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Anatomy Of A Really Good Grilled Cheese

So unless you’ve been living under a rock as of late, you probably know that it’s grilled cheese month. And if you think I’d pass up an opportunity to get in on the cheesy madness, you’d better think again!

I have some pretty strong feelings about what a grilled cheese should be. And, at the risk of getting a bit up-on-my-soapbox-y, I’d like to share them with you. First: Butter that bread. No oils, especially if they’re “spritzed” on (good grief). BUTTER all the way! Second: Use a light, mild-flavored bread. Because the bread is just a crispy vessel that contains and delivers the delicious, melty cheese. Which brings me to my last, but most strongly-held belief: The cheese is the one and only star. I like a hot sandwich with cheese and other tasty things as much as the next person. But if you ask me if I want a “grilled cheese” and I reply, “yes!” (which I always will), I don’t want any of that extra jazz. No stringy greens smacking me in the face. No tomato chunks falling into my lap. And no, not even any delicious (but overpowering and tough-to-bite-through) slices of bacon. Just buttery bread and ooey-gooey cheese, please.

OK, now that we have my diatribe out of the way, let’s talk components and assembly! When cheese is the prime ingredient, you need a filling that will melt well, while also packing a good deal of flavor. This can be somewhat tough to achieve with just one cheese, as many melting cheeses tend to be milder in flavor, while many of the tastier cheeses don’t melt very well and tend to be a bit overpowering on their own. The simple solution: two (or more) kinds of cheese — one that will melt, and one that will pack a nice tasty punch. And grate those cheeses! This facilitates melting, and allows you to mix in your other two ingredients: the “flavor enhancers” (i.e., herbs, spices, salt, pepper, etc.) and the creamy spread. (Basically, what you’re going to do is create a “cheese salad” of sorts.) This gives you even ingredient distribution, and also keeps your grated cheeses from flying all over the place when you flip your sandwich. NO CHEESE LEFT BEHIND. NOT ON MY WATCH.

For my grilled cheese, I went with mozzarella, an aged gouda, and plain greek yogurt. One other suggestion I have regarding cheese selection is to perhaps avoid really shiny ones. Jarlsberg, while one of my all-time favorite table cheeses, takes on an almost wax-like consistency when melted, which I find rather unappealing. While I haven’t tested the theory, I think that a shiny cheese may be a waxy one as well.

To make your cheese salad, simply grate your two cheeses and set aside. Add a dollop of your creamy spread of choice to a bowl, then mix in your herbs and spices. If you’re using dried herbs, I highly recommend giving them a good “finger crushing” as you sprinkle them in. This will release more flavor, and also make them a little less gritty, since they don’t really get a chance to rehydrate. Add your grated cheeses to the bowl and mix everything until it’s well-combined, with a “bound” salad consistency. (I literally just discovered that term as I was trying to come up with an adjective other than “paste-like.” Thank you, Wikipedia.)

Evenly apply the mixture to one slice of bread (leaving just a little room around the edges to minimize cheese loss during the grilling process), then top with the other. Your filling should be about as thick as one slice of bread.

Heat up your grill pan or cast iron skillet and butter one side of your bread. Once your pan is nice and hot, add your sandwich, butter-side down. While it cooks, butter the other side of the bread. Once the first side has some nice browning, flip the sandwich and give it a good press. At this point, I like to reduce the heat on the pan to low (or turn it off completely if using a cast iron pan), then cover it and let it cook for a minute or two. This ensures that your cheese will melt, and your bread won’t burn. (I’m also very intrigued by Alton Brown’s technique [8 minutes in] of using two hot cast iron pans as a press, even if he is an oil spritzer — c’mon, AB!)

And the last important step in making a grilled cheese: Cut that baby in half! Take a moment to marvel at the ooey-gooey cheese, then dig in.

