The love of a sandwich must, I suppose, be an unrequited one; and so grilled cheese and bacon has never stopped to think about how much it means to me. I must know more about it than any person alive.
That is saying something. A food scientist in Kraft’s massive research facilities in Terrytown, NY or East Hanover, NJ probably knows more about the mechanics of melted cheese than I do, and Harold McGee more about butter. Dan Phillips, the founder of the Bacon of the Month Club, knows more about bacon. But put these things together in a glorious gestalt, and I am its master – and its slave. I have given the consideration of this sandwich everything, and am a crude and pitiful human being in all non-grilled-cheese-and-bacon-related ways. My knowledge has been purchased at great cost, and if now I can prescribe its construction with the exactitude of a Japanese tea ceremony, it is only because I have neglected whole vast tracts of human life to do so.
But on the other hand, consider the Grilled Cheese and Bacon sandwich. In its platonic form, it is surely the most perfect sandwich ever created. Three separate fats -– margarine, milkfat, and savory bacon lard – conjoin to create a prismatic aurora of pure satisfiability. Then there is the contrast between the smoky, salty sweetness of the bacon with the muted sharpness of the cheese. Finally, there is the exquisite opposition between the rugged crunch of bacon, and the viscous oneness of the cheese in which it is suspended – to say nothing of the contrast of both with carefully browned bread.
Naturally, in a long, largely solitary life, the proper mechanics of the sandwich have taken too large a part of my attentions, and I get upset when it’s done badly. And it’s almost always done badly. My own hairy-knuckled handling of it invariably leads to some slight maiming or mangling, and I invariably take the first bite with sadness, or at best a thwarted, rueful ambivalence. What did I do wrong? And was it even worth it? The grilled cheese and bacon sandwiches that I’ve loved the most have been served to me quickly, often when I was drunk or stoned, and delivered all at once to my waiting grasp before I’ve had a chance to think about them.
Salty, dingy Maynard’s, a red brick dive on the bay in Margate, New Jersey, for years employed a mean lady behind the grill. But when she handed those two grilled cheese and bacon sandwiches to me, at that moment she was to me as beautiful as Marilyn Lange and as virtuous as the Mother of the Maccabees. I would gobble the first sandwich up, knowing a second was in reserve, and forget for a few precious seconds my thwarted lusts and plastered-over losses. I would go back to a cold Molson Ice in post-coital peace, and plan the making of a perfect sandwich when I got home.
The true gastronome... for his normal fare, seeks out the simplest dishes, those which, moreover, are the most difficult to prepare to perfection.
Prosper Montagne, Lourousse Gastronomique (1938)
To make a perfect grilled-cheese-and-bacon sandwich:
1. Start with the right ingredients. You can’t go a month in the food media without being told, by some content-starved cooking magazine or brash TV chef, that "there’s more to grilled cheese than white bread and american cheese!" They’re right in the sense that you also need margarine, but beyond that lies an almost bottomless error. I say that not out of any pseudo-populistic patriotism, of the kind that expresses itself in the scorn of yahoos for everything not served in their middle-school lunch cafeterias; I admire invention as much as anybody. But this sandwich is to my mind the summit of American cooking, as exquisitely refined as French wine or Ligurian olive oil. And the reason it is so refined is because of the perfect balance of its four elements: air bread, American cheese, margarine, and bacon.
The most important of these elements is, paradoxically, the least obtrusive. Thin wonder-style bread is as light as air, made of enriched bleached flour; it has practically refined itself out existence, becoming a transparent vehicle for the taste and color of the golden-brown margarine crust. It’s a gastronomic endpoint: compared with this, even the airiest baguettes are leaden loaves, and croissants peasant pumpernickel.
The American cheese matters much too. You need it for its high fat content, meltability, and the mild taste which will highlight the bacon. Cheddar cheese, aged or otherwise, is too strong and too greasy for any but the most degenerate of sandwiches, and of other cheeses the less said the better. You need an American cheese which has a waxy character when cold; supple slices, of the kind frequently seen in hard-to-remove individual plastic wrapping, melt too fast, and never achieve the dense viscosity you will need to support a mass of crunchy meat. Among the supermarket brands, the best is Kraft Deli Deluxe, at least in the 8 oz. package; in the double stack economy pack, the slices are thinner, and set off the balance. Generally, you would do better to get some deli-sliced Land O’Lakes or Boar’s Head white american, generally cut to about the thickness of a Nestle Crunch bar. The other thing to consider is the color: contrary to middlebrow prejudice, the tangerine- and ivory-colored varieties of American cheese are not interchangeable. The first denotes fake cheddar; the second fake muenster. I always opt for the second for its mildness. Margarine can be any variety, but get it in a tub, and let it come to room temperature before you attempt to spread it on the delicate surface of the bread.
