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Make a Perfect Grilled Cheese Sandwich

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Anyone can make a good grilled cheese sandwich. It's a staple -- most people have the ingredients required on hand, it's easy, you don't need a recipe. Though sometimes relegated to the children's menu and the world of late night snacking, or saved for a rainy day to dunk in a bowl of tomato soup, grilled cheese can actually be very versatile and creative. The Grilled Cheese Truck roams the city, there are some upscale grilled cheeses on the menu at restaurants all over Los Angeles, and more recently, a dedicated grilled cheese haven -- Heywood in Silver Lake. Still, I think grilled cheese is best made at home. Why? Because you can! Because it's easy! Because you can do delicious, wonderful things with grilled cheese, and you shouldn't limit yourself to what's on anyone's menu. Here are a few ideas to get you started:

White and yellow cheddar on cinnamon raisin bread | Photos: Eliza Mills

Plain and Simple:
All it really takes to make an incredible grilled cheese is good bread and good cheese. But don't limit yourself to white bread and slices of American -- try rosemary sourdough, olive bread, cinnamon raisin, or a really good rye. Pick up the freshest loaf you can find and pair it with Gruyere, or Boursin, or a sharp cheddar. Try some gooey brie on farmer's market fig and fennel bread, or Jarlsberg on slices of seven-grain. Experiment! If you're not plain and simple enough to stick to one cheese, use two (cheddar and blue, asiago and Havarti, brie and gouda). Bust out the unsalted butter (or get yourself some olive oil spray), and go nuts -- the bread and cheese will do most of the work for you, and really, there's no way to go wrong.

Brie with sriracha-spiked blackberry jam on sourdough

Sweet and Spicy:
I can only assume that since the dawn of time (read: the invention of grilled cheese), people have been dipping their sandwiches in hot sauce. But some of my favorite grilled cheeses are the ones made with something a little bit sweet -- cheese goes really well with fruit, and pairing the two with totally transforms a classic. I've also made grilled cheese with chocolate (Cadbury bar and brie on brioche), but if you're not feeling quite that decadent, start out with some jam. I made this grilled cheese with brie and blackberry jam on sourdough, and it was mind-blowingly tasty. The real magic comes when you combine sweet and spicy: try spiking your jam with a little hot sauce (this one had a little sriracha mixed into the jam), the flavors go perfectly together. Other suggestions: raspberry jam (sriracha spicy) with sharp white cheddar or Jarlsberg; peach or apricot jam spiced with red pepper flakes and paired with goats milk cheddar (this one is also delicious with turkey or chicken).

Croque Madame -- ham, gruyere, and whole grain mustard on French bread

With Eggs:
Breakfast is the best, so it makes sense that adding eggs to grilled cheese makes everything more delicious. Try a classic Croque Madame: Gruyere and ham on French bread with a little bit of grainy mustard and a sunny side up egg on top, so the yolk drips down when you slice the sandwich in half. Really, putting a sunny side up egg on top of almost any grilled cheese is a good idea. For the less French among us: scramble some chopped up bacon into eggs and add the combo to a standard bright-orange-cheddar melt. If you don't eat meat, replace it with sautéed mushrooms or avocado.

Fig, avocado, and Boursin on sourdough with balsamic for dipping

Avocado, and Swiss on sourdough, doused with hot sauce leftover from your last taco truck trip. Thinly sliced apple and caramelized onion with sharp cheddar on whole wheat. Boursin, avocado, and figs drizzled with balsamic on rosemary bread. Pepper jack and guacamole. Tomato, basil, mozzarella. Goat cheese with roasted bell peppers, goat cheese with anjou pears and prosciutto; goat cheese with blueberries and basil. Heirloom tomatoes and cheddar (or, gasp, American) on super-soft Langer's rye. Loaded grilled cheeses are delicious, and since pretty much anything is improved by adding cheese, potential combinations are nearly limitless.

Tips for perfect grilled cheese:
Cook on a medium-low heat and use a pot lid to cover the pan -- this way, the cheese will melt faster, but the bread won't burn. Check up on the sandwich occasionally, and flip when golden, not charred.

Don't press down on the grilled cheese with a spatula. It's tempting to try and press your grilled cheese into submission ... it makes a nice sizzling noise, and it gives you the illusion of being personally responsible for melting the cheese. Don't do it. Your sandwich will work its way to oozy, cheesy perfection, and the bread will be tastier when it hasn't been pushed down.

Don't overdo it on the butter. Thinly coat the pan, and, if your butter is soft, put a thin layer on the top piece of bread so that when you flip, it'll cook well. I like to make my grilled cheese with olive oil spray using a bottle from Misto, because A. it tastes awesome and B. it cooks really consistently. Do whatever your taste buds tell you is right, but don't use too much of anything.

Use creative condiments for spreading or dipping: salad dressings, spice-spiked jam, and balsamic vinegar are all good condiments for grilled cheese. Mustard works surprisingly well with crisp fruit like apples and pears. Is there some kind of seasonal jam or fruit butter going on at your local market? Use it: brie is great with pumpkin butter, and hard cheeses work well with hot pepper jams.

Get grilling!

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