So far, it's been a grilled cheese sandwich kind of year, which is to say the first quarter of 2014 has been full of bad news, sad news, weird weather and more challenges than usual, or so it seems.|

So far, it's been a grilled cheese sandwich kind of year, which is to say the first quarter of 2014 has been full of bad news, sad news, weird weather and more challenges than usual, or so it seems.

A grilled cheese sandwich is one of my top go-to comfort foods -- my version, I suppose, of a pint of ice cream or a big piece of chocolate. It gets me through until tomato season, when I shift to BLTs in times of trouble.

I think of it now, as well, because Saturday is National Grilled Cheese Sandwich Day. It's as good an excuse as any to indulge.

What, exactly, makes a great grilled cheese sandwich and when does a sandwich, piled high with a lot of ingredients, stop being a grilled cheese and morph into something else entirely?

There seems to be a lot of agreement that when the two pieces of bread no longer stick together, it might be good, but it's no longer a grilled cheese. Others suggest that if there are more than five ingredients, it is something else.

When it comes to other aspects -- what bread, what cheese, what condiments, and what, if any, additions -- chaos reigns. Trying to corral the concept of a grilled cheese sandwich is a bit like herding cats. Everyone runs off in a different direction, often to their childhood favorite.

Certain friends like a sweet flourish, from onion jam, perhaps, or thinly sliced apples or pears. Others like roasted chiles, roasted tomatoes, sweet pickles, dill pickles, ham, roast beef, bacon, chutney, a fried egg and sweet onion, either solo or in all manner of combinations.

When it comes to cheese, aged cheddar seems to be the favorite, though Gruyere, Muenster, mozzarella, goat cheese, brie, blue cheese and even cream cheese all have their fans. Nearly everyone insists that butter must be in there somewhere, too, usually on the outside of the bread but sometimes on the inside.

For me, cheese must dominate. Sometimes I like a slice of thinly shaved onion or, now and then, caramelized onions. Occasionally, I add a few thin slices of avocado. If I happen to have ham on hand, a thin slice or two may make it onto a grilled cheese. I vary the cheese, almost always using something local except when I have an exceptional English cheddar around. Any good cheddar, Muenster, Jack or mozzarella will do in a pinch.

Sometimes I add herbs -- most often sage, which flatters and is so flattered by cheese -- and I generally like a shake or two of hot sauce, Crystal, Tabasco, Tapatio or whatever may be on hand. Sometimes I shake on some chipotle or serrano powder for extra heat.

I apparently am the only person around who admits to liking a smear of mayonnaise now and then, especially when it is combined with either Tabasco or chipotle.

In 2001, when I wrote my first Seasonal Pantry column about grilled cheese sandwiches, I was admonished by a dear friend, no longer with us, who insisted it was pretty much a crime to leave out Worcestershire sauce.

This is, of course, how he ate grilled cheese sandwiches as a child and young man. When it comes to comfort food, we all revert to our childhood favorites.

It's good, too; I often add a shake in his honor.

What about bread, which has gotten a tad trickier?

We are blessed with what is arguably the finest bread in the entire country, but the very best of it often has big holes, through which the cheese makes a messy getaway. Because of this, some people prefer a denser bread, a classic white sandwich bread or a specialty bread, like rye. I typically put up with the holes because, honestly, nothing is more delicious to me than a grilled cheese sandwich on the best sourdough I can find.

A grilled cheese sandwich is best cooked on top of the stove, in a hot cast-iron pan with plenty of butter on the outside of both slices. I don't think a ridged pan is necessary, and I don't have an electric panini maker. Why store another appliance when a cast-iron pan performs the task perfectly? If you want the ridges of a panini maker, get a press; it works perfectly.

If the bread is particularly thick, I often toast it lightly first so that the inside has some of that toasty texture and flavor. And in a pinch, when time is tight and troubles seem overwhelming, I turn on my little toaster oven, slather the already-toasted bread with mayonnaise or Dijon mustard or maybe both, put cheese on both pieces of bread, shake on Tabasco and Worcestershire sauce and pop them under the tiny broiler. When they are hot and bubbly, I press the two slices together and set them on a pretty plate.

And then I sit somewhere with nice light and savor the simple, yet profound, pleasure the sandwich provides. For those few minutes, all is right with the world.

In 1989, "American Country Cheese" by Laura Chenel and the late Linda Seigfried was published by Aris Books, a Berkeley company that no longer exists. Aris Books also published chef John Ash's first book, baker Peter Reinhart's first book, Marimar Torres' second book and my first four.

Chenel's book is an exploration of American homestead cheese before the artisan movement had the momentum it does now. It is a lovely book, though, sadly, out of print. Each profile includes several recipes, some from the cheesemaker and some inspired by the cheese. This simple but yummy sandwich was inspired by the employee meals -- big chunks of Swiss cheese, onions and beer -- a cheesemaker in Ohio offered his staff.

The Steiner Sandwich

Makes 2 servings

1 small sweet onion, sliced into 4 rounds

2 tablespoons butter

2 slices rye bread

4 ounces Swiss cheese, thickly sliced

-- German or Dijon mustard, to taste

-- Freshly ground pepper, to taste

In a small pan over medium heat, saute the onion in the butter until just soft. Lightly toast the rye bread. Generously spread mustard on the bread. Place two sauteed onion rounds on each slice of bread. Top with the cheese.

Heat under the broiler until the cheese melts. Top with freshly ground pepper and accompany with a cold beer.

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