Finally, look for a bacon with a pronounced hickory flavor. Middlebrows may mistakenly direct you to Nueske’s or Niman Ranch bacon, high-quality applewood smoked products which are good with a plate of pancakes but not suitable for immersion in American cheese. Since I am just making one sandwich today, I want it to be thick, and therefore it will need thick bacon to stand up. A whole white bread, bought at the Food Emporium, will be cut in suitably thick slices, and I will be using a concomitantly large amount of cheese.
Maybe this is a mistake. The whole aesthetic of grilled cheese is delicacy and minimalism. But I have had success in the past with this. Once I remember having a disastrous third date with a gorgeously plump, flaxen-haired photographer whom I had mustered up the courage to ask out at a party. Whatever slight spark had brought me a third chance was now extinguished, and the conversation a torturous back-and-forth of conversational commonplaces, of the "nice music is nice" variety. I dragged my hopeless carcass back to my man-hole in the East Village, and fixed myself a nice sandwich of flawless character – every bit as good as Maynard’s, and twice the size. Now if I can only re-create it today.
2. Use the right equipment. It’s of the utmost importance to have everything ready. For the bacon, you’ll want a large skillet, either of heavy cast iron or steel. The bacon needs to be crisp, so you’ll want something that cooks evenly, and doesn’t lose its heat when you add fresh slices (which you will need to do to avoid crowding the pan.) For the sandwich itself, you’ll need a small nonstick skillet. In my adventurous adolscence, I tried to master the difficult but rewarding side-by-side method, which allows you to melt the cheese on both slices of bread simultaneously, thus embedding the bacon before it has a chance to fall out, and obviating the need for the Flip, the crisis and climax of any GC&B birthing. The problem, though, is that unless you happen to be using an instiutional griddle with steel an inch thick, neither slice will be centered on the heat, and the margarined bread, which reflects heat patterns as responsively as a spectroscope, will have uneven cooking. I gave up side-by-side cooking sometime during the first Bush administration, and I have never looked back. A small pan coated with some space-age polymer is all you will need.
Also prepare a cutting board, a heavy cleaver, a plate covered with paper towels, a nonstick spatula, and a butter knife to spread margarine with.
At this point, you might do well to sit down. There is a lot of work ahead of you, and a thousand things that can go wrong. Calm your mind; make your consciousness as placid as a saucer of thick chocolate milk. Whatever happens, don’t become perturbed or infuriated, slamming refrigerator doors and causing bottles to fall out onto the floor and break, inciting your fury further to a white-hot peak of psychosis. It’s just a sandwich. Remember this, and try to believe it.
3. In frying the bacon, you are looking for it to become crisp but not brittle. I like my bacon generally a little underdone – it brings out the hammy notes, and emphasizes the mouthfeel of the smoky fat. But an iron discipline is required here: you can’t cook it the way you like to eat it, and you can’t crowd the pan, and you can’t eat the bacon while it’s waiting for the sandwich. Make extra, by all means. Finish off the package. But reserve no less than five full slices for the sandwich.
I have said that it should be crisp without being brittle. One way to do this with the help of a bacon press. But I’m of two minds about this aid, in this as in so much else. On the one hand, the bacon press keeps the bacon nice and flat, so you don’t get folds and bubbles that refuse to brown. But the moisture from the bacon stays under the weight too, and so it ends up roasting instead of frying, and gets an unappetizing density to it, even with crisp. I don’t understand the process, but I don’t like it, and so end up using the weight for a minute or so and then pulling it way. Failing that, just cut the bacon up into three-inch strips that won’t buckle in the pan.
4: Once the bacon has been drained, put it aside and slice up the bread. I am using a whole white loaf here, nice and airy. If I were using sliced bread, it would probably be Arnold Brick Oven for a thicker, heartier sandwich such as this one. They’ve changed the recipe, and it is no longer cakey as in the past; now it’s a slightly denser air bread, no doubt the result of complaints from vulgarians who object to any departure from the Wonder paradigm. In fact, the old Arnold bread was highly unsuitable for the air bread duty: you couldn’t make peanut butter and jelly on it, it was no good for grilling, and it got in the way of cold cuts. The only thing it was good for was toast; but it was great for toast. In fact, when dieting or impatient, the expediency of a slice of buttered Arnold toast folded around a few slices of bacon got me through many guilty hangovers. Upon moving to New York in 1989, I graduated to my current hangover cure, the dreaded "triple B" sandwich: butter and bacon on a bialy, pressed through its foil wrapper until as flat as a panini. I ate a number of these during my divorce, and can’t say I regret it. It’s very fattening, however. The bread should be sliced about a half an inch thick, as it is no more solid than a passing cloud, and will compress under spatula pressure.
