Sunday, March 10, 2013

Classic and Fancy Grilled Cheeses and Sarabeth's Cream of Tomato Soup

Counter-clockwise from top:
Classic, French Onion, Cranberry Brie, and Butternut Squash 

Growing up, the bane of my existence was soup and grilled cheese sandwich night. I'll never forget my parents, bless their hearts, calling my brother and me to the kitchen around dinner time and letting us know what we were having. I can't completely remember if my misery was held in or if I wailed about it (feel free to chime in here, Mom and Dad), but I do know that my world came crashing down every time I heard the announcement. I clearly lived a very difficult life.

Time passed, and for some reason or another my former dinner nemesis became my dinner acquaintance and eventually my dinner friend. Now that I am on the East Coast and I have the joy of a winter season, Grilled Cheese with Soup has become a dinner savior. Despite the fact that Punxsutawney Phil did not see his shadow, it is still cold in New York at the beginning of March, so I made this nostalgia-inspiring (for better or for worse) dinner combo this week to keep us cruising towards our early spring.

The dill offers a unique flavor to the soup,
and quartered sandwiches allow a large group
to sample all the different types of sandwiches

About Grilled Cheese and Tomato Soup
There is not much to say about this classic except a brief explanation of how it got so classic. According to Grilled Cheesery, people began to melt processed cheese on inexpensive bread beginning in the 1920s, when these products became affordable. It lasted through the Great Depression and (obviously) into modern day. The sandwiches began open-faced, but in a likely effort to make them more filling without being much more expensive, a second piece of bread was added. What explains the Tomato Soup? The Food Timeline claims that tomato soup was considered a substantial dose of Vitamin C when this meal first came about, and the tradition seems to have stuck.

Anyone who has purchased cheese knows that it is not cheap. However, American Cheese as we know it (Kraft Singles) is actually considered a pasteurized process cheese product, making it far less expensive. What is the difference between cheese and cheese product? Here is a summary of what I read in Chemical and Engineering News and the FDA Code of Federal Regulations (Note: It is actually someone's job to make rules about cheese. That makes me chuckle, but someone's gotta do it!): 
  • Pasteurized Process Cheese: Food prepared by mixing one or more cheeses of the same or different variety (with a few exceptions). The process involves heat, an emulsifying agent, and one or more optional ingredient. The milkfat content must not be lower than 47% and the moisture content must not be more than 43%.
  • Pasteurized Process American Cheese: A pasteurized process cheese resulting from a mixture of cheddar cheese, washed curd cheese, colby cheese, granular cheese, or two or more of these.
  • American Cheese: A pasteurized process cheese resulting from a mixture of cheddar cheese, washed curd cheese, colby cheese, granular cheese, or two or more of these as well as an additional variety of cheese.
  • Pasteurized Process Cheese Food: Food prepared by mixing a dairy ingredient (milk, dried cream, buttermilk, whey, etc.) with a cheese ingredient (basically, cheese) into a "homogeneous plastic mass." The process involves heat and one or more optional ingredients. The milkfat content must not be lower than 23% and the moisture content must not be more than 44%.
  • Pasteurized Process Cheese Product: Something similar to the above products, but the milkfat and moisture content regulations are not met.
I'm not going to deal with pasteurized process cheese spread here, but that has its own definition. As you can see, our beloved(?) Singles do not qualify as cheese, process cheese, or even process cheese food. So why do we use them for these melty cheesy treats? The moisture, of course! They melt so much better than cheese with less moisture. If you are thoroughly disgusted by this concept, however, read on to see how I cheated to get less-processed and non-processed cheeses to melt into a great sandwich.

Choosing the Recipes
As I sat on my couch on Sunday doing research for this week's recipe, I thought to myself:
What kind of mess have I gotten myself into? Grilled cheese should be so easy, but everywhere I turn there is a new and different and "better" sandwich! American cheese seems so classic. But has classic become boring? The number of cheeses and breads in this world confounds me (Wikipedia contributors have assembled a list of over 500 cheeses and 150 breads), so multiplied out and without ANY condiments or extra ingredients, I already have over 75 THOUSAND grilled cheese options! 75 THOUSAND! Let's add on top of that veggies (arugula, grilled onions, caramelized onions, corn, mushrooms, peppers), fruit (apricot, pear, apple, fig, quince, cranberry), meat (prosciutto, mortadella, bacon, lardons), and sauces (aioli, chutney, marmalade, mustard)... what is a girl to do who just wants to make a mean grilled cheese sandwich with some soup to go along with it?

