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Between Grilled Cheese and Panini

November 19, 2018

Take it slow. That’s my advice.

This week can be madness. Thanksgiving is on Thursday. People will be traveling all over the country to be with family and loved ones. Cooking projects are underway. And even while we are still preparing for this festive holiday meal, there is a deafening cacophony of advertisements for Black Friday.

It was shocking when some retailers made their staff come in for pre-black Friday sales events on Thanksgiving day, just a few years ago. But now, it sounds like Black Friday sales have already begun. I honestly can’t wrap my head around it. Spending money to buy stuff for people isn’t an expression of love. It’s an expression of commerce.

Let’s try to remember how to love one another. And part of that involves taking it slow. Being present. Enjoying the stillness together.

Actually, that’s also great advice for making a brilliant grilled cheese sandwich. Although for grilled cheese you also need to add plenty of butter into the mix. Speaking of which, this past weekend was the second annual Melt N’ Toast grilled cheese festival. This year, the competing restaurants stepped up there game. Here’s how it all went down.

Some attendees said the grilled cheese sandwiches could be found on the right hand side of Takk House, and on the left were all the restaurants who were making paninis.

It’s a fair point.

C.H. Evans Brewing Company at the Albany Pump Station has a relatively new chef to go with its relatively new brewer. And both Ian O’Leary and Sam Pagano were there handing out a beer inspired grilled cheese with a cup of creamy tomato bisque. The grilled cheese was made with a munster and american cheese mix which had been blended with seven different hop varieties, turning something relatively simple into a sandwich with a much greater depth of flavor. However, it presented as the epitome of a simple classic. Bread, cheese, and soup.

It’s no wonder that this table won The People’s Cheese award and came up in the top two spots for two of the official judges. It just missed being one of my top picks, because my judging portion was unevenly grilled. One side was nicely dark and crisped, and toasted out to the edge. However, the other was significantly lighter, with an barely toasted edge.

One thing you learn from food judging, is that you can only judge the sample that’s been presented to you. However, I’m thrilled that this Albany institution which is getting a much needed boost to its food and beverage program, was recognized for its delicious entry.

Muddaddy Flats was back for a second go at the Melt N’ Toast prize, and they learned a lot after last year’s competition. Instead of submitting a quesadilla into a grilled cheese contest, they opted to use bread. And not just that, but they seasoned their butter and made sure to carefully cover the grilled surface edge to edge. This resulted in the crispiest and best browned bread of any sandwich in the competition. My hat’s off to them for their technique. It was fantastic.

This bread was filled with balsamic glazed, caramelized onions and apples, with bacon, and a combination of american cheese and smoked gouda. Perhaps if my sample had more bacon in it, there would have been enough salt and smoke to cut through the sweetness. But I found it to be out of balance.

That said, I can understand the desire to submit an entry that lands on the sweeter side of the palate. When it comes to the physiology of taste, people tend to prefer the option that’s just a little bit sweeter. So it’s a clever play. It just didn’t work out in this case.

Ama Cocina isn’t a restaurant one might associate with a grilled cheese sandwich, but for me, this was hands down the tastiest sandwich of the day. It was unfortunate that not more people agreed.

They brought a vegetarian version and one with bacon. The bacon one was better, so let’s talk about that. Yes, technically this sandwich was grilled on a panini press. And the battered and fried pieces of queso blanco that were stuffed into the sandwich didn’t quite have the same melting texture as one might want in a classic grilled cheese.

However, this sample came with a smoked and spiced tomato and vegetable soup which was fantastic. The instructions were to dip the sandwich in the soup, to effectively use it as a sauce. Doing so just brought everything together. But I can see why people who were looking for a grilled cheese sandwich might find this one to be a stretch too far.

Slidin’ Dirty was one of the strongest contenders in last year’s festival, and this year they returned with an entry called “Troy City Limits”. Here’s how they described it:

Our award winning mac and cheese, pulled pork, pickled onion, avocado, BBQ sauce, and pepperjack cheese on grilled sourdough bread brushed with chipotle butter

It too was delicious, but can you guess where it went wrong? Including the bread there are seven ingredients. Only one of those is cheese. Yes, the mac and cheese also has cheese, but that doesn’t quite melt like the grilled cheese cheese. And the judges felt like the cheese itself got lost.

No doubt, this was an audacious sandwich. And I have to imagine there is way to make a stunning mac and cheese grilled cheese. Although I would definitely leave off the BBQ sauce, which I found to be too sweet.

The City Beer Hall marked its first appearance at Melt N’ Toast with a sandwich they called Caesar’s Revenge. It featured a fontina crusted Italian baguette, filled with stracciatella, tomato caponata, and crispy guanciale.

Fontina crusted? Yes. This grilled cheese sandwich had cheese on the inside and cheese on the outside! And it too was an elevated version of the classic grilled cheese with bacon and tomato. Except instead of bacon it was cured pork jowl, and instead of a tomato slice the caponata.

The stracciatella may not have had the same creamy melting potential as american or pepper jack, and the bread may not have had the same butter toasted flavor of a traditional grilled cheese sandwich. But all the same, this entry made it into the top two of all three judges.

In food competitions, I think it’s great when the judges are able to talk through the results and come to a consensus. And in this case that’s what we were able to do. Congratulations to City Beer Hall for winning The Judges Cheese!

Really, congratulations to everyone involved. Saturday was a great afternoon to hang out indoors and eat grilled cheese sandwiches washed down with some Chatham Brewing beer and a Nine Pin ginger cider.

Actually, even the ginger wasn’t quite enough to cut through all that cheese at the end of the event, so I headed over to Lucas Confectionery for a bright sparkling Elbling from Mosel, Germany. Even better, it turned out I was sitting next to the importer himself, and we had a great conversation about Germanic growing climates, New York wines, and their untapped potential

If you want to get some for your holiday feasts, go see Heather and her crew at 22 Second Street. I haven’t quite figured out what we’re bringing to Thanksgiving yet, but that’s another story.

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