Slather the margarine onto its surface, taking care to cover every nanometer. The edges are especially important, because it is here where the crunch will be most pronouced, and where you will first experience the sandwich, and either enjoy a momentary rush of euphoria, or a familar ennui. Break the bacon into small pieces if you haven’t already. Remove three or four slices of american cheese and fan them out on the cutting board for easy access. Heat the small pan over a medium fire, and cross your fingers. Even with these mass-produced products, and this exacting procedure, the entire enterprise if fraught with contingency, and the worst part is yet to come.
5: Once the pan is hot, lay the slice in its precise center. Feel free to use a gyroscope and sextant to determine this, or just do it by sight. Add two slices of cheese, staggering them in such a way that they cover ever bit of the bread. Add all the bacon, or try to – because with the cheese not melted yet, the bacon will shift and fall off, especially as you add it in. This is one of the main places the goons at late-night delis screw up – they add it any which way, and as often as not don’t even notice that some has fallen onto the grill. How painful it is for me, in my nightly wanderings, to stop in for a GC&B and see it ruined as I stand and watch. I wouldn’t even be there if I was in a better mood. I find myself in a queasy rage, straining impotently as they slap undrained bacon onto waxy slices of cold cheese; then throw the half-assembled sandwich, without even a smear of margarine, onto the griddle, for far too long. The cheese turns into a liquid, bubbling horror, and when the guy half-slices with the side of his filthy spatula, the hapless sandwich is nearly disemboweled. The bacon is pulled out from the liquid maw of the sandwich, leaving an oozing hemorrhage of cheese in its place. By this time, its only value is its crispness of the bread, and that is ruined by wrapping it in a tight jacket of tinfoil and wax paper, which serves it as a steambath, reducing it to a mushy paste. The Musselmen who make these things never eat them, and so don’t know, or care, how they are ruining them. But I do, and, so bitterly fling the thing into a subway-platform trash-can.
But you can right this wrong. Just be very, very careful to place the bacon exactly where you want it to be, distributing it evenly across the sandwich. Then lay the remaing cheese carefully atop it. All of this should take less than thirty seconds. Pratice with plastic mockups if necessary, until you have developed the requisite dexterity.
At this point you may wish to speed the melting of the cheese along. Remember, the bread is browning at a much faster rate, and if you just stand there, waiting for the cheese to begin its binding with the bacon, you may find a hideous, blackened ruin in front of you, and all your weary work in vain. I sometimes used to cover the pan with a tight-fitting domed lid. (But won’t that fatally soften the bread, you ask? No, since you will be flipping one last time to get an extra crispness and to refresh the dorsal cheese layers before serving.)
6: At some point between 2 and 3 minutes, your bottom cheese will have begun to melt, and the bread will still have a beautfiul character – canary yellow with a delicately-etched web of bronze throughout. Put the top slice on, and get the spatula in under the bread without bending the crust back. Lift the whole thing out onto a plate, and flip it over by hand, laying it carefully back in the pan. I’ve tried – oh, I’ve tried! – to flip it in the pan like a line cook, or even using a spatula. It doesn’t work. Don’t try it. You’ll only make yourself miserable.
7: Let the sandwich brown for another 2 minutes or so. You can tell if a sandwich is browning well by shaking the pan. If it moves freely, it’s probably browned enough that you can at least look at it safely. When it’s ready, move it to a cutting board, and give it about thirty seconds to rest. Now take a heavy cleaver, or your biggest, heaviest chef’s knife, and bisect it diagnoally with one swift stroke. Press the knife all the way into the cutting board, deep into its heart, sundering every possible bit of resistance by the mean-spirited bacon, which will want, in its last seconds of existence, to ruin the sandwich by staying whole and sticking to the knife as you remove it. The hotter your cheese, the worse the glue keeping the bacon inside the sandwich where it belongs. As hot goo oozes, the bacon surfs out of the sandwich on it, in a truly obscene spectacle. So be sure that it’s not hot, and that you cut all the way through.
8: Now your sandwich is ready to eat! Make sure you haven’t prepared a special place setting, though: the best place to eat this sandwich is right there next to the stove, preferably in your underwear as you lean over the sink. A too-formal place setting, such as at the living room or, worse yet, the dining room table, will make you feel bad, like the astronaut at the end of 2001, eating his dinner in silence every night for forty years. No, a quick, mind-numbed pleasure is what you are after, and if you’ve made the sandwich right you’ll get it. I myself, after eating this particular one, found it heavy and undercrisp. The bacon was too chewy, thanks to my lazy use of a bacon press, and the bread not nearly as crunchy as I would have liked. A few seconds under the broiler of my toaster oven would have fixed that, but a bite had already been taken. And the failure of that bite was abject and irreversable. I will do better tomorrow.