I decided to go with a few different sandwiches from the myriad websites listing the "Best Grilled Cheese in NYC" or the "Best Grilled Cheese Recipes." I also searched the menu at Little Meunster, whose grilled cheese I tried last summer at The Great Googa Mooga, a music and food festival in Brooklyn's Prospect Park. On that legendary day I bought five sandwiches (to share) at $10 a pop after waiting 82 minutes in line in the heat, and I will never regret my decision. 

At the end of the day, I had to accept that I would never make the "perfect" grilled cheese because everyone likes it a little different, but that I could focus on the technique that would make every sandwich turn out beautifully. So I picked four sandwiches and rolled with them:
  • Asiago, Parmesan, Muenster, and Butternut Squash Grilled Cheese with Sage Brown Butter from Little Muenster
  • Classic American Grilled Cheese, adapted from Food Network
  • French Onion Soup Grilled Cheese, from Tasty Kitchen
  • Cranberry Brie Grilled Cheese from Joy the Baker
As for the soup recipe, I have always felt that tomato soup is too acidic. However, I had brunch this week at Sarabeth's, where my brother ordered the Velvety Cream of Tomato Soup. I snagged a bite of it to see if I would try to make it with dinner this week, and my life was changed. Something about it-- the luscious, creamy thickness paired with some hard-to-identify herbs-- gave me such pleasure that I couldn't wait to memorize it as my go-to tomato soup. Fortunately, Sarabeth herself is a blogger, and the Goddess of Bakedom was generous enough to share her Tomato Soup recipe with us. I had no reason to search for a better recipe, because I just don't believe that one exists.

Memorizing the Recipes
Memorizing the sandwiches was easy enough-- bread, a cheese or blend of cheeses, something to make it exciting, and butter for the outside. The soup was a bit trickier, since the timing had to be spot on in order for the hot milk and cream to not curdle. I was happy to see that all of the base ingredients were alliums, making it very easy to remember. I used a 1-2-3-4 onion-shallot-garlic-scallion ratio in the base then proceeded to add the tomatoes and dairy, make a roux, incorporate the roux, and simmer away. Pretty simple as long as everything is done with a level of awareness. I almost forgot to add the roux, and I was panicking about the soup being so thin! Fortunately I remembered that the thickening agent had not yet been added. Overall, it was a simple memorization process this week.

1-2-3-4 ratio of these cancer-fighting bulb veggies
is tasty and simple to remember
Remember to only use the top of the four scallions

The Verdict
Making four types of grilled cheese for a large group takes either lots of space or lots time, and I had more space this week than time. With that in mind, I laid out all of the sandwiches on my table and assembled them all before grilling up a storm on the stovetop.

I covered my kitchen table with cut apart paper grocery bags,
making an easy-to-clean work surface that was both
recycled and recyclable.
I used big binder clips to secure the paper to the table.
HUGE time saver.

I was disappointed to see that in the first round of grilled cheese, the cheese was just not melting (it must have been real cheese rather than cheese product!). I followed all of the advice that I learned from Food & Wine's How to Ruin a Grilled Cheese, and The Kitchn's more positive spin, How Not to Ruin a Grilled Cheese, but somehow the bread just got too dark before the cheese melted sufficiently. Here's what they recommended:
  • use enough cheese and not too much bread
  • grate the cheese; don't use slices
  • put butter on the outside of the bread, not in the pan
  • use a nonstick pan
  • add unique condiments
  • use a lid
  • use interesting cheese
  • transfer it to a rack or serve immediately to avoid steam making them soggy
  • get creative with bread
At the eleventh hour, even with these techniques in place, I was not seeing the melty results I wanted and had to make a decision. One of my friends suggested microwaving them before placing them on the stove, and it seemed like the fastest option for a hungry crowd. For all the sandwiches except the Cranberry Brie, this was the essential step that helped start the melting process. Maybe it's cheating, or maybe it is just strategic cooking. After all, cooking is just preparing food with the use of heat. Thirty seconds did the trick for a plate of three sandwiches, and the outside of the bread got just as crispy as the non-microwaved sandwiches.

The Tomato Soup recipe instructed me to use a double boiler, which I don't have but I created using a large pot, a steaming rack with the center pressed down, and the inside of my rice cooker. The entire recipe didn't fit inside the rice cooker bowl, however, so I actually had to transfer half of the soup into a smaller pot and put it over direct heat. I'm happy to say that there wasn't a very big difference. I turned the heat down significantly in the direct-heat pot, and I stirred much more frequently, but aside from that the results were pretty darn similar. Next time I'll just skip the hassle.

