Crisped Manchego Cheese Panini with Fig Jam

I didn’t taste a real, authentic grilled cheese sandwich until I was grown up. It’s hard to believe when I think about it, but I was fully in college when a friend asked me over and said he’d make a grilled cheese sandwich for me.

I was shocked when he slathered a piece of bread with what seemed like a whole stick of soft butter, put another huge lump of butter in a frying pan and then layered some yellow American cheese between the buttered bread and a plain slice. He fried the sandwich in the pan, covered, plain side down first, until both sides were toasty and the cheese was melted and oozing out of the sides.

Well, at least he got the cheese right.

My mother had always made grilled cheese in a toaster oven. And, in the days before toaster ovens, in the broiler. She put several slices of American cheese on one slice of white bread — NO BUTTER —and toasted it (or broiled it) open-face until the cheese was hot and melty. Sometimes giant air bubbles grew on the top of the cheese and if she waited a moment or so too long, they would burn and blacken and then break so that there were crumbles of tiny ashen cheese where the bubble used to be. When she went fancy on us she’d put a slice of tomato on top of the cheese before she cooked the sandwich.

Despite the deliciousness of my friend’s recipe, I reverted to the familiar when I made grilled cheese for my kids. White bread, open-face and toasted. It took less time, less work and of course, no butter, which made it healthier and less caloric, although you really can’t brag about healthy when you are cooking with white bread and American cheese. Fact is, this is the way we liked it.

So, this is the way I make it for my grandkids. Except now I use multi-grain bread. Until recently, when my grand daughter Nina, age 3-1/2, started eating lunch at school, I would bring her a cut up grilled cheese sandwich for lunch on our weekly visit.

Last week my daughter Meredith made Nina a real grilled cheese sandwich. She buttered the bread and melted butter in the pan, put one slice of bread in, dry side down, added cheese to the center, and so on, until it came out classic grilled cheese.

Here’s the report from headquarters: “Nina was. Appalled. She kept saying in that sassy tone that I was supposed to use the toaster. Grandma uses the toaster!”

She also told her mother that Grandma was a “better cooker” and that “if you keep making grilled cheese in a pan I will have to tell grandma next time she is here.”

To everyone out there, whatever age you are — I wish you grandchildren so you can treasure comments like that one.

For everyone out there, whatever your age, try “grilled cheese” the way my mother made it. Or continue with the classic, diner-style stuff. Whatever. Grilled Cheese is one of our most beloved culinary staples.

But you might also want to go out on a limb with the simple concept of grilled cheese. There are other cheeses, other kinds of bread. The bread-cheese combo is endless. Anyone who reads this blog and who knows me also knows that I like to experiment with recipes. Even grilled cheese. Even toasted cheese. Here’s a version from my book, Hip Kosher. 

Crisped Manchego Cheese Panini with Fig Jam

1 ciabatta or other crusty roll

1 tablespoon cream cheese

1-1/2 tablespoons fig jam

1 ounce Manchego (Gilboa) cheese, sliced

Slice the roll in half. Spread the bottom with the cream cheese first, then the jam. Top with the Manchego cheese slices. Cover with the other half of the roll. Preheat a non-stick saute pan or a cast iron skillet (or use a panini press if you have one) over medium heat. Place the sandwich in the pan, then place another pan on top and add a can of food or other weight to press the pan down firmly. Cook for 2-3 minutes per side or until the outside is crispy and the cheese has melted. Makes one sandwich