Okay, gentle readers, before we go any further, we’re going to need to discuss how to properly make a grilled cheese sandwich.
“But,” you say, “I thought we were going to talk about books and grilled cheese.”
And we will. But it is a truth universally acknowledged that bad grilled cheese ruins lives.
Okay, maybe not lives. But also maybe lives.
Anyway. We’re going to talk about how to make good grilled cheese, and then how to pair good grilled cheese with books, and your lives are going to be better for it. I think we can all agree this is true.
So first off. A grilled cheese sandwich. Easy, right? Well, yes, but also, easy to screw up. People want to rush the process, or overstuff their sandwich, and it just ends in a pile of burnt bread and sadness. You don’t want that.
Most kinds of bread will work for grilled cheese. Go with whatever you have on hand and sounds good, as long as you keep a few things in mind.
- You want something thin enough to allow the cheese to melt, but thick enough to still retain a bit of chewiness as it toasts. Try for slices around 1 – 1.5 cm thick, which is similar to standard sandwich bread.
- Beware of breads that start with a good amount of crunch. You want your sandwich to be crisp, but you don’t want to break a tooth biting into it. However crunchy it is to start, it will be more crunchy once you finish cooking it. If you already have to gnaw it before it even hits the pan, you’ll completely mutilate your sandwich when you try to eat it, and no one wants that.
- Stay away from anything too porous unless you want all your cheese oozing through the holes and crusting to the outside of your bread in the skillet instead of transforming into a pocket of melty goodness inside the sandwich, as God intended.
You can take all sorts of liberties with your cheese, as long as you pick something that melts well. Cheddar, mozzarella, swiss, pepper jack, Gouda, Havarti, whatever you want! Crumbly or hard cheeses won’t turn into the oozy, stringy goo that we expect from grilled cheese, but if you want to include some, try layering it with a mild-tasting cheese such as Monterey Jack so that your sandwich still holds together properly.
- Preheat a skillet on medium-low. Cast iron works great if you have it (err on the lower side of medium-low for cast iron). Otherwise, regular nonstick is fine. If you want to get fancy with a griddle or panini press, be my guest.
- Slather one side of two pieces of bread with softened butter. SOFTENED BUTTER. Don’t you dare tear up your bread by trying to spread bits of fridge-hardened butter on it, you monster. If you haven’t planned ahead and your butter is still hard and flaky, pop it in the microwave for a few seconds until it spreads easily. It doesn’t have to be super thick, but you want an even coating of butter all the way to the crust. (Don’t come at me with “I’ll just butter the pan,” no one has time for that nonsense.)
- Get all your filling ingredients ready. Don’t start rummaging in the fridge while your bread is already sizzling in the skillet. That’s the path to the Dark Side. (Literally. One side of your bread will be black from sitting in the pan for too long).
- Place one slice of bread butter-side down in your hot skillet and layer in your fillings in the following order: cheese (enough to coat the bread), additional fillings, more cheese. Don’t get carried away with your fillings; if you make your sandwich too thick, it won’t get heated through all the way. Thin layers are best. Top with the second slice of bread, butter-side up.
- Allow to cook for a few minutes, until the bottom slice of bread is golden and toasty (check with a spatula) and the cheese has begun to melt. Flip the sandwich over and allow the other side to brown and crisp and all of the cheese is melted.
- Once both sides are golden and delicious, slide the sandwich onto a plate. Cut it if you want. Behold the melty goodness. Eat it as-is, or dunk it into a cup of hot soup. Close your eyes. Savor. Pat yourself on the back for doing one perfect thing today.
All right. Now that we’ve got that out of the way, here are a few grilled cheese variations, perfectly tailored to enhance your reading experience as you dive into a book.
The Lord of the Rings series by J.R.R. Tolkien
Bread: Chewy wheat. Homemade if you’ve got it, no shame if you don’t.
Cheese: Keep it simple with an aged cheddar.
Fillings: A couple strips of crispy bacon, thin-sliced tomato. A sprinkling of salt and pepper, because Samwise Gamgee says seasoning is important.
Optional pairing: Loaded baked potato soup.
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
Bread: Go with a milder tasting bread for this one, since you want the flavor of the cheese to really shine through.
Cheese: Thin-sliced Gouda.
Fillings: A scoop of cold leftover mac and cheese, spread in an even layer. Yes, this requires you to make macaroni and cheese from scratch first, have leftovers, and chill them (the chilling is to hold it all together; otherwise, your macaroni will tumble out of the sandwich before your bread crisps). No, this should not be a problem, because then you’ll have a grilled cheese sandwich and mac and cheese. As far as what type of mac and cheese to use? Keep it simple, no add-ins needed, and definitely no breadcrumbs on top. Avoid the boxed stuff. (This recipe works, but feel free to poke around the internet until you find one that sounds good to you).
Optional pairing: More mac and cheese. Also this shouldn’t actually be optional.
Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe by Fannie Flagg
Cheese: Pimento (you can use store-bought, or make your own).
Filling: A single layer of crispy fried green tomatoes.
Optional pairing: This sherried tomato soup would be heavenly.
A Song of Ice and Fire series by George R.R. Martin
Bread: Honey wheat.
Filling: Pulled roast chicken (or, if you want to get adventurous, pigeon). Coat the inner side of one piece of bread with a thin layer of fig spread.
Optional pairing: Like a true Lannister, opt to swap out your soup for a glass of red wine.
Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
Bread: Thin-sliced English muffins.
Filling: A thin drizzle of hollandaise, a slice of ham, and an egg over easy.
Optional pairing: Mimosa. Not for dipping.