Click to listen to this post.
It started out as a convenience, the byproduct of two manufacturing technologies.
First, Otto Frederick Rohwedder of St. Joseph, Missouri, somehow transformed the skills he’d learned as a jeweler into a legacy as the father of sliced bread by inventing the first commercially viable slicer.
Processing refinements, compliments of Gustav Papendick, a baker from St. Louis, allowed for uniformly sliced and perfectly aligned loaves to be uniformly and perfectly wrapped, prolonging shelf life and increasing marketability, a trajectory that reached a questionable zenith with the advent of Wonder bread in 1930, for better or for worse.
On a parallel track, the J.L. Kraft & Bros. Co. marshaled a pasteurizing process into the scalable production of “processed cheese” that could itself be transported long distances and kept seemingly indefinitely. This disruptive American ingenuity and innovation culminated in the introduction of, again for better or for worse, Kraft Singles, individually wrapped slices of processed cheese.
The genius who thought to marry these two concurrent histories into what must be recognized as a grilled cheese sandwich is lost to history.
But this recipe is really not about that sandwich.
It’s more about the ideal of that sandwich, a sandwich that the unimpeachably correct chef and food pioneer Alice Waters could refer to as one of the great comfort foods.
The ingredients of Ms. Waters’ sandwich would, of course, harken back to classic French (croque monsieur) or Italian (mozzarella in carrozza) archetypes: layered slices of artisanal cheese and lovingly crafted whole wheat or country levain, toasted (or better, pan fried) in olive oil, in a lovingly seasoned cast-iron pan until just browned on both sides.
Served with naught but a pickle and a handful of greens on the side, the oil from the bread and melty cheese the only salad dressing, food doesn’t get more simple or more comforting.
On a cold, early March night, blindly messing with convention, I made a version using aged Gouda I had bought for the occasion. The cheese you use should have some presence — Waters suggests a cantal — but any other Alpine or mountain-type cheese (comté, appenzeller, Gruyere, emmentaler or even fontina) works. If it’s soft like fontina, a short period in the freezer will make it easier to grate. And grating is nonnegotiable — it makes for an airier, more constituent melt. Just leave the Wonder bread to the kids.
If you have another favorite (this is about your comfort), have at it. I’ve made a more than enjoyable sandwich with a farmhouse cheddar. Likewise, the bread is optional but uniformly sized and textured slices make for a less-messy plate.
Having no cornichon in the pantry, I thought to up the ante a notch or two by substituting chopped kimchi for pickles. The pleasant but unexpected surprise was that the oozy cheese mellowed the tangy funk of the Korean pickle, which in turn brightened the sandwich. I suppose you could call it a “kim-cheese” sandwich, but please don’t …
A thin slice or two of apple (or a schmear of apple butter instead of the final swipe of mayonnaise) were further modifications that occurred to me — but this is supposed to be simple, right? The substitution of other pickled vegetables — sauerkraut, Italian giardiniera or pickled peppers, even Japanese tsukemono — and alternate cheese pairings open up a wide world of possibilities, and you can certainly take some small comfort in that.
Kimchi Grilled Cheese Sandwich
- 2 uniform slices of good whole-grain or seeded country bread
- Unsalted butter, at room temperature
- 2 to 3 ounces cheese, grated on the large holes of a box grater
- ¼ to ½ cup kimchi, room temperature, drained and chopped
- Olive oil
- A generous handful of salad greens
- Lemon wedge
- Salt and pepper
1. Liberally butter one side of each slice of bread. Place one slice butter side down on a cutting board and spread the unbuttered (up-facing) with a less generous schmear of mayonnaise. Mound half of the grated cheese evenly over that slice. Press it down a bit, and mound the kimchi over the cheese, topping it evenly with the remainder of the cheese. Spread the unbuttered side of the remaining bread slice with mayonnaise as before, and place that side down over the layered cheese and kimchi and, using your hand, firmly compress the whole.
2. Warm a tablespoon of olive oil in a cast-iron skillet over medium to medium-low heat. Place the prepped sandwich in the preheated pan and press down, not too firmly, with a spatula. Cook it undisturbed for 4 to 5 minutes, checking to make sure it’s browning, not burning. When the one side is done, flip it and repeat for the second side.
3. Remove to cutting board and cut into halves. Serve as is, plated with a handful of salad greens topped only with a light squeeze of lemon, salt and a grind or two of pepper.