Adult flavors on a childhood favorite
For me, a grilled cheese sandwich is just pure comfort. And truth is, even a bad grilled cheese is satisfying. But a great grilled cheese will change your day for the better.
Most of us have childhood memories of our perfect grilled cheese. Mine is the classic sandwich dished up at my local drugstore. My best friend and I would ride our bikes there, sit at the counter and order a fresh-squeezed lemonade with a grilled cheese. The sandwich was made on a griddle with white bread and a single slice of American cheese.
As I got older and my tastes grew more sophisticated, my allegiances changed. For a while, my favorite was a Chicago Greek diner version with rye bread, Swiss cheese and bacon. It, too, was made on a griddle. But when I tried to duplicate the experience at home, it was never as good.
Most of the time, the bread would burn long before the cheese was perfectly melted. That's because I was grilling my sandwich in an open skillet on the stovetop. That was my problem.
Turn it down: So I borrowed an idea from grilling. Delicate meats — or those that need long cooking times — can't stand up to intense, direct heat. Just like my grilled cheese sandwiches, they burn outside before cooking on the inside. In grilling, the solution is to use indirect heat. You cook the meat for a longer period at a lower temperature, and often away from the direct flame.
I decided to try something similar with my sandwiches. Instead of a very hot open skillet, I used medium-low heat and covered the pan. This created just the right environment to slowly toast the bread while gently melting the cheese inside. Presto! Grilled cheese perfection!
Once I had my technique down, I started exploring different fillings, including one of my top fruit and cheese combinations — pears and blue cheese. Out of all the crazy variations I tried, this is the only one that I have made over and over again. In this recipe, I grill the pears first with a simple "dessert rub," then let them cool slightly before assembling the sandwich. The grilling of the fruit intensifies the flavor of the pears so that they aren't overwhelmed by the blue cheese. I also use cinnamon-raisin bread, which makes this a slightly sweet grilled cheese, better served as an appetizer or a slightly savory dessert.
The most common mistake in making a grilled cheese is turning the burners up too high. Just as with barbecue, low and slow is key. The cheese will ooze out, but that's the beauty of it; the melted, cooked cheese gives the sandwich a crave-worthy crunchy edge.
Grilled Pear and Blue Cheese Sandwich on Cinnamon-Raisin Bread
Start to finish: 15 minutes
1 to 2 tablespoons butter, room temperature
4 slices cinnamon-raisin bread
1 teaspoon granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
Tiny pinch of kosher salt
1 pear, peeled, halved and cored
1 tablespoon blueberry or other berry jam
2 to 3 ounces blue cheese, thinly sliced
Use the butter to coat 1 side of each slice of bread. Set aside.
In a small bowl, mix together the sugar, cinnamon and salt. Sprinkle over the pear halves.
Heat a heavy (cast-iron is best) grill pan with a lid over medium-low heat for 1 minute. Place pears across the grill grates and cover. Cook for 1 to 2 minutes, or until warmed and marked. Turn over and cook another 1 to 2 minutes. Remove the pears from the pan and let cool to room temperature. Slice each pear half lengthwise into 1/4-inch-thick slices.
Spread half of the jam over the unbuttered side of 2 of the bread slices. Top the jam with half of the pear slices, then half of the cheese.
Top with a second slice of bread, buttered side up.
Return the grill pan to medium-low heat. Coat the pan with cooking spray.
Once the pan is warm, add the sandwiches, then cover and cook until golden brown on the bottom, 3 to 5 minutes. Flip and cook the other side for about 2 minutes, or until the bread is golden brown and the cheese is oozing.
Nutrition information per serving: 460 calories; 200 calories from fat (43 percent of total calories); 22 g fat (12 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 50 mg cholesterol; 53 g carbohydrate; 5 g fiber; 30 g sugar; 14 g protein; 650 mg sodium.
— Elizabeth Karmel is a barbecue and Southern foods expert. She is the chef and pitmaster at online retailer CarolinaCueToGo.com and author of three books, including "Taming the Flame."