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Grilled Cheese for Everyone

The World English Dictionary defines the word sandwich as a noun meaning “two or more slices of bread, usually buttered, with a filling of meat, cheese, etc.”  It’s hard for me to argue.  I’ve been eating sandwiches for a long time and most versions stay true to this description.

What if there was no bread?  I mean, it is called a grilled cheese sandwich, isn’t it?  This delectable menu item should be all about the cheese.  The bread could be replaced and still leave us with a grilled cheese sandwich, couldn’t it?

Before the bread lovers of the world start composing their rebuttals, I should state up front that I like bread.  In fact, a bite of brioche from Standard Baking Co. can render me speechless by virtue of being too blissfully occupied to care about casual conversation.   It wasn’t a hatred for bread that inspired me to turn the grilled cheese status quo on its head.

Instead, I was thinking of people who want to enjoy the comfort of a warm, gooey grilled cheese but have dietary concerns beyond what type of cheese to use in their sandwich.  I was thinking of my daughter who tries to match insulin to every gram of carbohydrate that crosses her lips.  I was thinking of friends who exclude gluten from their diet.  I was thinking that I love a kitchen challenge where the reward will be a smile on my daughter’s face.

Sure, I could simply substitute two slices of gluten-free bread for those trying to eliminate it from their lunch plate.  Yes, a person counting their carbohydrates could select two slices of low carbohydrate, high fiber bread.  But what if they didn’t have to?

First, I had to decide what qualities the bread was bringing to a grilled cheese sandwich.  There’s the finger food factor.  A true grilled cheese can be picked up and eaten out of hand.  There is no need for a knife and fork.  Then there’s the structure that the bread contributes to the end product.  Melted cheese alone is a bit lacking in structure.  It needs a little assistance in that regard.

There’s the mouth feel that a toasted slice of bread delivers.  It carries the delicious taste of the melted butter and crunches lightly when you bite into it before revealing the soft interior of the bread.  Finally, there’s the look of the grill marks on the outside of the bread.  I can’t help it, but they’re beautiful to me in the same way that grill marks on a perfectly cooked steak are poetic to someone who loves a steak.  They signal that the food bearing those perfect perpendicular marks has been carefully prepared.  They tell me that my grilled cheese has been cooked long enough to melt the cheesy layer hiding underneath yet not long enough to burn the bread.  I had to select something that could wear those marks with pride.

I stood at the refrigerator surveying my options.   I love lettuce and lettuce wraps, but it just wasn’t what I was looking for.  Lettuce would prove too fragile, too difficult to effectively melt the cheese without compromising the taste of the lettuce.   Carrots weren’t large enough and I feared having to blanch them before drying them and then grilling them in order to cook the carrot sufficiently.  I wasn’t looking for a two-hour grilled cheese preparation.  I wanted something that could move from the fridge to the grill pan in only a few minutes much like a slice of bread moves from the breadbox to the pan.

Apples were an easy choice.  I love sliced apple with cheese, so I knew that the flavor would deliver.  I also knew that apples would cook in a short amount of time.  I hoped that the slices would soften slightly but retain at least a bit of crispness when the sandwich was eaten.  The carbohydrate count was more than acceptable given that I would leave the skin, and therefore the bulk of the fiber, intact.

I wanted a backup in case the apple became too soft.  I considered a potato, but a sizable slice would carry almost as many carbohydrates as a slice of low carb bread.  I wanted something a little different, something that would bring a little earthiness to the grill pan.  Then I remembered that there were still a handful of sweet potatoes in the pantry.  We had grown them in last year’s garden and were shocked at how delicious they were.  They were exactly what I was looking for.

Apple, sweet potato, and cheeses in hand, I headed to the stove.  I debated on using a sharp knife or my OXO mandoline to slice the apple and sweet potato.  In the end, I used the mandoline, but also made a few slices freehand and found them to be more than acceptable.  I set the mandoline to 1/4” and began to slice the freshly washed apple.

I topped one slice of apple with a few slices of smoked cheddar cheese.  After topping it with another apple slice, I set it aside and prepared a few more.  I set the grill pan over medium high heat and placed a small pat of butter inside.

As soon as the butter had melted and evenly coated the bottom of the pan, the apple cheddar sandwiches went in.  In a matter of minutes, the apple was proudly wearing those beautiful grill marks and my sandwich was done.  I removed them from the grill pan and allowed them to cool for a minute before slicing them in half.  It was time to taste this creation and see if I had hit or missed the mark.

