Making a Kick-Butt Grilled Cheese: Things My Three Sons Better Know Before Moving Out

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The American-style grilled cheese emerged during WWII when Navy cooks churned them out to feed sailors. Mass production was possible because of other 20th century inventions- the automated bread-slicer and processed cheese. Ingredients have come a long way since the top piece of bread was added during the 1960’s.

As a father to three sons, I have embarked on a mission to impart in them life lessons of the utmost importance. These are my stories.

Life Lesson #72- Making a Kick-Butt Grilled Cheese

What a different and tragically less wonderful world it would be if not for the Earl of Sandwich. He resorted to placing a piece of beef between two slices of toasted bread so that he could eat without leaving his gaming table. Necessity is the mother of invention.

That was in the 1700’s. How had human civilization progressed to that point without the sandwich? Thanks to the Earl’s innovation we then got the peanut butter and jelly, the BLT, the hoagie/sub/hero, the burger, and, of course, the grilled cheese.

The familiar, American-style grilled cheese emerged during WWII when Navy cooks churned them out, open-faced, to feed sailors. Mass production was possible because of other 20th century inventions- the automated bread-slicer and processed cheese. Ingredients have come a long way (more on that below) since the top piece of bread was added during the 1960’s.

I was born in 1967, so I am about as old as the grilled cheese. I have loved them for as long as I can recall eating. I also really like to make them and have served up countless grilled cheeses for my three sons.

Now I must pass along what I have learned. It’s not enough for my sons to make a grilled cheese. They’re going to know how to conjure up a mouth-watering, soul-satisfying, multiple napkins, sensory extravaganza of a grilled cheese sandwich.

Why? I imagine my sons older, living on their own. I don’t want them relying on take-out, fast food, or microwave dishes (all things in moderation). A grilled cheese is a straightforward, home-cooked meal (usually vegetarian, which is a bonus). It’s a way to treat oneself fairly easily or impress friends with kitchen prowess.

The Child Development Institute made a case for teaching kids to cook – practicing math, promoting nutrition, and preventing obesity. Research has found cooking programs to be effective in positively influencing kids’ food-related preferences, attitudes, and actions.

The science of cognitive development calls for the art of cooking. I made the point that teaching my sons how to grill (organizing, spacing, timing) helps with executive functions. As will be clear in a moment, I think outside the box with my grilled cheeses. Sure, recipes and cookbooks abound. But cooking is an opportunity to develop creativity.

“It’s not enough for my sons to make a grilled cheese. They’re going to know how to conjure up a mouth-watering, soul-satisfying, multiple napkins, sensory extravaganza of a grilled cheese sandwich.”

Creativity may seem like an abstract, nebulous notion that can’t be taught or learned. But it has been unpacked as an amalgam of mental abilities that are more discrete like cognitive flexibility and inhibitory control. Further, creative thinking can be promoted through inquiry-based teaching and other strategies in the science classroom. And isn’t a kitchen really just a laboratory?

Here are two fundamentals I’m teaching my sons about grilled cheese sandwiches:

  • Ingredients Matter – The basic grilled cheese is elegantly simple- cheese, bread, and butter. Using quality cheese and bread makes a difference. I’m proud to say that my sons are becoming foodies who don’t have an appetite for American cheese. They prefer the likes of cheddar, provolone, brie, and manchego. Similarly, they’d rather have bread that’s heartier and tastier than Wonder Bread and its ilk.
  • Tools Matter – The prototypical grilled cheese is made in a frying pan and flipped with a spatula. It is important to use a good pan, though; nonstick surfaces rock! Griddles, panini presses, and toaster ovens all can get the job done.

My baseline grilled cheese has a substantial white bread (maybe sourdough), cheddar, and butter. A few minutes on each side to get a nice golden-brown exterior and a warm, melty interior. That’s what my sons consider to be their go-to grilled cheese. But ingredients and technique are variables that can be altered in glorious ways…

Butter keeps the sandwich from adhering to the pan and creates that amazing greasy crunch when you sink your teeth into the bread. Olive oil also works really well and adds that nutty flavor and different mouth feel. Believe it or not, mayonnaise is a very effective substitute for butter and spreads easily and evenly.

