I must have been four years old at the time. After spending the morning playing with the neighbor boy, his mother asked us what kind of sandwich we would like for lunch. I don’t remember my friend’s name, nor yet what the other sandwich options were, but I do remember that she offered us cheese sandwiches. “Are they grilled cheese, like my mommy makes?” I asked. In that special stiff voice that grown-ups use to inform children that they’ve been rude, she replied: “At our house, we just eat plain cheese sandwiches. Would you like one?” I also remember that while we sat in booster seats there, just like at home, we didn’t have to wear bibs, which was a novel, reckless sensation. Mercifully, time has blurred the rest of that lunch, no doubt composed of a cold Kraft American Single between two slices of white bread.
Whole wheat sandwich bread and sliced Wisconsin cheddar cheese, spread with margarine and grilled golden brown, cut into triangles and dipped in ketchup– a simple grilled cheese like my mother used to make is nothing to sneeze at. The secret ingredient, of course, was love.
And yet a grilled cheese sandwich can be anything but humble. Made with the right ingredients, there’s no more luxurious lunch on a lazy, rainy Sunday. A fresh loaf of good quality bread, hand-sliced, is mandatory. Sourdough French is my ideal grilled cheese bread, but any crusty artisan loaf of white bread will do nicely. Wheat bread offers too much competition to the flavor of the cheese. Sharp cheddar cheese and salty butter are the only other necessaries, but a couple of thin slices of ham never hurt, transforming the standard grilled cheese into a Croque-monsieur, its elegant French cousin.
Grilled cheese making isn’t culinary rocket science, but it does require careful attention and accurate timing. It’s best to assemble all ingredients before starting to cook. First slice the bread to the desired thickness. I like about ½ inch slices. Thicker slices will work, but require lower, slower heat to melt the cheese before the bread starts to char on the outside. Butter one side of each piece of bread, from edge to edge. Don’t skimp on the butter, but don’t overdo it either. Grate a handful of sharp cheddar cheese for each sandwich you plan to make. Slice leftover ham thin, or use deli black forest ham.
Heat large skillet over medium heat. Quickly fry ham slices on each side, then remove from pan. Assemble sandwiches in pan: Place slices of bread, butter side down, then top with a thin layer of shredded cheese, a slice of ham, and more cheese. The double layer of cheese will be the glue that holds the sandwich together. Place remaining slices of bread on top, butter side up. Watch closely while cooking, occasionally lifting sandwiches with spatula and peeking underneath to check progress. When underside is golden brown, carefully flip sandwiches, holding together with fingers or another spatula as you do so. When second side is evenly browned, remove to plates and eat immediately–preferably curled up on the couch with a blanket and someone you love.