When I was a child, I thought like a child, I ate like a child: PB&Js, BLTs and grilled cheese sandwiches made from slices of Velveeta melted to gooey perfection between two slices of skillet-toasted white bread.
But when I became an adult, I put away childish things. I grew out of Velveeta and Wonder bread.
Grilled cheese sandwiches, however, are forever - assuming you know how to update them for a more grown-up palate.
Begin by using better bread. In place of the squishy white stuff, try something with more substance: a flavorful sourdough, sweet brioche, or crunchy baguette, for example. Buy a loaf, and slice it yourself into slabs about half an inch think (or halve the baguette lengthwise). The slices should be substantial enough to hold everything together but not so bulky that they overwhelm the flavor of the sandwich.
Next, add some interesting texture or flavors to the filling. Thin slices of sweet apple and spicy jalapenos complement sourdough slices nicely. The brioche makes a delicious and filling breakfast or brunch when stuffed with sliced ham, sauteed mushrooms and a fried egg. A baguette yields a bruschetta-like grilled cheese sandwich when dressed with fresh basil leaves, pesto and tomato confit.
The star in this show, of course, is the cheese. You can use the fanciest, stinkiest, crumbliest cheese your heart desires if you borrow a trick from the food scientists at Kraft. Flip over a box of Velveeta and you'll find there, listed among the other ingredients, the reason it slices so easily and melts so uniformly: sodium citrate. This white, crystalline ingredient looks like salt, and in fact it is a salt - a salt of citric acid, which is a natural component of citrus fruits. You can buy sodium citrate at some brewer supply stores or order it readily online.
I keep a big jar of the stuff in my pantry because it is so useful for making cheese sauces for pasta, nachos or fondue. Just dissolve 11 grams of sodium citrate into 1 1/8 cups of milk or water over medium heat, bring to a simmer, and gradually whisk or blend in 3 to 4 cups of finely grated cheese, depending on the kind of cheese and coarseness of the grater. As the cheese melts, the sodium citrate serves as an emulsifier and prevents the fat from splitting off to form a greasy slick on top.
The recipes below riff on this technique to make a thicker cheese sauce that sets into an even sheet, perfect for cutting into slices and adding to sandwiches. Use whatever kind or blend of cheeses and liquids you want (cold wheat beer works well in place of water). Add the weights of the cheese and liquid, and multiply the total by 0.028 to get the amount of sodium citrate to use.
For example, you can make enough emulsified cheese for 12 to 14 slices by blending 14 grams of sodium citrate into 115 milliliters of cold wheat beer, simmering, and blending in 3 cups of grated Gruyere and 3 cups of grated sharp cheddar.
Poured into a warm baking sheet and covered with plastic wrap, the cheese becomes solid after about two hours in the refrigerator. The slices, when individually wrapped in plastic or parchment paper, will keep for up to two months in the freezer. They thaw quickly, so when you get that Sunday afternoon urge for a quick grilled cheese blast from the past, you can recreate a fond memory from childhood in no time.
If possible, weigh the cheese in the recipes below rather than relying on volume measurements; volumes can vary greatly with the kind of cheese and fineness of grating.
Aged White Cheddar on Sourdough with Apples
•3 teaspoons (14 grams) sodium citrate
•1/2 cup (115 milliliters) water
•6 cups aged white cheddar cheese, grated
•8 slices sourdough bread, about 1/2 inch thick
•8 very thin slices Honeycrisp apple (or your favorite variety)
•3 tablespoons thinly sliced jalapenos
Line a rimmed baking sheet with a silicone baking mat, or oil the sheet lightly, and heat it in an oven set to its lower temperature. The larger the baking sheet, the thinner the cheese slices will be.
In a medium saucepan over medium heat, dissolve the sodium citrate in the water, then bring to a simmer. Add the grated cheese to the simmering water a handful at a time while whisking or blending with an immersion blender until all of the cheese is completely melted and smooth.
Pour the melted cheese onto the warmed baking sheet. Tip the sheet back and forth to form a single layer of even thickness. Cover the cheese layer with plastic wrap, and place it in the refrigerator until set, about 2 hours. Slice the cheese into pieces sized to fit your bread slices.
When ready to prepare the sandwiches, heat a large, heavy skillet over medium. Alternately, heat a sandwich grill or panini press.
Butter the outward-facing sides of each bread slice, assemble the sandwiches with a slice of cheese, a slice of apple and a bit of the jalapenos in each. Add a sandwich to the skillet and pan-fry until the bread is golden brown and the cheese is melted, 2 to 3 minutes per side. Repeat with remaining sandwiches.
Yield: 4 sandwiches