When I was a child, I loved it when my grandmother had parties because her cook always made cheese dreams, a mini cheese sandwich that was then dipped in a mixture of egg, milk, grated cheese, and spices, and then baked or broiled. They invariably flew off the serving trays, and even though I have never been able to approximate Ernestine's sublime recipe, I am a big proponent of grilled cheese sandwiches at the cocktail hour.
First of all, who doesn't love a grilled cheese? Secondly, they can be incredibly elegant. One of my favorite combos is grilled Comte (the superlative Gruyere cousin available at St. James Cheese Co.) on Very Thin Pepperidge Farm white or wheat bread with two whole sage leaves, so that when you cut the sandwich in rectangles for serving there's a leaf tucked inside each half.
I created the Grilled Devilled Crab and Cheese Sandwiches pictured above for an outdoor spring lunch in honor of some New York/Palm Beach friends who had never visited New Orleans. I wanted to showcase all our specialties, so we passed the sandwiches and fried oysters with Bloody Marys and Gin Fizzes, followed by the main course, a dark brown Duck and Andouille Sausage Gumbo served Cajun style with a mustardy potato salad rather than rice.
The sandwiches were an especially big hit and I've made them many times since. Another melted cheese and crab combo I love is Crab Mornay, the recipe for which is in my book Ham Biscuits, Hostess Gowns, and Other Southern Specialties, and which can be served in tiny puff pastry shells or in a chafing dish with toast points on the side.
Grilled Deviled Crab and Cheese Sandwiches
4 tablespoons butter (plus more for â€œgrilling”)
1 cup country ham, finely diced (you may substitute prosciutto)
1 cup finely chopped onion
¼ cup thinly sliced scallions
¾ cup heavy cream
¼ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1 teaspoon Tabasco
1 ½ teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
1 egg yolk
1 pound lump crabmeat, picked over and patted dry
2 teaspoons lemon juice
1 loaf Pepperidge Farm Very Thin Sliced White Bread
Melt the butter in a skillet over medium heat. Add the ham and fry for five minutes. Drain off all but 1 tablespoon of the fat. Add the onions, cover the pan, and cook until onions are soft, about 8 minutes. Uncover pan and add the green onions, cream, cheeses, Tabasco, and Worcestershire sauce, and stir until mixture is bubbling and thickened. Beat the egg yolk in a large bowl, add about a cup of the cream and cheese mixture, mix well, and add the rest. Toss the crab in the lemon juice and fold into the mixture. Refrigerate for at least one hour before making sandwiches.
For sandwiches: Cut crusts off bread, spread a layer of crab mixture between two slices, press together, and repeat. Melt a tablespoon of butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Places as many of the sandwiches in the skillet as it will hold. Press down lightly with a spatula and turn over after about a minute, or as soon as the underside is golden brown. Press down again, and remove when the flipside has browned, about another minute or less. Halve into triangles and serve immediately. You may keep the cooked sandwiches warm on a cookie sheet in a slow oven while you finish the rest.
[Note, as you cook, you will likely need to add more butter. If the butter gets too brown after a few batches, you may need to wipe out the pan and start over. Also, for an especially pretty look, chop parsley, chervil, or chives, or a mixture of all three, and dip the cut edges of the sandwiches in the chopped herbs before you put them on a tray for passing. Finally, either a Gruyere-like Comte or a sharp and creamy Cheddar like the Cabot Clothbound is perfect for this recipe. The addition of Parmesan lends a wonderful depth.]
Pictured above, from left:
A selection of cheeses from St. James Cheese Company, perfect for grilling and more; Julia’s Grilled Deviled Crab and Cheese Sandwiches.