June 30, 2011
This post is all about indulgence. Please do not read it if you might be offended by descriptions of scandalous quantities of butter and sugar.
In my childhood eyes the main reason for bread to exist was that it was a convenient way to eat butter. Toast was preferred because it could absorb much more butter than plain bread. The bread and butter could then be covered with cheese, peanut butter, sugar, honey, or homemade jam – or just eaten as it was, dripping butter.
I came by my taste for butter honestly, by inheriting it. As a child on a Central Illinois corn farm, my mother used to sneak into the dairy room and eat butter straight from the dish. She rarely allowed her children sodas, and kept a watchful eye on the candy intake, but never seemed to mind how much butter we ate.
A grilled cheese sandwich was one way to maximize the butter quotient. Very early in our marriage, my husband Jim and I discovered that we both used the same simple recipe:
2 slices of bread
1 medium thick slice of cheese (cheddar, preferably)
As much butter as will conveniently stick to the bread
Preheat a heavy skillet to medium hot.
The secret to a great grilled cheese sandwich is to butter each slice on both sides. Butter the first slice on one side, place the buttered side onto the skillet, butter the other side, lay the cheese onto the buttered bread, butter one side of the top, lay the buttered side onto the cheese, and finally, butter the top side. Cover, and check after about two minutes and then more frequently to see when the bottom side is nicely browned. Then flip the sandwich over and brown the other side, which will take much less time. If it’s on the blackened side, give it to my husband Jim, who prefers his sandwich a bit charred. This is not in any way approved for people who want to watch cholesterol intake, but little can match it for indulgence a few times a year.
I thought everyone buttered both sides of the bread when making grilled cheese sandwiches, and so did Jim. It was one of the few things that he cooked, and he thought he learned the double-butter technique from his mother. But when he asked her some years ago how she made them, she told him that she only buttered one side. Of such mistakes, ambrosia is born.
Jim and I also, as it happened, had similar recipes for toast with cinnamon sugar:
Toast a couple of slices of bread. Spread on the butter until it has pooled on top of the toast. Pour on cinnamon sugar until the butter will no longer soak up any more. You should have a crust of sugar and butter about one-quarter of an inch thick. If there’s no cinnamon around, plain sugar is perfectly acceptable.
It’s entirely possible to eat bread and sugar without toasting the bread first – just layer on the butter and pour on the sugar until it starts falling off the bread. But the crispy bread and the melted butter mean that you can add more sugar. In my family, bread or toast and honey was equally desirable. If you put the honey on the bread first, it would soak in, and then you could add butter without the honey sliding off.
Toast with jam was also good, and because jam was mostly fruit, my mother allowed more of it. We spent our southwest Michigan summers picking and preserving fruits – strawberries, raspberries, cherries, peaches, plums, tomatoes, and grapes. The fruit went into a big pot, along with the sugar and the pectin; we stirred until it had boiled long enough; then skimmed the foam off the top, poured the preserves into jars, and topped them with a layer of paraffin. The light sweet foam could be eaten right away with bread and butter, and the jams were stored on wooden shelves in the basement for winter morning breakfasts. Luckily, we didn’t follow the White Queen’s rule, of “jam tomorrow and jam yesterday but never jam today;” we had jam every day until the supplies ran out and then we went back to toast and sugar until summer came around again.