’s most-requested combos (see recipe, right), Sobocinski adds them after the cheese has melted. This means gently pulling the sandwich apart, but the extra step is worth it for these ingredients and others like them.
  3. Include acid. In that same sandwich, the lime juice in the guacamole counters the richness of the cheese. Indeed, Sobocinski always serves a grainy mustard for dipping and cornichons for snacking alongside his grilled cheese. “Otherwise,” he explains, “you’d take a few bites and be done.” But after having something a little tangy: “Your mouth calls for more cheese.”

His best basic
Melville cheese (from The Mystic Cheese Co. of which he’s part owner) on sourdough. Why? “The fresh cheese has a great lactic tang and rich buttery finish, and it melts unbelievably well.” (No Melville? Try fresh mozzarella.)

Eric Greenspan
Cheddar, Apple, and Pastrami Grilled Cheese

Eric Greenspan     Cheddar, Apple, and Pastrami Grilled Cheese
Eric Greenspan     Cheddar, Apple, and Pastrami Grilled Cheese

His grilled cheese cred
“Grilled cheese has sort of become my calling card,” says Greenspan, past winner of the Grilled Cheese Invitational, and chef and founder of Greenspan’s Grilled Cheese, which just opened on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles. A graduate of Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, the classically trained chef’s other restaurants include The Roof on Wilshire and The Foundry on Melrose, where he served his award-winning sandwich.

Grill like the guru

  1. Use OK bread. Love those artisanal style breads with their large air pockets? Forget about them, says Greenspan, at least for grilled cheese. Those big bubbles don’t allow for all-over browning. A bread with a tighter crumb colors more evenly.
  2. Brown the butter. Heating butter in the pan until it’s light brown helps guarantee that the bread will be well browned, plus it adds a toasty, nutty flavor.
  3. Jump-start the melt. For faster melting, Greenspan lets his cheese warm to room temperature. He likes his sandwiches with a “skirt” of melty goodness oozing out from between the slices of bread.

His best basic
Aged Gruyère on challah. Why? “You get the sweetness from the bread and the nuttiness and tang from the cheese.”

Annie Miler
Roasted Asparagus and Fresh Herb Grilled Cheese

Annie Miler     Roasted Asparagus and Fresh Herb Grilled Cheese
Annie Miler     Roasted Asparagus and Fresh Herb Grilled Cheese

Her claim to cheese fame

At her restaurant Clementine in Los Angeles, Miler always has a signature grilled cheese on the menu, plus a build-your-own option featuring such goodies as roasted cherry tomatoes and caramelized onions. But come April, she and her staff go grilledcheese crazy. What began in 2001 as a little celebration of Grilled Cheese Month during which the café offered one special grilled cheese per day has become an eagerly anticipated and wittily themed extravaganza offering more than a dozen different sandwiches per day. Why does she do it?” Grilled cheese makes people happy no matter what,” says Miler. “How can that be bad?”

Annie’s tried and true tips

  1. Grate the cheese. Grating accomplishes two things: It helps the cheese melt faster, and it allows for the easy combining of different cheeses, including harder and softer cheeses.
  2. Be fresh. Miler, whose café is seasonally inspired, often adds fresh fruit, vegetables, or herbs to her grilled cheese to balance the creaminess of the cheese.
  3. Weight it down. At Clementine, the grilled cheese sandwiches are made in a panini press, which guarantees full contact with the heat. At home, Miler uses a griddle and lightly weights the sandwiches with a pot lid or plate before flipping them. Pressing lightly with a spatula is another way to help guarantee even browning and fully melted cheese.

Her best basic
Sharp white Cheddar on whole wheat bread. Why? “It’s a classic, and it’s what my kids like.”


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