With Thomas Keller’s sage advice to consider the grilled cheese “a blank canvas”, we share three recent creations, each in separate posts. Our first begins with a unique cheddar, Deer Creek’s Vat 17, which is a specialty cheese produced for, and distributed by, the folks at The Artisan Cheese Exchange. Chris and Julie Gentine founded the company. Chris’ granfather is Leonard Gentine, one of the founding partners of Sargento Foods. Yes, that Sargento, the one that sells all the mass-produced, pre-sliced, pre-grated bags of cheese at your national grocery chain. Jeanne Carpenter does a great job of detailing how this unique product was produced and ultimately went on to win Best Aged-Cheddar at the American Cheese at her wonderful blog: Cheese Underground. Great story and a great cheese, but on to the Grilled Cheese Sandwich #1:
The Cheese: Deer Creek Vat 17 Cheddar
Created by The Artisan Cheese Exchange by blending different cultures of the world’s best cheddars, it is a creamy, full flavored cheese with a texture reminiscent of some of the best aged white cheddars. If you need a substitute, think more aged Vermont white cheddar, than traditional Wisconsin cheddar. Many of the clothbound cheddars have similar profile such as Cabot’s or Bleu Mont Dairy. For a less expensive alternative, consider using Montamoré from Sartori Cheese. The Deer Creek Vat 17 has the creaminess of the Montamore and the fuller flavors of the clothbound cheddars.
The Accompaniment: Bourbon-spiked Onion and Fennel Jam
Based on a appetizer from Distil, one of my favorite Bourbon bars in Milwaukee, we start by adding Bourbon Bacon lard to the skillet over medium high heat, add thinly sliced sweet onions and fennel, deglaze occasionally with Elijah Craig 12 year old, and simmer until a deep amber, then finish with a malt vinegar/honey gastrique. The process takes about an hour. It’s worth it. The fennel adds the right depth to a sweet and tangy onion jam. Fresh thyme or lemon thyme can be added in the last ten minutes of cooking to enhance the flavor.
The Bread: Sprouted Grain Bread
The density of sprouted grain bread and the nutty flavors create a nice background for the burst of cheddar and tangy onion flavors. Seek out a local bakery that produces sprouted grain or a dense whole grain bread for ideal results. But in a pinch, probably the most accessible sprouted grain bread comes from the folks at Food for Life with their 7 Sprouted Grains bread. They add wheat gluten, which adds that moistness we’ve become so accustomed to in our bread, but for a grilled cheese, the lower the gluten, the crispier we can get the bread. So seek out a gluten-free or low-gluten alternative from a local baker if you can.
The jam really carries this sandwich from great to outstanding. The Deer Creek Vat 17 becomes even more flavor forward as it is heated and the texture becomes somewhat granular. Have this with a rye whiskey manhattan or a bourbon-barrel aged brew, like Founder’s Backwoods Bastard. Big, bold flavors.