“Research has found cooking programs to be effective in positively influencing kids’ food-related preferences, attitudes, and actions.”

I heard about using mayo for grilled cheese and blind-tested it on Gabe, my middle son, who has a very discerning sense of taste. He devoured his sandwich, as usual, not even noticing that I had subbed mayo for butter. Viva mayo!

Bread, cheese, and cooking technique are where it’s really possible to invent. At a restaurant, I had a sandwich with cheese seared on the outside of the bread. Inspired, I created what I call the “Inside-Out.”

The “Inside-Out” requires a big pan or a griddle for simultaneous grilling of two bread slices. The interior comprises avocado and spicy mayo. The cheese is a crunchy layer on the outside. It took some failed experiments to get there, but it was worth it.Making a Kick-Butt Grilled CheeseI have a strong affinity for pimento cheese. For the uninitiated, think of it as cheese salad made with shredded sharp cheddar, some mayo as a binder, and the eponymous peppers.

It’s extremely versatile- cold on a sandwich, as a dip, warmed as a make-shift queso, scrambled with eggs, etc. Using it for grilled cheese is tricky, though, because it can melt down to an unpleasant liquid in no time flat.

So the key to pimento cheese is grilling the bread first. I butter the slices, brown them, plate them, and then spread the pimento cheese. The heat from the bread melts the cheese to perfection. I created an open-faced version (harkening back to the WWII Navy cooks) with a thick slice of cheese crust bread.The American-style grilled cheese emerged during WWII when Navy cooks churned them out to feed sailors. Mass production was possible because of other 20th century inventions- the automated bread-slicer and processed cheese. Ingredients have come a long way since the top piece of bread was added during the 1960’s.I like contrasts and flavor/texture combinations. A few years ago I wondered how the savoriness of pimento cheese would pair with the sweetness of French toast (akin to a Monte Cristo). Once the bread slices are fried I spread the pimento cheese. Maple syrup would be too sweet for me, but knock yourself out.The American-style grilled cheese emerged during WWII when Navy cooks churned them out to feed sailors. Mass production was possible because of other 20th century inventions- the automated bread-slicer and processed cheese. Ingredients have come a long way since the top piece of bread was added during the 1960’s.Another way to create a flavor contrast is with bread. When I was a kid I learned from my mom that cheddar cheese is great melted on cinnamon raisin bread. I then applied that to the grilled cheese. Cinnamon chip bread has the perfect amount of sweetness for sharp cheddar.The American-style grilled cheese emerged during WWII when Navy cooks churned them out to feed sailors. Mass production was possible because of other 20th century inventions- the automated bread-slicer and processed cheese. Ingredients have come a long way since the top piece of bread was added during the 1960’s.These and other types of grilled cheese show my sons that they don’t have to follow a formula, no matter how time-honored it may be. We’ve had fun just putting several breads and cheeses on the counter, firing up the griddle and panini press, and then letting the guys do their thing. Every time new ideas are born.

We live in an on-demand world. Food is increasingly on-demand as well. Apps can bring a cornucopia to your doorstep in just minutes. I don’t wish that away, but my sons need to know how to cook.

Jessica Lahey noted in The Gift of Failure that intrinsic motivation is the Holy Grail of parenting. We want kids to be rewarded by their own explorations and successes, not just external reinforcement. They need opportunities to fall and to learn from failure. Giving kids control and autonomy reaps life-long benefits, in the kitchen and elsewhere. It can’t always be handed to them on a plate.

Be sure to check back next month for another of Craig’s Life Lessons for his sons. Have a suggestion? Something you are teaching your son or daughter? Please share in a comment!

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Dr. Craig Pohlman
Craig is a learning expert who has helped thousands of struggling students in his psychology career. He’s written extensively about learning issues, including the book How Can My Kid Succeed in School? He has three sons, so he has been up close and personal with things like cramming for tests, scrambling to finish homework, shuttling kids to sports practices, stuffing backpacks, etc. Follow him on Twitter - @DrCraigPohlman

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