Hooked on Cheese: Grilled Cheese Triple-Play

From the classic to outrageous, here are three ways to make great grilled cheeses

Chef Tia Keenan makes a pimiento cheese grilled cheese on pumpernickel, with an egg in the middle.

I love a great grilled cheese. Always have. Growing up, I gobbled down countless grilled cheese sandwiches that were much like those first popularized in the 1920s: American cheese on margarine-smeared white bread. That was how it was always done back in the day. But to quote the Notorious B.I.G.: things done changed.

I now make these culinary staples with the best cheeses, the freshest breads and loads of high-quality butter. I love to experiment, but my go-to grilled cheese is pretty simple:

Starting with fresh multigrain bread (the kind with oats on the top), evenly butter two slices of bread and toss them into a skillet. It’s imperative that the pan be pre-heated, but only to a medium temperature – get it too hot and it will burn the bread before it melts the cheese. Next, thin-spread some German style spicy mustard on one piece of the bread as it warms and top it with some very thinly sliced tomatoes. Then comes the cheese: finely shredded semi-sharp cheddar. I don’t like pre-shredded cheese, so I always grate it to order. Finally, place the other warm buttered slice of bread on top. It takes a while to melt the cheese completely, but that’s par for the course if you want a proper grilled cheese. If you keep the pan temperature in check, the bread will always end up dark brown, not burnt.

That version may be my go-to, but chef/fromager Tia Keenan has an entirely different take on grilled cheese. She’s legitimately a professional grilled-cheese-maker (no kidding), having consulted many top NYC restaurants on how to concoct creative grilled cheese sandwiches. Her knowledge of cheese is first-rate and she’s dedicated to originality, so I wasn’t surprised when she gave me a recipe for “Egg-in-the-Hole Pimiento Grilled Cheese paired with Lemony Celery Slaw” to publish in this article:

Start with Pumpernickel bread and top it with a healthy serving of pimiento cheese from Zingerman’s, the renowned Ann Arbor, Michigan deli. Put the bread on a pre-heated cast-iron pan and cut a hole in the center of each slice. Next, whip up some fresh-made celery slaw and slather it onto the sandwich, avoiding the hole, and then close the sandwich. Lastly, fill the hole with a farm-fresh egg and cook it on one side in a cast iron pan, then finish cooking it under the broiler until the whites are cooked but the yolk is still creamy. Tia suggests serving more slaw on the side. It is an outstanding dish, rich and flavorful. Check out the full recipe instructions here.

My friends at Boska Holland, makers of the absolute best-of-the-best cheese tools, had totally different ideas for the ideal grilled cheese. Boska makes special bags you can use in a toaster to make a perfect, simple grilled cheese (ingenious!), so I thought they’d give me a recipe for something along those lines…but boy, was I wrong. They offered up a few recipes: bacon and guacamole with cheddar on sourdough, which certainly sounds tasty; and grilled Caprese with mozzarella, tomato and basil – a classic concept grilled into a melty snack. But it was their “Grilled Apple Pie” sandwich that caught my attention:

This one’s made with well-buttered cinnamon-raisin bread topped with a mix of honey and mascarpone cheese. Add sliced Granny Smith apples; put it in a panini press if you have one, but you can use a heavy pan if you don’t. The Boska crew suggest sprinkling brown sugar on the top piece of bread; it will add sweetness and a bit of crunch as well. You can add a scoop of vanilla ice cream to make it truly over-the-top delicious, which I suggest you do.

I’m now a big fan of each of these three recipes: my conventional version, Tia’s spicy twist, and the Boska breakfast/dessert option. Now, I’m planning a grilled-cheese-only get-together in the coming weeks and serving all three for my friends. Overkill? No way. Not if you love grilled cheese as much as I do.

You can follow Raymond's cheese adventures on Facebook, Twitter and his website. Additional reporting by Madeleine James.