Entertainment

Melting moment

A far cry from its humble beginnings, the toasted cheese sanger has made a heart-stoppingly welcome return.

'It's a glorious sandwich' .. Guillaume Brahimi.
'It's a glorious sandwich' .. Guillaume Brahimi. Photo: Marco Del Grande

Can it be true? Can the grilled cheese sandwich - that most tedious of snacks and most shameful of makeshift meals - really be gaining culinary cred?

It is, after all, a creation reckoned to have emerged in the US in the straitened times of the Great Depression, when, in an unhappy piece of serendipity, sliced bread and bland, American cheese appeared, almost simultaneously, on grocery shelves.

Crooked madame ... Alex Herbert.
Crooked madame ... Alex Herbert. Photo: Marco Del Grande

By putting them together and grilling them, struggling hostesses suddenly had something they were proud - or at least prepared - to serve. They called their creations, fancifully, ''cheese dreams'' and accompanied them, more often than not, with a mug of tinned tomato soup.

Those were the days, eh?

Not that Americans invented cheese toasties, exactly. The French had already been offering the croque monsieur - a posh grilled cheese-and-ham sandwich topped with an oozing bechamel - for a couple of decades. Indeed, Proust had written about them in 1918.

Australia, however, chose to align itself with the American concept, after World War II, by trotting out cheese toasties every bit as frightful as the American versions.

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But what has changed? Whence cometh the respect? And why?

In New York, toasted cheese sandwiches are hot. ''You wouldn't believe how trendy the fancy grilled cheese sarnie is right now,'' says John Fink, Director of the Fink Group (which owns Sydney restaurants Quay, Otto and Bridge Room), who has travelled the world to produce a short film on its history, to be released next year. ''There is a place in Queens where they serve coffee, beer and cheese toasties and that's it. And I found a heap of joints on the Lower East Side serving them.''

One of the key unintentional game changers is a grilled cheese sanger that is sold, in vast quantities and to adoring foodies, at London's fashionable Borough Market. It is, surely, the mother of all serious grilled cheese sangers.

Incomparable Poilane sourdough loaves are carved into long, elliptical slices, which are piled high with grated Montgomery's farmhouse cheddar, perhaps the world's finest, along with some French comte and a sprinkling of chopped leeks and onions. The bulging sandwich is then wedged into a hot press until the cheese begins to melt, at which point it is opened up, more cheese is added, the sanger closed and the grilling continued.

The mighty, golden creation is cut into two generous halves, wrapped in greaseproof paper and, in exchange for a lazy £5 note ($7.82), handed to the drooling customer who may well have been queueing for half an hour.

Elsewhere in Europe, the French continue to ardently consume croques messieurs and mesdames, while in Spanish tapas and pintxos bars, melty cheese toasts are all the go.

Meanwhile in Australia, as the cheeses available to us, both domestic and imported, have improved dramatically and as sourdough breads also have become ubiquitous, so the cheese toasties have matured and grabbed our attention again.

Inevitably, celebrity chefs have shaped this revival. Jamie Oliver has, of course, developed his take. All you require is a couple of slices of white bread; butter these, grate 50 grams of emmenthaler cheese, 50 grams of good cheddar and toss together with a pinch of cayenne, another of smoked paprika and a good grind of pepper. Then pile the spiced cheese mixture onto the unbuttered side of one slice of bread, top with the other, buttered side up, and fry, in more butter, in a frying pan at medium heat, turning every 30 seconds until both sides are crisp and golden.

Some of Australia's finest chefs likewise admit to private passions for cheese toasties. Some have included recipes for them in their cookbooks and, in one or two cases, feature variations on the menus in their restaurants.

Ben Shewry

Ben Shewry (of Attica) has an astonishing toastie - called Canadian grilled cheese - in his book, Origin (Murdoch Books, $95). He serves the sandwich, as only Shewry could, as a dessert with hay ice-cream, which he makes by infusing milk with roasted hay, and a liberal dousing of maple syrup.

''I was in Ontario, researching a bit of family history, when the grilled cheese part of the dish was made for me,'' says Ben, a Kiwi, whose grandmother was Canadian. ''On a remarkable farm I was visiting, I was presented with a creation which, as I watched it being prepared, frightened the life out of me. But then I tasted it, swimming in the farm's own maple syrup, and …

''Quite simply, it was one of the best things I have ever tasted in my life. And serving it as a dessert, with the logical inclusion of another farm flavour, the hay ice-cream, made sense.''

But be warned: Shewry is talking about a posh version of the sort of sandwich that probably killed Elvis. Here is how me makes it:

Spread softened, cultured butter on one side of each of four fairly thick slices of good white bread. Lay two of the slices, buttered side down, on a baking sheet on a tray and layer each with about 70 grams of sliced, sharp cheddar. Top each with a second slice of bread, buttered side up.

