How to make perfect grilled cheese sandwiches

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There are few things as comforting, as sweetly nostalgic, as oozingly, meltingly good as a perfect grilled cheese sandwich — especially when served with a sidekick, a spicy tomato soup, perhaps, to brighten a dreary day.

Some of that hearkens back to childhood, no doubt, when the bread was white, the cheese American and the soup came from a can. These days, grilled cheese is not just a sandwich. It's an entire genre, filled with twists, riffs and embellishments.

"It's a sentimental thing, I think," Cowgirl Creamery co-owner Sue Conley says. Her voice drops a notch as she adds, "But it's also just anything with melted cheese. Everything about it is delicious."

Grilled cheese, of course, can be made all sorts of ways — in a cast-iron pan, on a griddle, in a panini press or, if you're feeding a crowd, open-faced and finished on a sheet pan under the broiler. It's the ingredients that make the difference.

"The bread is really key," Conley says, and the butter should be soft, not clarified. When the milk solids in the butter hit that hot pan, "it gets a little bit crunchy, it burns a little — I like it like that."

Using more than one cheese makes a huge difference, Conley says, and be sure to grate it. Be aware of the melting potential of your cheese. As befits the land of fondue, Swiss-style cheeses, such as Gruyere, or Conley's Wagon Wheel, are good melting cheeses. A cheddar, delicious as it is, tends to crumble, which makes the fromage blanc trick the key. Its creaminess helps contain the crumbles and enhances the meltability.

Then, Conley says, "Add something sweet or spicy to accent the bread, like a chutney or a cherry jam, a spicy mustard and grilled onions."

Makes three sandwiches

Ingredients:

3 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

1 cup medium-diced yellow onion

Fig preserves or 1 cup peeled, seeded and diced Comice or Asian pear

Sea salt, black pepper

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8 ounces medium-grated semisoft cheese, such as Gruyere, cheddar, Wagon Wheel or Monterey Jack

4 ounces fromage blanc

6 slices soft bread, such as potato bread

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard, optional

Directions:

In a saute pan over medium heat, heat 1 tablespoon butter with the oil. When the butter is bubbling, add the onion (and pears, if using instead of fig preserves). Cook over medium heat, stirring often, until the onion and pears are translucent and browned, 5 to 7 minutes. Add a pinch of salt and pepper; let cool.

In a mixing bowl, combine the two cheeses. When the onion mixture is cool, add it to the cheese. (If the onions are hot, the cheese will melt and clump, causing it to cook unevenly.)

Spread a thick layer of fig preserves on one side of each of 3 bread slices. Top with cheese mixture. Spread the mustard on remaining slices; place mustard-side down on the cheese mixture to make sandwiches. Butter the outside of each sandwich on both sides with the remaining butter.

Heat a large pan with a heavy bottom over medium heat. Place a sandwich in the heated pan; cook until the bread touching the pan is golden brown, 5 to 7 minutes. Flip the sandwich, then continue to cook until cheese is completely melted and sandwich bottom is golden brown. Repeat for each sandwich.

Sue Conley and Peggy Smith, "Cowgirl Creamery Cooks" (Chronicle, 256 pages, $35.

A basic grilled cheese sandwich is buttered on the outside, filled with cheese, spreads and add-ins, and then cooked in a cast-iron pan or on a griddle over low heat until the bread is golden brown and the cheese has melted. It's what you do with the inside that makes this such a creative meal. Here are a few ideas:

Bread: Brioche, caraway rye, cinnamon swirl, marble rye, pumpernickel, sourdough, wheat bread

Cheeses (choose two or more): Brie, cheddar, cream cheese, crumbled blue, crumbled goat, Gouda, Gruyere, mascarpone, Muenster, Swiss, provolone, colby, Monterey Jack, havarti

Spreads and sprinkles: Cranberry sauce, fig jam, garlic butter, mango-tomato chutney, Dijon or grainy mustard, tapenade, truffle oil

Add-ins: Apple or pear slices, avocado, bacon, fresh basil or other herbs, caramelized onions, pickled vegetables, sauteed mushrooms, spinach leaves, tomato slices


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