The cheese was melted and gooey.  The apple was equal parts soft and crisp.  The sweetness of the apple played nicely off of the smokiness and sharpness of the cheddar.  I could only hope that the sweet potato would work as well.

I left the mandoline on the 1/4” setting and began to slice the peeled sweet potato.  I layered the slices with smoked Gruyère cheese and a sprinkling of dried thyme and black pepper before topping with another slice of sweet potato.  Then I followed the same process to cook the sandwich as I had with the apple cheddar variety.   It didn’t take long for me to see that the sweet potato was just as beautiful as the apple had been.

I called in my most candid taste testers and presented these two sandwiches for their review.  My children tried the sweet potato version first.  My daughter loved it.  My son told me that he liked the cheese, but the “bread” wasn’t his favorite.  The apple cheddar sandwich garnered a thumbs up from both of them.

I could tell by the look on their faces that these grilled cheese sandwiches had done exactly what I had hoped.  They had delivered the rich, homey comfort that a grilled cheese is known for despite their lack of bread.  They met all of my criteria for what a grilled cheese sandwich should be and more.

These were grilled cheese sandwiches for anyone and everyone:  gluten and carbohydrates be damned.  In the end, a grilled cheese sandwich wasn’t about the bread.  In fact, it wasn’t even about the cheese.  It was all about something much simpler and more pure than that.

The essence of the grilled cheese sandwich was about making food that brings comfort to someone you love.  To celebrate,  I sat down to share a grilled cheese sandwich with my daughter and enjoy watching a smile spread across her face.  I certainly didn’t need bread to do that.

Apple and Smoked Cheddar Grilled Cheese Sandwich

1 crisp apple of your preferred variety
smoked cheddar cheese
1 teaspoon butter

Using a mandoline or sharp knife, slice the freshly washed apple into 1/4 inch thick slices.  Top half of the apple slices with thinly sliced smoked cheddar cheese.  Use the remaining apple slices to top the cheese covered apples.

Warm a grill pan over medium high heat.  Once the pan is hot, add the butter and melt completely.  Add the prepared sandwich to the hot pan and reduce the heat to medium.  Grill for two minutes before turning one-quarter turn to create perpendicular grill marks.  After another two minutes, flip the sandwich and repeat the process on the other side.

Carefully lift a corner of the apple to confirm that the cheese has melted.  Allow extra time if necessary to melt the cheese.  Remove the sandwich from the pan and allow to cool for one minute.  Slice the grilled sandwich in half and serve warm.  Enjoy!

Sweet Potato and Smoked Gruyère Grilled Cheese

For this recipe, select a sweet potato that is more round than oblong.  Doing so will enable you to make a larger sandwich.  Alternately, you can slice the sweet potato lengthwise to produce the same result.

1 medium sweet potato, peeled
smoked Gruyère cheese, thinly sliced
dried thyme
freshly cracked black pepper
1 teaspoon butter

Using a mandoline or sharp knife, slice the freshly peeled sweet potato into 1/4 inch thick  slices.  Top half of the sweet potato slices with thinly sliced smoked Gruyère cheese and season with thyme and black pepper.  Use the remaining slices to top the cheese covered sweet potato slices.

Warm a grill pan over medium high heat.  Once the pan is hot, add the butter and melt completely.  Add the prepared sandwich to the hot pan and reduce the heat to medium.  Grill for two minutes before turning one-quarter turn to create perpendicular grill marks.  After another two minutes, flip the sandwich and repeat the process on the other side.

Carefully lift a corner of the sweet potato to confirm that the cheese has melted and the sweet potato is cooked.  Allow extra time if necessary to melt the cheese and finish cooking the sweet potato.  When fully cooked, remove the sandwich from the pan and allow to cool for one minute.  Slice the grilled sandwich in half and serve warm.  Enjoy!

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  1. More Than Greens

    What a brilliant idea! Keen to try it out soon.

    1. Jennifer Burcke

      I hope that you will give these a try soon. I would love to hear what you think of them. I’m willing to bet that you won’t miss the bread at all!

      1. More Than Greens

        Cheese with apple is one of my favourite things, so I’m sure I won’t! 😉

  2. Pat

    Sounds really good, esp. the apple one, I will try it. Thank you for all the great info.

    1. Jennifer Burcke

      I hope that you do give it a try. I’d love to hear what you think of it!

  3. LindaG

    Interesting idea!
    I love apple slices with peanut butter. :o)

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