My younger daughter didn’t take kindly to the news, on the day after Thanksgiving, that there was no cranberry sauce left over for the turkey sandwiches. “What the heck happened?,” she wanted to know, in the sort of tone you might get from someone who’d just opened up her jewelry box and saw that it was empty. I told her I wasn’t sure, but said I thought—we’d hosted a higher-than-usual number of Certified Big Eaters for dinner the night before—that the sauce hadn’t even made it through the meal. Most 23-year-old women don’t react quite so abruptly to news of a leftover shortage, but my daughter is one of those people who appreciates Thanksgiving mainly for the opportunities it provides for good eating in the days that follow the actual meal. A lot of us are like that. I did my best to cobble together a stripped-down turkey sandwich for her (just mayonnaise and cold gravy), but that was scant comfort. She was only fully mollified when I suggested we forget the leftovers altogether and I make her a grilled-cheese sandwich, as well. Soon the crisis had passed, and I can’t say I was surprised.
In my experience, grilled-cheese sandwiches consistently score high on the comfort-food meter. And maybe by no coincidence, they’re one of those foods where the diligent home cook often turns out a product that’s better than what you’ll get from the pros, who seemingly can’t resist overdoing things. I watched a food show awhile back hosted by a renowned chef who provided his take on grilled-cheese. It was exhausting. Before the process was over, the chef had hauled out the Panini machine, grated two of kinds of Italian cheese, both with five-syllable names, made some Texas toast from home-baked bread, softened up a half a stick of butter, and chopped up a bunch of fresh herbs. I’m sure the resulting sandwich was outstanding (everything this guy makes looks great), but, come on, you can make a souffle with less hassle. Save yourself the bother; here’s the best way to grill a cheese sandwich:
Spread mayonnaise on two slices of white bread, the thinnest you have in the house. Place the bread slices on a cutting board, mayo-side down. Put two or three slices of American cheese (yes, American; nothing else melts as well) on one bread slice, and place the other slice on the cheese, mayo side up. Transfer the sandwich to a lightly oiled griddle or fry pan that’s set over low heat, and loosely cover with a piece of aluminum foil. With a spatula, keep checking the underside of the sandwich until it’s browned to your taste (which will happen faster than you think), then flip it and loosely cover with foil again. The second side will likely brown more quickly than first, so stay vigilant. Once the second side is done, remove the sandwich from the griddle, place on cutting board, slice it on the diagonal, and serve with your choice of mustard.
Easy, right? The objectives here are to get the right golden crispiness on the outside, keep the breadiness to a minimum, and have everything melted properly on the inside. All else is superfluous. If you spend any more time and effort than what I’ve described, you might as well be making something else.
A few caveats and observations: First, keep butter, softened or otherwise, out of the process entirely. It burns too easily. Mayo on its own will get the job done. Use whatever bread you’d like, as long as it’s white and sliced thinly. One day when the pantry was especially meager, I had to resort to hot dog rolls. The result wasn’t nearly as objectionable as you might imagine. Do not under any circumstances use dark or multi-grain bread, even if you’re on a health kick. They’re too dense, and their stronger flavor will obscure the majesty of the melted cheese. You can, if you’d like, use cheese other than American, but only if you’re on a clean-out-the-refrigerator project (the day after hosting a large cocktail party, say). Cheddar works well, as does Monterey jack. Mozzarella gets too stringy, though. I don’t much care for melted Swiss, but you’ll have your own taste. Some people prefer ketchup rather than mustard as an accompaniment. On this I will not comment. There’s only so much sin in the world one can deal with.