I always wonder if chefs put a slightly modified version of their best recipes out in public so we try to make it but always fall a little bit short of the original, driving us to come back to the restaurant for more. However, Sarabeth's recipe was true to the soup that I remember tasting at the restaurant. It was absolutely delicious.

The favorite sandwiches of the night were definitely the Cranberry Brie and the French Onion. Read on for all four sandwich recipes and the soup recipe as well.

The Recipes
Asiago, Parmesan, Meunster, and Butternut Squash Grilled Cheese with Sage Brown Butter
from The Walking Cookbook, inspired by Little Muenster
Yield: 4 sandwiches

Ingredients:

  • 1/2 cup shredded parmesan cheese
  • 1/2 cup shredded asiago cheese
  • 1/2 cup grated muenster cheese
  • 1 cup butternut squash, cubed
  • 6 tbsp. unsalted butter
  • 1/2 tsp. dried sage powder
  • 8 slices hearty wheat bread
  • salt and pepper 
Preparation:
  • Prep squash: Bring water to a boil in a large pot and add the butternut squash. Cook on medium high for 15 minutes or until the squash is very soft. Drain and mash the squash into a puree (use a potato masher, pastry blender, or fork). Add salt and pepper to taste. Set aside.
  • Prep brown butter: In a stainless steel frying pan, melt the butter. Wait until the edges of the butter turn brown, then stir gently with a rubber spatula. Allow the butter to continue browning, adding sage a few minutes into the process. Continue stirring until you can smell a toasty butter smell and the entirety of the butter is brown. Transfer the butter to a glass or ceramic dish and place in the freezer for ten minutes or until a spreadable texture.
  • Prep cheese: Mix the cheeses together in a bowl.
  • Butter the bread: Spread the sage brown butter on one side of each slice of bread and place butter-side down.
  • Load the sandwiches: On four of the slices of bread, spread the butternut squash puree in a layer about 1/8 inch thick. On the other four slices, put 1/4 of the cheese mixture. Place the butternut squash slice over the cheese slice and press.
  • Cook: Microwave the sandwiches for about 30 seconds, then place in a non-stick pan over medium-high heat. Cover with a lid or piece of foil and flip once the bottom piece of bread is toasted, about 45 seconds. Cover again and let cook for another 45 seconds. Remove from the pan, cut in half or quarters, and serve immediately or transfer to a rack.
The toasty, fragrant brown butter with sage
just needs a short chilling time to become...
...spreadable butter for the outside of the bread

Classic American Grilled Cheese
adapted from Food Network
Yield: 4 sandwiches

Ingredients:
  • 8 slices country white bread
  • salted butter, softened
  • 4 oz. American cheese, grated
Preparation:
  • Butter the bread: Spread the butter on one side of each slice of bread, and place butter-side down.
  • Load the sandwiches: Divide the cheese evenly between four slices of bread. Place the empty slice over the cheese slice and press.
  • Cook: Microwave the sandwiches for about 30 seconds, then place in a non-stick pan over medium-high heat. Cover with a lid or piece of foil and flip once the bottom piece of bread is toasted, about 45 seconds. Cover again and let cook for another 45 seconds. Remove from the pan, cut in half or quarters, and serve immediately or transfer to a rack.

French Onion Soup Grilled Cheese
adapted from Tasty Kitchen
Yield: 4 sandwiches

Ingredients:
  • 2 yellow onions, sliced 1/4 inch thick
  • 3 tbsp butter, plus more for buttering bread
  • 1/4 cup beer (I like a nice winter ale)
  • 1 tsp sugar
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 4 oz. grated gruyere cheese
  • 8 slices country white or sourdough bread
Preparation:
  • Prep onions: Place 3 tbsp butter in a saute pan and heat over medium high. Add the sliced onions and soften, about 5 minutes. Sprinkle on the salt and sugar and stir. Lower the heat to medium-low and cooking for another 10 minutes, stirring frequently. The onions should begin to caramelize, or get brown all the way around without charring. Add the beer and turn up the heat to medium-high, stirring the onions to get an even coating. Once the liquid has evaporated, remove the onions from the heat.
  • Butter the bread: Spread the butter on one side of each slice of bread, and place butter-side down.
  • Load the sandwiches: Divide the cheese evenly between all eight slices of bread. Place 1/4 of the onions on top of the cheese on four slices of bread. These are more difficult to fold together, so work quickly and carefully. Match an onion slice with a cheese slice and place the longest side of the bread close together (for me, this was the bottom edge of the slice). Fold both pieces up like you are closing a book, then squeeze together and place flat on a flat surface.
  • Cook: Microwave the sandwiches for about 30 seconds, then place in a non-stick pan over medium-high heat. Cover with a lid or piece of foil and flip once the bottom piece of bread is toasted, about 45 seconds. Cover again and let cook for another 45 seconds. Remove from the pan, cut in half or quarters, and serve immediately or transfer to a rack.
The onions before the caramelization and beerization took place

