Monday, June 4, 2012

To Die For

Cheese is one of those areas of life that doesn't necessarily translate well across borders, and often for completely arbitrary reasons.  For instance, there's no reason why the Netherlands should experience a dearth of cheddar while swimming in Gouda, which is the exact reverse of the cheese availability in the UK.  There is, undoubtedly, some kind of trade regulation that prevents cheese that's not made in Switzerland from being sold as Emmentaler, although for some reason the same standards don't seem to apply to brie.  Regardless of the reason why each country has a particular kind of cheese, though, the main difficulty the cheese issue presents to the home cook is that sometimes you just can't find it.  And "it", in this case, is cheddar.

Now, to be fair, cheddar does exist in the Netherlands, but it's classed alongside Manchego and Gruyere and those fancy hard cheeses--"exotic", and costing something like €15/kg.  Way too much, in other words, for everyday use.  And the World's Best Grilled Cheese, created by Julie at Willow Bird Baking, is one of those recipes that is simple enough for everyday use but decadent enough to make the day feel like something holy. Yet, despite my many substitutions and cheats, the "last-meal-worthiness" of the World's Best Grilled Cheese remains intact, largely because sweet caramelized onions combines so well with salty cheese.  And the butter you use to fry the sandwich takes the thing one more step closer to heaven.  If you're in some part of the world where cheddar is available, I would encourage you to make the entire thing as per Julie's recipe at Willow Bird Baking.  But if you're stuck in the Netherlands with nothing but Dutch stuff and no budget for cheddar, then the following subsitutions can be used for to-die-for goodness:

Substituion number one is the use of an aged Gouda in lieu of cheddar:  A "belegd kaas", at the very least, and "oud kaas" if your wallet doesn't mind.  The first is aged up to 8 months; the second anywhere from 1-3 years.  A good brand, such as Old Amsterdam, will have a peculiar sharpness of flavor that the generic supermarket stuff doesn't have, but generic supermarket stuff is good enough for this sandwich.  A young cheese is really too mild to hold its own against the onions, and will disintegrate into an oozy mess before the sandwich gets properly crisped.

 Substitution number two is really because I'm lazy:  there's no reason why I couldn't make beer bread, especially since a can of Warsteiner's or Palm or Brand or anything German or Belgian is easily available for less than two euros.  But it's not every day I feel like firing up the oven and washing out a bowl, so using store bread is, in my mind, an acceptable cheat, especially if your boyfriend asks for this 'wich every other week.  Furthermore, I don't have to wonder what to do with the other 3/4 of the loaf that's left over, given that we're not big bread eaters in general and barely manage to finish even a half loaf before it goes stale.  The only stipulation is that it not be white bread.  I'm not a nutrition-freak who prophesizes cancer just for thinking about white bread--to the contrary, I buy it regularly but infrequently, under the excuse of "variety".  But wheat bread, be it dark or light, has a bit of extra flavor to it that makes it especially wonderful.

One last note about caramelizing onions:  it takes a while.  30 minutes to an hour, with frequent but not constant stirring.  It's not difficult, but you must resist the temptation to turn the heat up to HELLFIRE, lest you end up with crispy burned bits instead of sweetly limp strands.  Good food does take time, but I promise that this sandwich is worth every minute.  

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