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Learnings From Melt N’ Toast

November 20, 2017

What does it take to make a great grilled cheese sandwich?

Some will talk about the bread. Others will mention the cheese. The iconoclasts out there might suggest the fillings. But my answer is butter, salt, and time. And this is how I make grilled cheese sandwiches at home for my kids.

You need time, because the butter needs to slowly soak up into the bread, and turn each pan fried surface to an evenly edge-to-edge shade of deep golden brown. When done right, by the time the exterior is done, the cheese is perfectly melted. Although a little of the cheese may have run over the edge a bit to caramelize on the cast iron.

That’s okay too.

But even if you have nailed all the textures, if the sandwich lacks seasoning, all that work is for naught. Salt doesn’t always need to be added, if you use salted butter, and a flavorful cheese. Still, one has to know their ingredients.

With that in mind, let’s run through the seven contenders from this year’s Melt N’ Toast.

For those who didn’t attend Saturday’s grilled cheese festival at the Takk House, I’ll walk you through my impressions of the participants, starting with the one closest to the entrance, and from there we’ll go counter clockwise. It was the natural flow of the room.

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Sunhee’s Farm and Kitchen made a grilled cheese with kimchi. I’ve had grilled cheese with kimchi before, and loved it, so I was particularly excited to try this one. Intellectually, this was a fun sandwich. The centerpiece was a Korean staple, the cheese was American, and the bread was local from Bella Napoli. But this was more like a toasted kimchi sandwich. It was grilled, but not well browned, and the cheese was completely drowned out by the kimchi.

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I have to respect the fine folks at Merv’s Meatless. They were making a completely vegan grilled cheese sandwich, and they insisted that we hold their food to the same standard as the non-vegan competitors. That takes guts and gumption. And perhaps I could see a way that the cultured and aged cashew product that filled in for cheese could be used to fine effect in a grilled sandwich, my judging sample was all about this spread. Really, it needed something else going on.

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Dinner Demon at The Beer Diviner presented The Vermonster for its judging sample. This was a sweet and savory combination of sourdough, cheddar, bacon, and caramelized onions in pure maple syrup. They were also making a Hell Burger Helper with burger meat, macaroni, and red pepper jam. The flavors were good, but the grilling was a bit haphazard, with more browning in the center and less around the edges. But what put this sandwich out of contention for the top spot was an odd starchiness inside the sandwich. My best guess is that resulted from a coating used in the five pound bag of pre-shredded cheese.

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Muddaddy Flats, the Troy quesadilla shop, was there melting cheese in toasted tortillas. Man, they are able to squeeze a lot of cheese into those things. I mean seriously, biting into one was like eating a warmed cheese wedge. They submitted the prosciutto, poached pear, and smoked gouda quesadilla for judging. Without a doubt, this was a tasty quesadilla, but it’s a completely different experience than a grilled cheese sandwich. And the judges agreed that the texture and flavor of grilled bread are critical components to a winning grilled cheese sandwich.

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Do you know who was grilling its bread well? Slidin’ Dirty. They took brioche, added chipotle cream cheese, sharp cheddar, fried prosciutto, and tomato jam. And then served this beautifully golden brown sandwich with a tart and bright lemon arugula salad. Man, this was good. And it was well thought out. The judges loved having the counterpoint of the salad to the rich grilled cheese. So far, this was the best sandwich of the day.

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The Cheese Traveler came prepared to grill three different sandwiches. The Classic with their cheese blend, bacon, and housemade bacon jam; the Simple Pleasure which is just a straight up grilled cheese; and the Simple Pleasure with tomato and ham. All of their grilled cheese is done on hearty bread with Rodolphe Le Meunier cultured French butter. In their shop, when each of these sandwiches is carefully crafted, it’s hands down my favorite grilled cheese. Period. In a grueling festival setting, making sandwiches for hundreds of people in just a few hours, it didn’t fare quite as well. The Classic, presented for judging, was more like a grilled bacon sandwich. It was delicious to be sure, but the primary problem was that the cheese got lost.

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As a side note, at the end of the festival, I swung back around for a sample of the straight up Simple Pleasure. It’s hard to say in retrospect, but that could have been a contender for the top spot in the festival. Man, that was a tasty sandwich. Each part was so flavorful on its own, it really didn’t need anything else. And it also really demonstrates what it tastes like when a specialty cheese shop sets about to make a grilled cheese sandwich.

The last table was Fresh Greens an the Park. Looking at the ingredients, I was expecting to dislike this sandwich. After all, it was made from standard supermarket bread, spread with food service cream cheese, and given a slice of unremarkable, industrial provolone. Then came November’s best chopped fresh tomatoes and torn basil. And finally a squeeze of “balsamic glaze”. But then something magical happened. The entire sandwich was spread with an herbed garlic butter, and grilled deeply on both sides.

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While I might take issue with the ingredients, there was no taking issue with the tastes, textures, and visual appeal of this sandwich.

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In the end, for the judges it came down between Fresh Greens on the Park and Slidin’ Dirty. The ultimate factor was that we were tasked with finding the best grilled cheese sandwich of the day. And if we limited our consideration to just that, we had to look at the Slidin’ Dirty sandwich on its own without the salad.

That meant, Fresh Greens on the Park came out not only as the Judges Cheese, but the People’s Cheese too. Congratulations to them for constructing such a tasty sandwich, even under such difficult conditions. It just goes to show you, that great food can come from anywhere. Using seasonal, local, and sustainable ingredients can help, but technique is everything.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Jamie permalink
    November 20, 2017 4:10 pm

    In the 1970s My grandmother always used mayonnaise on the bread and a bit of butter in a cast iron pan. American cheese (probably Kraft) and Freihofer’s white bread.

    Holy sweet Mary of grilled cheese!

    Today I use Rockhill Bakery Sourdough, Cabot Sharp Cheddar with Kerrygold (or homemade) herb and garlic butter.

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