Is There A Jewish Grilled Cheese?

Matzah and CheeseAs Passover and National Grilled Cheese month come to a close, the question remains: What would a Jewish grilled cheese look like, anyway? Does the cheese have to be special? Would it involve bagels and challah? Pita and tabbouleh? Matzoh (shrieks of despair and horror)?

For some, being Jewish involves cultural imagery or flavor. You may see this at your local deli described as "kosher-style," evoking tastes of what grandma made in the old country, but without the religious restrictions. Many Jews, however, observe the complex dietary laws of kashrut (kosher is the more commonly recognized term).

Let's break down our grilled cheese ingredients to see how to make a Jewish masterpiece.

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The Bread

It just so happened that National Grilled Cheese month came at the same time as Passover--which is cruel, as this makes the bread aspect of the grilled cheese a little complicated.

As the story goes, the Israelites were slaves in Egypt. They were so harried in fleeing from the Egyptians that bread didn't have time to rise, or become leavened. And Matzah was born. In order to be Kosher for Passover, houses needed to be complete rid of "chametz" (leavened food). For a super Jewish (and crunchy) grilled cheese, Matzah is one way to go.

When Passover is not in play, there are a variety of Jewish bread recipes to use, from rye and sourdough to pita.

Kosher bread is not difficult to make, as the ingredients, utensils and cookware are all fairly standard. Cheese is far more complicated when it comes to the issue of kashrut.


The Cheese

The products used to manufacture cheese--particularly hard cheeses--are difficult to keep kosher because of how cheese is processed through heating and cooling.

The main dairy guru from the Orthodox Union (the OU stamp of approval that appears on some kosher products), Rabbi Avraham Gordimer, provides a 20 minute podcast, detailing complexities of "hekshering" (kosher-izing) cheese, from the plate-heat exchangers and spray nozzles to the cheese vats. It's like listening to a tax accountant for the Jewish food world. (One has to wonder if some of these intricacies aren't merely invented in order to give people jobs.)

Surprisingly, cheese is not a focus of Jewish culinary culture. Perhaps this is because in kashrut (the laws of kosher), it is important to have all milk and meat separated. Kosher homes will even have two sets of cutlery and utensils for dairy and for meat. (This derives from biblical passages that forbid the bathing of a baby goat in its mother's milk.)

So, any grilled cheese that involves chunks of meat is highly non-Jewish.

The most contentious piece of kosher cheese production surrounds rennet. Rennet is an enzyme that splits milk into curds and whey, and most forms are derived from the stomach linings of animals. Although rennet is not considered a meat product (so we're in the clear for the separating milk and meat issue), if the animal itself is considered non-kosher then there's a problem. There are animals famously forbidden (like pig), and specific laws for proper slaughtering.

The ancient authorities discussed the rennet issue at length (oh, to be a fly on that wall), and modern Jews vary in their observance and need for a hechsher (kosher supervision) based on the different interpretations.

It's not quite clear, even to Jews, why people keep kosher. Some say it's for health reasons or animal cruelty awareness, others believe it derives from ancient practices, where the Israelites were attempting differentiate themselves from other peoples. Many simply view it as a religious obligation without a purpose, other than the contemplation of the sacred and the profane.

In any event, many are finding ways to explore and capitalize on kosher cheese. When in doubt, if you have a Jew make your cheese it's more likely to be considered Jewish.

Creative Combos

Despite the obstacle of Passover coinciding with National Grilled Cheese month, people on the web got creative with their Jewish grilled cheeses.

The most basic recipes resemble the old Passover stand-by of matzoh pizza, with some matzoh, tomatoes and shredded cheese in the microwave or a toaster oven.

Grilled Shane experimented with the themes of holiday, like adding charoset (a sweet mixture of nuts, apples and cinnamon meant to symbolize the mortar of the pyramid builders). He had a little shout out to Easter brie as well. Doves and Figs offers a Drunken Passover Grilled Cheese, completely kosher down to the Cabot cheese.

And on the opposite end of kosher (traif), A blog by Candace Karu involves bacon wrapped matzah balls...with grilled cheese on the side.