Cranberry Brie Grilled Cheese
from Joy the Baker
Yield: 4 sandwiches

Ingredients:


  • 8 oz. of brie (about 1/2 large wedge), sliced thin
  • 3/4 cup cranberry sauce (Don't have any? Easy! 1/2 cup water, 1/4 cup sugar, 1 cup fresh or frozen cranberries-- boil, simmer, stir a bunch, and mash)
  • 4 tbsp whole grain mustard
  • 4 tbsp butter, softened
  • 8 slices french bread

Preparation:

  • Prep cranberry sauce: Use leftovers, canned, or make your own! It's ridiculously easy. Bring 1/2 cup water and 1/4 cup sugar to a boil, stirring like crazy. Add 1 cup fresh or frozen cranberries and leave it at a low boil, stirring frequently, until the sauce thickens and the cranberries pop. Once it is fairly thick, mash it up and remove from the heat.
  • Butter the bread: Spread the butter on one side of each slice of bread, and place butter-side down.
  • Load the sandwiches: Spread 1 tbsp of mustard on four of the slices of bread. Place 2-3 slices of brie on top of the mustard. On the remaining slices of bread, spread the cranberry sauce to coat the entire slice. Place the cranberry slice on top of the brie slice and press.
  • Cook: Place in a non-stick pan over medium-high heat. Cover with a lid or piece of foil and flip once the bottom piece of bread is toasted, about 45 seconds. Cover again and let cook for another 45 seconds. Remove from the pan, cut in half or quarters, and serve immediately or transfer to a rack.
Three simple filling ingredients made this sandwich a group favorite


Velvety Cream of Tomato Soup
adapted from Goddess of Bakedom
Yield: 10-12 servings

Ingredients:
  • 6 tbsp butter
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 2 shallots, chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 4 scallions (green parts only), chopped
  • 2 28-oz cans of tomato in puree (not juice)
  • 4 cups whole milk
  • 4 cups cream
  • 1/3 cup all purpose flour
  • 1/3 cup fresh dill, torn into little pieces
  • 1 cup white cheddar cheese
  • Salt and pepper
Preparation:
  • Melt 2 tbsp butter in a saute pan and add the onion, shallots, garlic, and scallions. Cook until softened, about 4 minutes
  • Place the onion mixture in a large pot and add the tomatoes, milk, and cream. Cook over medium heat until the mixture comes to a simmer. Use a spoon, knife, or potato masher to break up the tomatoes into pieces and stir gently.
  • Meanwhile, in a small saucepan, melt the remaining 4 tbsp butter and whisk in flour to make a roux. Add 1 1/2 cups of the tomato mixture to the roux and stir, then place the roux-tomato blend into the main cooking pot. Stir to mix the roux in throughout the entire pot. The soup will begin to thicken nicely.
  • Simmer for about 35 minutes, stirring frequently.
  • Remove from the heat, add some salt and pepper, and mix in the torn dill fronds.
  • Top with white cheddar cheese and serve hot.
For this soup base, we aren't looking for caramelization.
Just soften the alliums (onion, shallot, garlic, and scallion)
enough to simultaneously soften and bring out their flavor
While the makeshift double boiler had less agitation in the soup
throughout the cooking process, the end result was not different enough
for me to use this method in the future when I make this soup.

3 comments:

  1. Gastronomic appreciation is an evolutionary process. Clearly you've taken a previously annoying dinner idea to a whole new level. You were very vocal about your disapproval on most occasions. Sometimes I made S&GC simply to lovingly annoy you. Usually its because that was what we had available after a long day. You may recall we never served that during hot days. We may have been annoying, but never cruel!

    I'll look forward to trying some of these yummy variations.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I was lucky enough to be a part of this marvelous evening, thank you! (I voted French Onion!)

    ReplyDelete
  3. So glad you made it, Euge! I could have just eaten those caramelized beer onions plain!

    ReplyDelete