It started as a joke, a link sent to me by a cheese-loving friend along with the word, ‘drool’. I clicked the link and read the headline, ‘Making of a Signature Drink: Beecher’s Grilled Cheese Martini’… wait, what? I read it again. Was this for real? I read through the article, my face contorting into an expression of great confusion. This was apparently a not-so-secret-anymore off-menu drink to be found at Beecher’s Cheese Kitchen in New York. It was… bizarre, to say the least. I wasn’t sure if I was turned on or disgusted but I knew one thing: I was going to have to make it.
Some people’s love of cheese bars all else. I err on the side of caution when it comes to my fromage, choosing something mild over something too feet-like every time. In fact, it wasn’t until I was in my mid-teens that I actually started to appreciate cheese on its own – before that point I had only ever had it melted on a pizza or in a toastie (grilled cheese).
I remember the day I tried mozzarella. Every Boxing Day my parents would take us to Wentworth Golf Club – where my father was, and still is, a member – for a buffet lunch. It was huge and we always stuffed ourselves silly and then passed into sweet food coma for the next day and a half. My brother was all about the cheese and would pass through the cold cuts section like a ravenous beast, his plate piled high with meats and cheeses. I often wasn’t sure what to have and would just follow him, taking a little of this and a little of that. I took the caprese salad by mistake: thickly sliced mozzarella served with juicy tomato slices and drizzles of pesto. Oh well, it was too late now and I may as well eat it: I took my first bite. It wasn’t that bad. I took my second. It was actually good. I took my third. No, I loved this. This was amazing. I was sold on mozzarella but other cheeses I still wasn’t a huge fan.
It took a dinner party at a friend’s house when I was 18 to sell me on goat’s cheese. My friend had prepared garlicky goat’s cheese laden bruschetta as a starter and, not wanting to be rude, I tried a piece. It was like an explosion of flavour in my mouth – the warm tomatoes and spicy garlic, paired with the salty tang of the goat’s cheese, it was pure magic; I never looked back.
These days the only cheese I am not a fan of is blue cheese. I hate the aftertaste that lingers in your mouth, the smell that reminds me of old tennis shoes and the tangy assault upon my palate. The only exception I will make is to pair a mild blue brie with figs and red wine, a treat introduced to me by a friend.
But how about the humble grilled cheese sandwich? I always think of this as much more of an American thing – to pair it with tomato soup is definitely not something I did as a child (but did subsequently as an adult), but a ham and cheese toastie for lunch was. Either way, there’s something incredibly satisfying about sandwiching a hefty slab of cheese between two slices of heavily buttered (white) bread and then sticking it into the pan, the panini toaster or the oven until the cheese bubbles and the bread has turned a beautiful golden hue, oozing grease and crunchy in texture. Yes, this is comfort, food to be enjoyed on a rainy day or a cold evening.
How, then, does one get the idea to turn this into a cocktail? You’ve either got to be completely mad or a total genius, maybe a little of both. Kurt Dammeier, the owner-chef at Beecher’s, is definitely a cross between the two but more than that I loved his extremely straight-forward approach to making his martini: grill a couple of sandwiches, immerse in vodka for 24-hours. Done.
Of course, it’s a little more than that. The collaborative efforts of the staff saw the addition of a tomato ice-cube, a little muddled basil and a balsamic reduction topped with crunchy pancetta pieces on the rim of the glass. In other words: soup and a sandwich in a glass. How could I resist?
My own version of the martini used Absolut vodka instead of Beecher’s, added a shot of dry vermouth and omitted the vine-ripe tomatoes and tomato juice that the original adds to the cocktail shaker, then topped the concoction with frozen tomato juice cubes. I also fried, rather than baked, the pancetta strip, patted it down with paper towel to rid it of excess grease, and then crumbled it with my fingers. And the taste? Well it is very odd… but odd in a way that makes you kind of want another and another. The savoury works in a way that it really shouldn’t but hey, who am I to question it? I’ll just drink it.
THE GRILLED CHEESE MARTINI
Based on the off-menu drink at Beecher’s Cheese Kitchen, NYC.
For the grilled cheese:
2 slices medium-sliced white bread (of your choice), per person
1-2 slices of cheddar (of your choice), per person
For the martini:
65-70 ml vodka (of your choice), per person
1 shot dry vermouth (of your choice), per person (feel free to mix this up as you will – it’s your drink! If you like it a little more dry or a little less adapt as necessary)
3-4 large leaves basil, per person
1/3 slice of pancetta, per person
Panini press (optional)
Tupperware container with lid, big enough to hold the finished grilled cheese sandwich
1. Make the tomato ice cubes: pour the tomato juice into an ice-cube tray and freeze overnight, or for at least 6-8 hours.
2. Make the grilled cheese sandwich: liberally butter both sides of the bread, sandwich with the cheddar and grill either in a pan, oven or panini press for 2-3 mins each side, or until the cheese is bubbly and the bread golden and crisp. I like to use my press for this because it means both sides cook evenly without me having to flip the sandwich, but you can very easily do it in a pan or the oven, instead. Just keep an eye on it and flip it halfway through cooking.
3. Pop the grilled cheese into the tupperware container and top up with vodka. Put the lid on and place in the fridge to marinade for 24-hours.
4. When ready to assemble: pop your martini glasses into the freezer whilst preparing everything for assembly. Remove the grilled cheese and vodka tupperware container and strain the liquid through the cheesecloth into another container, bottle or measuring jug. I made enough vodka for a few martinis and so strained it into a bottle and put it in the fridge. You may want to double strain, depending on how your vodka looks. Set aside.
5. In a saucepan or griddle over a medium-high heat, pour the balsamic vinegar and reduce. It should take about 2 minutes and you generally need about four times as much vinegar than your intended end product. You don’t need too much for this – about 2 tbsps will be enough for four glasses. Keep an eye on it – when it bubbles furious turn the heat down to low. When the balsamic has reduced to your desired thickness, pour it onto a plate and wipe the pan clean.
6. Fry the pancetta strips in the same pan over a medium heat, turning halfway through, until crispy. You don’t need to add any oil – the fat in the pancetta will fry it very nicely. When crisp, remove to a plate lined with paper towels and dab of excess oil. Crumble with your fingers.
7. Remove the glasses from the freezer and roll a section of the rim into the balsamic reduction and then the pancetta crumbles. Set aside.
8. Fill the cocktail shaker with basil (muddled with a spoon), ice, vodka and vermouth, pop the top on and give it a vigorous 3-4 shakes. Pour through the strainer into the martini glasses and finish with one of the tomato ice-cubes.
9. Serve, savour and enjoy.
If you have a go at this – or even try the original at Beecher’s – be sure to drop me a line and let me know.
Until next time, peace and love.