Leah Koening at My Jewish Learning figured out how to make a challah grilled-cheese for her pre-Passover purging. Perhaps after break fast on Tuesday evening, a famous Los Angeles pretzel-challah grilled cheese may be a worthy experiment.

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Dear Ms. Neil,


I appreciated your informative article, “Is There A Jewish Grilled Cheese?”, on KCET Food (April 26), and I am grateful for your quoting me therein. However, I would like to clarify two important points you mentioned in your article, which I feel created a bit of misunderstanding.


You wrote concerning the kosherization protocols, “One has to wonder if some of these intricacies aren't merely invented in order to give people jobs.” Please be advised that the rules and intricacies of kosherization by far predate the modern kosher industry. The kosher regulations date back thousands of years, originating in the Torah and expounded and elaborated upon in subsequent Talmudic and Jewish legal codes. The mandate of the OU and other kosher certifying agencies is to comprehend the intricacies of the ancient and sacred kosher regulations and facilitate their application to modern technology and manufacturing.


You further write, concerning why people keep kosher, that, “…Many simply view it as a religious obligation without a purpose.” To be honest, based on interactions with thousands upon thousands of kosher consumers across the globe, the experience of the Orthodox Union is quite the opposite: the kosher consumer is normally knowledgeable about his or her adherence and commitment to keeping kosher, and the quest for information and greater education on the part of the kosher consumer is quite evident. The Orthodox Union recognizes how important it is that those committed to kosher observance be educated about the sources, significance, and details of the kosher regulations, and the Orthodox Union, among others, is there to provide this education, which can imbue a sense of appreciation and greater informed identification with the meaning of Kosher.


Best regards and wishes,
Rabbi Avraham Gordimer
Rabbinic Coordinator and Group Leader
Orthodox Union Headquarters
New York, NY

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Dear Rabbi Gordimer-


I was so pleased to receive your letter. Thank you for elaborating on some of the history of kosherization for readers. There is such a long, complex story behind kashrut (as you know) it’s impossible to fit it all into one humble article on grilled cheese. Also, please note that my responses are my personal viewpoint and do not reflect the views of KCET.


I did not mean to insult the profession of kosher supervision. However, as a journalist, I often wonder who is served by the increasingly rigid standards of kashrut—the people who consume, or the people who create the standards? When do precautions and preventions became too much? What are these precautions really based on, and do they actually serve the pious consumer? It seems that in recent years, the upping of standardization has only increased “tsurus,” as they say, and hit kosher buyers in the pocketbook when it is not halachically (by the law) necessary, and little resembles what my Gur-Hassid grandfather remembers in Europe pre-WWII.


Of course, these are questions that have been hotly debated between the various denominations of Judaism for years. For readers not familiar with the layers of Judaism, Orthodoxy--itself having many subdivisions--is only one branch. The other main American denominations being Conservative and Reform. I found a fantastic piece from Jewish Values Online that exemplifies a few different perspectives on Passover kashrut, according to denomination.


In any event, I appreciate your clarifications as a representative of the Orthodox Union. Given my more lengthy contemplations of the matter, perhaps my parenthetical asides would be better served as longer op-eds.


As for the “religious obligation without a purpose,” this may have been misinterpreted due to a lack of clarity, on my part. I offered a number of honorable reasons why people keep kosher, including issues of animal cruelty, health and the like. What I intended to convey is, for some people, kashrut is considered a religious obligation without a tangible or explainable purpose other than following the letter of the law or serving a higher power, which for many is considered the most noble purpose of all.


Thanks again for your comments and for providing such accessible information on the Internet.


Warm regards,
Deanna

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Dear Ms Neil:

Your article refers to "biblical passages that forbid the bathing of a baby goat in its mother's milk."

In fact they prohibit the BOILING of a baby goat in it's mother's milk.

Big difference between bathing and boiling!

Regards,

I thought this article was very interesting. I had never heard about bread not being allowed during Passover. I bet it would be hard to follow a kosher diet all of the time in a country that doesn't exactly follow kashrut. It would be hard to trust which places were actually kosher and which ones weren't. Good article!