Tiny Pull-apart Breads

Alright boys and girls, feast your eyes on the cutest little bread EVER. It reminds me of a doughy little sea creature! And as if being adorable wasn’t enough, these little guys had to go and be all sorts of crazy delicious too.

I stumbled upon a recipe for pull-apart bread many years ago, and was instantly obsessed. I’ve never been too keen on bread with other ingredients mixed right into the dough. But isolated layers of yumminess sandwiched between slices of bread that I can easily peel away from each other and stuff in my face? Sold! The recipe that I was following back then involved dividing the dough into somewhere between 8–12 pieces, shaping it into discs, and adding the filling between each one. Having so few layers didn’t exactly deliver the tastiness I was hoping for. It was more like eating a big chunk of bread with a hint of something yummy on it. And so, I abandoned the recipe after a few attempts and forgot about pull-apart bread. Then a couple months ago, I stumbled upon this recipe from Joy the Baker. As soon as I saw the first picture, my eyes lit up. How…HOW did she get all those layers?! I immediately scrolled down to discover one big sheet of rolled out dough, topped with filling and then sliced and stacked. Genius. Obsession reinstated.

The great thing about this bread is it’s unbelievably versatile. You can use whatever dough recipe you like, and you can fill it with whatever you like. I chose a basic bread recipe and went with roasted garlic, fresh herbs, and cheese as the filling. I also had a yet-unused mini bread pan that I decided would be perfect for these. (The idea of a bunch of different hands grabbing at a loaf of bread kind of grosses me out. Also, tiny treats are more fun!) If you don’t have a mini bread pan, you can use a muffin tin. Or you can always go with a normal loaf pan. It will be scrumptious, no matter what!

Pull-Apart Bread with Herbs, Cheese, and Roasted Garlic

yield: 1 loaf / 8 mini loaves / 12 muffins

Bread

  • 3 cups of flour (I used half bread flour and half all-purpose flour)
  • 1 cup of warm water
  • 1 packet of yeast (2¼ tsp.)
  • ⅓ cup of sugar
  • ¾ tsp salt
  • 2 tbsp butter, melted

Filling

  • 1 bulb of roasted garlic
  • ¾ cup of fresh herbs (I used basil, dill, rosemary, parsley, and sage)
  • ¾ cup of cheese (I used ½ cup cheddar and ¼ cup parmesan, and a little bit of goat cheese)
  • 2 tbsp butter, melted (to brush on dough before adding the filling)

Combine warm water, sugar, and yeast in a large bowl and set aside for a few minutes (until foamy). Add butter and salt to the yeast mixture, then sift in flour 1 cup at a time, until dough forms. Turn out on a floured surface and knead for 8–10 minutes, until dough is smooth. Place dough in an oiled bowl, cover with saran wrap or a damp towel, and set in a warm area for about an hour, or until doubled.

While dough is rising, roast your garlic. Preheat the oven to 400°. Chop the top of the bulb off (just enough to expose all of the cloves). Rub with olive oil and bake for 40 minutes to 1 hour, or until garlic is soft. Remove from the oven and let cool, then squeeze out all of the cloves.

Punch down dough and turn out on a well-floured surface. Knead a few times, and then let it rest for 5 minutes. In the meantime, dice herbs and garlic, grate cheese, and melt the butter. Roll dough out into a large rectangle, somewhere between ¼ and ⅛ of an inch thick. Brush butter over the entire surface of the dough, then cover evenly with the filling.

Using a sharp knife, slice the dough into squares. Use your best judgment for size, depending on the type of pan you are using (my squares were approximately 2″ x 2″, or just high enough to peak over the top of the tin, pre-second rise). Stack slices and place in a greased tin/pan. Cover and let rise for another 40 minutes.

Preheat oven to 350°. Bake: mini loaves for 20–25 minutes / muffin tin loaves for 15–18 minutes / 1 full loaf for 30–35 minutes (or until tops begin to turn golden brown). Remove from the oven and let them cool in the pan for half an hour, then have at ‘em!