My dad doesn't cook. At all. Except for one thing, which happens to be particularly satisfying at lunchtime: grilled cheese sandwiches.
I follow this simple process, as written by my dad, which I happened to dig up recently during a big cleanup of my food files. It's the recipe with which I grew up, and which perhaps was the first fuel for my passion for cheese.
Making a grilled cheese might seem obvious, but there are a few key steps, all of which I think my dad — in all of his non-cookery glory — committed to the written word with great care.
My dad's no recipe writer, but looking back on a book my mom made me of compiled family recipes, his headnote and cooking process is actually detailed, thorough, and perfectly written. I swear I'm not biased. It's as if my father knew, when writing this, that nothing gets under his daughter's skin more than a poorly written recipe. Well done, dad. Even the ingredients are in order according to their usage in the recipe.
And so, I thought I'd include his recipe here, nearly verbatim, complete with his specifications for the perfect cheese and the requisite accompaniment.
DAD’S TOASTED CHEESE SANDWICHES
(As written by my father; my comments/adjustments in bold.)
Since this dish doesn’t take very long to make (naturally), the most important thing about it, like all household projects, is having the right tools. Over the years I have settled on a fine, fresh [fresh? really? Can such an adjective be accurately applied to such a product?] brick of Velveeta as the best cheese, [I swear he'd choose Emmenthaler these days — a very classic, relatively strong Swiss cheese — which he counts among his favorites and which is actually what I always remembered his using. Maybe I just blocked the memories of Velveeta.].
If you can find this, then the most important element of this recipe becomes the slicer. You must cut the cheese into slices as thin as possible. (These thin slices also taste the best while you are snacking on them while waiting for the sandwich to cook.) The ideal slicer for this project is the one with a wire stretched between two arms that are far enough apart to straddle the brick of cheese. If you don’t have this kind of slicer, I imagine a pre-wrapped slice of American cheese [What?! Well, I suppose we all have our moments] would work too – but not as well. I also recommend a bread with a nice texture, say, Oroweat Winter Wheat.
Here is the recipe for one sandwich. This sandwich is also best consumed with a sour accompaniment, like a dill pickle, to set off the bland taste of the cheese [Again, probably why I think his best grilled cheese sandwiches are made with Emmenthaler and not Velveeta], kind of the way a ravishing Jewess (my mother) complements a backwoods Presbyterian (my self-effacing father).
Tub of butter
Two slices of bread
One slice of cheese
Butter the first piece of bread on one side and place it, buttered side down, into a frying pan. Then put one thin layer of cheese on the bread. It is important not to use too much since you don’t want the cheese to ooze out and make the pan messy. Butter the next piece of bread on one side and place it buttered side up on the sandwich. Turn on the stove. [This may be the best example of an instruction that incriminates my dad the most as a non-cook. How about turning on the stove to heat up the pan first, before putting it into a cold pan?]
While the sandwich is cooking, lift up the corner frequently to monitor the color of the bread that is frying. You may even choose a lower heat to make sure you maintain the precise control over this process. After about a minute, when it is just the exact degree of crispness and brownness, turn the sandwich over and cook the other side in the same way. When the second side is cooked, remove from the pan and cut diagonally. [The diagonal cut: vital.] Allow it to cool and serve with a dill pickle or two. Repeat as necessary until hunger abates or until you run out of pickles.
Nora Singley is an avid lover of cheese, and for some time she was a cheesemonger and the Director of Education at Murray's Cheese Shop in New York City, where she continues to teach cheese classes for the public. She is currently an Assistant TV Chef and food stylist on The Martha Stewart Show.