Grown-Up Grilled Cheese!
Grown-Up Grilled Cheese
According to historians, cooked bread and cheese is an ancient food that is popular in many cultures around the world. France;s Croque Monsieur, England's Cheesy Toast, (aka. Toasty), Brazil's Bauru, India's Bombay Marsala Cheese Toast, South America's Arepa, Peurto Rico's Jibarto are all synonymous with comfort food. In the U.S., the so-called 'Cheese Dream' made it's first appearance on the food scene in the 1920's and it grew in popularity during the Great Depression due to the affordability of pre-sliced bread and processed cheese.
While bread and cheese are the basis for any good grilled cheese sandwich, switching up the type of bread and cheese takes this childhood favorite into a whole new direction. Adding things like avocado, bacon, heirloom tomatoes and caramelized onions gives the grilled cheese a gourmet spin.
Given that April is National Grilled Cheese Month, (yes, such a thing does exist!), I thought I'd whip up my own little version of the much-loved grilled cheese sandwich. It occurred to me while considering my options that there really is a whole world of possibilities. France alone reportedly has over 350 distinct types of cheese and worldwide, it's estimated that there are over 900 different types of cheese! Add the different bread options, and you easily have thousands of different grilled cheese sandwiches. Throw in any combination of meats and vegetables, not to mention things like macaroni and cheese and potato chips, and you could eat a different grilled cheese sandwich a day for years before having to repeat a sandwich.
Ham, Jarlsberg, Caramelized Red Onion and Apple Grilled Cheese Sandwich
Considering My Options
Having a look in my refrigerator, I began to consider my options. First, meat or meatless? I was hungry so yes, there'd have to be meat. Turkey, Black Forest ham, prosciutto or bacon? I decided on the Black Forest Ham, so named because it's produced in the Black Forest region of Germany.
Next, what cheese? Cheddar, mozzarella, smoked gouda, goat's cheese or Jarlsberg, which is cheese originally made by Swiss cheese makers who moved to Norway in the 1800's. I decided the Jarlsberg would compliment the Black Forest Ham nicely.
What else would go well with Black Forest Ham and Jarlsberg cheese I wondered? Traditionally, a Ham and Swiss, (even though it's not Swiss per see, Jarlsberg is Swiss-ish), sandwich includes onions so onions seemed like an obvious choice. However, I decided to use red onion and to caramelize them simply because that's how I like 'em! While I heated up a small frying pan, I thinly sliced about 1/4 medium red onion. I added a little butter to the hot frying pan and then added in the sliced red onion. I then reduced the heat under the frying pan to a low setting so that the onions would slowly release their natural sugars and caramelize.
Looking at the onions in the frying pan I wondered, 'what else works with ham?'. Apples. I peeled a small McIntosh apple and sliced into match stick sized pieces. I tossed most of the sliced apples into the frying pan with the red onion, leaving some to add to my sandwich uncooked to add a little crunch. Having done that, I began to wonder if the caramelized onions and apple would result in a sweeter grilled cheese sandwich than I wanted. On a whim, I removed the leaves off of two sprigs of fresh thyme and tossed that on in with the caramelizing onion and apple for a savory note.
Ham, Jarlsberg, Caramelized Red Onion and Apple Grilled Cheese Sandwich
It's funny how the mind works sometimes. Because of the aroma of the caramelizing onions and the addition of the thyme, which I always associate with French cooking, my mind immediately went to 'French Onion Soup'. With that, I decided to give the caramelizing red onion and apple with fresh thyme a splash of sherry, which is traditionally used when making French Onion Soup. I let the red onions and apples continue to cook until they were drunk on the sherry. Only kidding...the alcohol evaporates as it cooks, leaving a subtle sherry flavor on the red onions and apples.
The Final Touches
I evaluated my flavors to this point: smoky ham, creamy Jarlsberg, carmelized onions, apple, sherry and thyme...lovely. But what about a little 'zing'? Should I use mayonnaise or mustard. Both held some appeal for me and both are common on regular ham and Swiss cheese sandwiches. But which one should I use?
I couldn't make up my mind so I did what any indecisive person would do and combined 1/2 Tbsp grainy mustard with 1 Tbsp. mayonnaise, making a grainy mustard aioli if you will. Aioli is a term that refers to an emulsion of oil and garlic, often with the addition of egg and what says emulsified egg more than mayonnaise? Nothing, I tell you, nothing!
Ok, so I might have taken a little creative license here, but hey...it was just me, in my kitchen, making a gourmet grilled cheese sandwich for, well, me! I could call it just about anything I wanted, right?
The choices didn't stop with the sauce. What type of bread would I use? Normally, I'd consider all the usuals: rye, whole wheat, white, multigrain, foccacia and ciabatta. However, as luck would have it, I had a loaf of homemade white bread sitting on my counter that I made the day before so it was a no-brainer that this sandwich was going to be made on homemade white bread. The choice wouldn't have so easy otherwise.
After cutting two slices of the fresh white bread, I placed them on my cutting board and schmeared one side of each slice with the grainy mustard 'aioli'.
Putting It All Together
I placed a slice of Jarlsberg cheese on one slice of the bread, topped it with three slices of Black Forest Ham and piled the caramelized red onion and apples on top of the ham. I wanted my sandwich to have a little 'crunch' so I topped the caramelized red onion and apples with some uncooked, thinly sliced apple. Finally, I placed another slice of Jarlsberg on top and covered with the other slice of fresh white bread.
Grill 'Em Up!
I heated my grill pan over medium high heat and lightly buttered the outside of the slices of bread. When the grill pan was nice and hot, I placed the sandwich into the pan and let it get all toasty and golden on both sides, which took about 5-7 minutes.
The Taste Test
I was pretty darn confident that this Ham and Jarlsberg with Caramelized Red Onion and Apple Grilled Cheese Sandwich was going to taste pretty great, but even I under-estimated how scrumptious it was going to be!
The bread was toasted to perfection giving the sandwich that initial pleasing crispness. Within milliseconds, the combination of the smoky ham, melted creamy Jarlsberg, sweetness of the caramelized red onion and apple, savory thyme, subtle sherry notes and that perfect degree of zing from the grainy mustard 'aioli' resulted in a mouthgasm! There's simply no other way to describe the smoky sweet savory tangy creamy wonderfulness of this grown up grilled cheese sandwich!
This sandwich was a most fitting homage to the childhood classic grilled cheese, loved the world over in one form or another. The grilled cheese sandwich has been reincarnated many different ways over the past number of years, but one thing remains constant: the grilled cheese sandwich is the epitome of comfort food, continuing to please the palettes of adults and kiddies alike!