There’s no such thing as a bad grilled cheese sandwich.
Think about your mom’s grilled cheese. It was probably made with the cheapest, whitest bread she could get her hands on and a few slices of “American pasteurized prepared cheese product.” The filling was gooey. The bread was crisp and buttery. Even when it came out a little blackened, you’d just scrape it with a butter knife and keep eating. Manna from heaven.
When you love something that much, you never lose your soft spot for it. But you might want something slightly more sophisticated than white bread and imitation cheese. A grilled cheese for grown-ups.
Ina Garten’s latest cookbook, “Barefoot Contessa How Easy Is That?,”won’t be released until Oct. 26, but her cookbook publicist sent the Barefoot Bloggers an advanced copy, and that’s how I found her new Ultimate Grilled Cheese recipe.
First, you roast several slices of thick-cut bacon in the oven for about 30 minutes. Roasting the bacon in the oven, instead of frying it, helps the bacon cook more evenly and leaves your hands free to mix up the sandwich spread, butter the sourdough, and grate the cheeses.
To make the spread, you just grab a bowl and mix up a cup of mayonnaise, some Dijon mustard, Parmesan cheese, salt and pepper. The Dijon taste will reach out and grab you, so if you’re not a huge fan, you might want to add it a spoonful at a time, until you get the flavor you want.
Buttering the sourdough bread will give you more even results than melting butter in the pan and adding the sandwich later. When you place your sandwich in the melted butter, everything’s great until you flip the sandwich and have to add more butter to the pan to even things out. I’m not shy about butter, but there’s a fine line between the sublime and the gut bomb. I respect that line.
Now, about the cheese. For me, a grilled cheese isn’t a grilled cheese without a nice punchy cheddar, but the cheddah tastes even bettah when you pair it with a good melting cheese. Ina’s recipe calls for Gruyere, but you could use Monterey Jack, Colby, provolone, fontina. Any semi-hard cheese.
Once you’ve got all of the components ready, it’s time to put together the sandwiches. Each slice of bread will have butter on the outside and the sandwich spread on the inside. Top half of the “spread sides” with a layer of bacon (chopped into 1-inch pieces for easy eating) and then the cheese. Then, place the remaining slices of bread sauce-side down to form the sandwiches.
In a perfect world, you’d be able to toast these sandwiches in a panini press to get that buttery-crisp exterior. I don’t have a panini press, so I use a trick I learned from “Cook’s Country.” Heat a nonstick skillet over medium-low heat, place two sandwiches in the pan, and use a lightweight metal cake pan to gently press them down. Then, flip the sandwiches, and press them again with the cake pan. The metal in the pan conducts heat, so it keeps the bread crisp as it presses.
As I was making our sandwiches, I was afraid that the bacon and the Dijon spread might overpower the cheese, but the crunchiness of the bacon puts a spotlight on that molten cheese, and the almost-pungent flavor of the Dijon spread brings out the intensity of the extra-sharp cheddar. It’s a sandwich experience.
Makes you wonder what Ina could do with a fluffernutter.
Ultimate Grilled Cheese
Adapted from Ina Garten’s “Barefoot Contessa How Easy Is That?”
- 12 slices thick-cut bacon, such as Nodine’s applewood smoked
- 1 cup good mayonnaise
- 1/4 cup Dijon mustard
- 1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
- 1 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1 white pullman loaf or sourdough bread, sliced 1/2-inch thick (12 slices)
- 6 tablespoons salted butter, at room temperature (for spreading, you probably won’t use it all)
- 6 ounces aged Gruyere or Comte cheese
- 6 ounces extra-sharp Cheddar, such as Cabot or Shelburne Farms
- Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Arrange the bacon on a baking rack set over a sheet pan in a single layer and roast for 20 to 30 minutes, until nicely browned. Drain on a plate lined with paper towels and cut in 1-inch pieces.
- Meanwhile, combine the mayonnaise, mustard, Parmesan, salt, and 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 generously with the mayonnaise mixture. Don’t neglect the corners!
- Grate the cheeses in a food processor fitted with the largest grating disk and combine. Distribute the bacon evenly on half the slices of bread. Pile 1/3 cup grated cheese evenly on top of the bacon and top with the remaining bread slices, sauce side down.
- Heat an electric panini press. When the press is hot, cook the sandwiches for 3 to 5 minutes in batches until the bread is toasted and the cheese is melted. (Or, heat a nonstick skillet on medium-low, place two sandwiches at a time inside, and use a lightweight metal cake pan to weigh them down gently. Cook for 3 to 5 minutes. Flip the sandwiches, press them down with the cake pan, and cook for about 2 minutes, until golden brown. Repeat until all of the sandwiches are done.)
- Allow the sandwiches to cool for 2 minutes. Cut in half, and serve warm.
Note: To keep the sandwiches warm, slide a baking sheet inside your oven, and set the temperature to 250 degrees F. As your sandwiches finish in the panini press (or skillet), place them on the heated baking sheet, and keep them warm inside the oven.