Warm four bowls in an oven. Divide 50 grams of clarified butter between two non-stick pans and cook a sandwich, gently, in each until golden on both sides. Ensure the cheese has melted. Lift from the pan, slice off the crusts and cut each sandwich into two fingers.

Place one finger in each bowl and ½ teaspoon grated walnut alongside. Top the grated walnut with a scoop of hay ice-cream and divide 100 millilitres of warmed maple syrup between the bowls. Top with a pinch of grated walnut and serve immediately.

Guillaume Brahimi

Guillaume Brahimi (of Guillaume at Bennelong and Bistro Guillaume), who grew up in France, cut his teeth - literally - on the croque monsieur. He still regards his version of the classic as perhaps the world's most reassuring piece of comfort food.

''It is a glorious sandwich,'' he says. ''It is not something you can really afford, in terms of health, to eat every morning. But quite honestly, I would like to. It is rich, flavoursome, interesting in terms of texture but, at the same time, it is simple, uncomplicated, and very French. In fact, I am making myself hungry talking about it.''

Brahimi starts with two long, thin slices of Poilane-style sourdough from Iggy's in Bronte.

He cuts a large, round loaf in half through the centre and then cuts matching slices from each half. He lightly toasts them and spreads both - thinly, and on one side only - with dijon mustard. On the bottom slice, he positions thin slices of comte cheese to cover the bread. And on top of the cheese, a thicker slice of rustic ham - not machine-sliced or processed. On top of the ham, another covering of comte slices and, finally, the second slice of bread, mustard side down.

Brahimi then makes a conventional bechamel sauce, to which he adds as much grated comte as it will take, seasoning it with a grind or two of nutmeg. This he spreads over the top of the sandwich. The whole thing is put into the fridge overnight.

''When you are ready to eat it, first heat it in the oven for around 15 minutes at 180 degrees. Then finish it under a grill or a salamander until the cheese in the sauce colours and bubbles.

''The rest is up to you, but I like to eat it with a simply dressed frisee salad and a glass, or possibly two, of an uncomplicated wine, such as a Cotes du Rhone.''

Matt Wilkinson

Matt Wilkinson (of Pope Joan, the Bishop of Ostia in Melbourne) is a bit of a high achiever when it comes to flash sangers. His own take on a grilled cheese sandwich is unconventional but delicious. And it has earned him the title not only of Australia's best sandwich maker, but also of world's best sandwich maker.

In fairness, the sandwich, which he calls the ''bit posh toasted sandwich with Welsh rarebit fondue'', is a masterpiece. Here is how he suggests we make it:

Lay four slices of grain bread on a board and butter both sides of each slice. Top two pieces with three tablespoons of green tomato relish and the other two with two tablespoons of Jamaican-style tomato chutney.

Position slices of leg ham, which has been cooked on the bone, on the green tomato slices, then top with the other two bread slices, chutney down. Grill in a hot sandwich press and, to serve, cut each sandwich into quarters and place on a wooden board.

Alongside each serving, place a small pot of Welsh rarebit fondue made by bringing 375 millilitres of white wine and 75 millilitres of chardonnay vinegar to the boil, adding 350 grams of good, grated cheddar and whisking until melted. Lower the heat to medium and add one tablespoon Keen's English mustard powder, one tablespoon cornflour, one tablespoon Worcestershire sauce and one gram of cracked, black pepper. Stir until mixed and smooth.

Alex Herbert

Alex Herbert has, for years, been running a Saturday stall at Eveleigh markets, where she sells a variation on croque madame she calls a crooked madame, to considerable acclaim.

Herbert established her food credentials through her former restaurant, Bird Cow Fish, in Surry Hills, but the market stall and her extraordinary grilled cheese masterpiece is now her main business.

Here is how she makes it:

Take two slices of good bread (Herbert uses Sonoma country white sourdough). Butter both generously with good butter (she uses Pepe Saya unsalted cultured butter). And then, as she says, ''Top the unbuttered side of one slice with a few slices of excellent ham and overlap with slices of Swiss gruyere. Then slap on a fried egg - we use Egganic eggs - fried, naturally, in Pepe Saya butter. Season with grindings of sea salt and black pepper.

''Then dress these lovelies with a splodge of dijon mustard or, if you prefer, a squidge of my barbecue sauce. Or, if you are up for something more serious, go for both. This means the sandwich you are about to eat is called a slut, should you wish to order one.

''There are those, however, who want neither mustard or sauce, and that's OK, too. That's known as a naked sandwich or, if you are ordering it that way, a nude.

''And there will always be those who want, on their grilled ham and cheese, a bit of this and none of that. So to avoid losing their sandwiches on the grill, we place a fork on them so we can easily locate them. These, quite simply, are called the forkin' sandwiches.''

To complete any of these gems, grill them in a hot pan until golden. Flip and grill the second side, ensuring the sandwich is warmed through, soft on the inside and crisp on the outside.

''Just as a crooked madame should be,'' Herbert says.