I was paging through “Grilled Cheese Kitchen,” by Heidi Gibson with Nate Pollak (Chronicle Books, $19.95), months ago when a sandwich caught my eye. And not just any old sandwich, but one so outrageous — a three-layer tower of grilled cheese, some with bacon or jalapenos — that it shouted “must have” even though I had no immediate plans to invite 15-plus people over for sandwiches. I set the book aside for just the right occasion.
Needless to say, that occasion — the Big Game — is here. As hungry crowds gather around TVs all over the country, someone has to feed them. If you’re reading this, we’ll make an educated guess that the someone is you.
But first a few words about this delightful book, which notes that “Morning, noon, and night — any time is the right time for a grilled cheese sandwich.”
We have to agree, whether it’s for the book’s Sunday brunch grilled cheese (inspired by the classic Monte Cristo sandwich, with Brie, strawberries and brown sugar bourbon sauce), or a mushroom-Gruyère grilled cheese (shiitake, cremini and oyster mushrooms with Gruyère and leek) or the Moroccan chicken grilled cheese (chicken breast with ras el hanout and a green olive, artichoke and preserved lemon spread, along with Mahón cheese), all of which stretch the concept of “grilled cheese” to its most delicious limits. (And if there was ever an ingredient to stretch, it would be cheese.)
But back to the outrageous sandwich, the spectacular tower that the authors call the grilled cheese birthday cake. Yes, indeed, this is one to celebrate.
The tower sports three layers of gooey grilled cheese sandwiches, cut to fit inside nesting circles, in this case with the help of springform pans, although a careful cook could work without the safety net of those metal rings.
The key to success is to have help in the kitchen so that the sandwiches are served hot. This is most easily done with at least two cooks at the helm — and for the ingredients to be organized and in place for efficient assembly (bread buttered, bacon cooked and jalapenos sliced in advance).
The sandwiches are first popped into the oven to get the cheese to an initial state of melting, then they are plopped onto the griddle for a nice toasting on the exterior. The final step is to cut them quickly to fit their designated level on the tower.
Then it’s showtime, in all its extravagant glory, with a winner in the pantheon of sandwiches.
Super sandwich for the Super Bowl
Note: The authors call this a grilled cheese birthday cake, but we renamed it for the upcoming Big Game. You will want to serve this while the sandwiches are hot, and it helps to have more than one person in the kitchen assisting (two helpers are even better). You may want to ready the sandwiches a day in advance, before grilling. You will need three nested springform pans (about 6-, 8- and 10 inches in diameter), as well as three large baking sheets and an electric griddle or stovetop griddle pan. If you can find bread you like made in the round loaves called boules, they are easier to work with for this recipe because the curves of the bread fit into the springform pans nicely. Handle the chiles carefully with a gloved hand or fork and knife when scraping the interiors.
1 cup (2 sticks) salted butter, at room temperature
42 slices rustic artisan bread, such as sourdough, preferably cut from 5 to 6 round loaves
21 slices mild, medium or sharp cheddar cheese
21 slices Monterey Jack cheese
14 strips thick-sliced bacon, cooked until crisp and drained
2 jalapeno chiles, ribs and seeds removed, cut crosswise into slices about ¼-inch thick (see note)
1 can processed cheese spread with a decorative nozzle, any flavor (optional, but silly and fun)
Spread butter on 1 side of each bread slice, dividing it evenly. Place 10 slices, buttered-side down, on a clean cutting board or countertop. Place 1 slice cheddar, 1 slice Jack and another slice of bread, buttered-side up, on top of each. Move the 10 plain cheese sandwiches onto 1 of the baking sheets (crowd them if needed).
Place 7 pieces of bread, buttered-side down, on the cutting board. Place 1 slice cheddar, 2 strips bacon, 1 slice Jack and another slice of bread, buttered-side up, on top of each. Move the 7 bacon-cheese sandwiches onto second baking sheet.
Next place 4 pieces of bread, buttered-side down, on the cutting board. Place 1 slice cheddar, 3 or 4 rounds of jalapeno, 1 slice Jack, and another slice of bread, buttered-side up, on top of each. Move the jalapeno-cheese sandwiches onto third baking sheet. (At this point, you can wrap the baking sheets tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate for up to 1 day).
Serving day: Preheat oven to 350 degrees and preheat griddle to medium-high. While oven is heating, get your workspace ready for assembly. Have a spatula, clean cutting board and bread knife ready. Remove bottoms from all of the springform pans. Place a serving platter at least 12 inches in diameter nearby and place the large springform ring, snapped closed, on top of the serving platter. (Or just assemble on your serving surface.)
Place baking sheet with plain cheese sandwiches in oven and bake for 2 to 3 minutes, or until cheese begins to melt. (If the sandwiches came straight from the refrigerator, it may take another minute or two.) The bread will not be very brown, but don’t worry; this step is to get the cheese melting. Remove baking sheet from oven, set aside, and put the bacon sandwiches in oven for 2 to 3 minutes.
Meanwhile, move plain sandwiches to hot griddle. Watch sandwiches on griddle carefully; they will toast quickly, 30 to 60 seconds on first side. Turn and brown on second side, then transfer to cutting board. The bacon sandwiches should be coming out of the oven right about the time the plain sandwiches are coming off the griddle. When there is space on the griddle, add the bacon sandwiches, and place the jalapeno sandwiches in the oven for 2 to 3 minutes. Continue in this manner until all of the sandwiches have been baked and grilled.
Working quickly, fit about 4 whole, hot, plain grilled cheeses into largest springform ring, directly on serving platter. Cut pieces out of a fifth grilled cheese to fill in any sizable gaps in the first. (If you have helpers, one can tackle this step while someone else toasts the sandwiches on the griddle.) Repeat to make a second layer in the large springform ring with the remaining plain sandwiches. Arrange second layer so that the seams between individual sandwiches and pieces are offset. This should use up most or all of the 10 plain grilled cheeses.
Place the medium springform ring, snapped closed, directly on top of the assembled bottom layer, and then repeat this process to fill with the bacon sandwiches. Then place the smallest springform ring directly on top of the medium layer and repeat with the jalapeno sandwiches.
Unlatch the smallest springform ring to widen it and carefully lift it off the top layer. Then unlatch and remove the middle ring, and finally remove the bottom ring. Tuck in any sandwich pieces that become dislodged. If desired, decorate “cake” with the processed cheese spread (florets on each layer are easiest).
Serve immediately, but don’t cut the cake — tell your guests to pull out the piece they want. Serves 15 to 20.
— From “Grilled Cheese Kitchen,” by Heidi Gibson, with Nate Pollak.