It's such a classic American food combination that it's practically a cliché.
The CC was desperately craving it on today's dark and stormy morning and nothing else would do. Even if the ingredients were not already present, he would've braved the elements to get them. Cravings will do that.
Recipes follow but first we are going to discuss the origins of the dish and what makes it so "classic".
The easier part to start with is the "grilled cheese". While toasted bread and melted cheese and the combination go back into antiquity — we have evidence since at least Roman times — the modern incarnation dates back to 1920's America.
America has consistently been a leader in food technology of both the wildly innovative variety (and it's dark sinister underbelly) since its beginnings. Everything from grain silos to rail transportation that allowed it to supply Midwestern grain to 19th-century Europe cheaper than it could manufacture itself speaks to the country's muscular prowess in food innovation.
The innovation in this case was two-fold.
One was the invention of bread-slicing machines by Otto Rohwedder of Iowa. The other was the invention of processed cheese patented by James Kraft. Cheese went from a perishable product to something that could be canned. (The CC has a strong memory of opening a can of Kraft cheese sometime in his childhood.)
The eponym "grilled cheese" didn't exist till the 1960's or so. It was all "toasted cheese sandwich" or "melted cheese sandwich" before that. The origins are ancient, remember? It's just the speed of preparation that was new.
The popularity really took off after the Kraft corporation invented "Singles" sometime in the late-1940's but it really took off when supermarkets stocked them in the mid-1960's. The convenience factor took off.
And thus the grilled cheese became the best invention since sliced bread (sic).
You can guess where the rest of the story is going.
Tomato soup is also a reasonably classic idea. It just follows the template of most vegetable soups from ancient times even though the tomato is a New World product. The difference between other soups and that of the tomato is its absurd umami. Its popularity is entirely unsurprising.
The popularity comes from the innovations and marketing efforts of the Campbell Soup Company. It became something that you didn't have to work too hard. You just had to open a can and heat it up. Convenience once again.
But what about the combination? Why does it work?
You could argue that it is "comfort food" but then that begs the question, "What makes comfort food comforting in the first place?"
We have a partial answer to that. As a general rule, comfort food is high in carbohydrates and fats.
This dish doesn't follow that template directly. For starters, the cheese has proteins and the soup is made with stock. The bread is insubstantial compared to the "high protein" factor.
Comfort food also has a strong "memory factor" as being something from your childhood that you loved which also brings us to the analogous question, "Why did you love it in your childhood in the first place?"
Chez CC, we are strong believers in ur-reasons not reasons which just push along one concept in favor of a differently named one thus passing the buck but explaining absolutely nothing.
The "magic" of the combination comes from three factors.
Firstly, the absurd interplay of umami between three ingredients — the cheese, the tomatoes and the stock that is used to make it. As we have noted, the combined umami coming from animal products and from vegetable products has an amplifying effect. In this case, the cheese and stock on one hand and the tomatoes on the other.
There are specialized umami receptors on our tongues and if they fire at some response from either cheese or tomato they will fire between 15-20x that amount at the combination. The sum is greater than the parts. You will perceive the combination to be extraordinarily savory.
Secondly, there is still the high-ish carbohydrate and fat factor which definitely makes the dish appealing. Also, there's the combination of salty cheese, sweet and sour tomatoes. Your taste buds are firing from a lot of combinations.
Lastly, it's the textural interplay. The toasted crunchy bread, the ooey-gooey melted cheese and the wet tomato soup. They each play a role. No two bites will be exactly alike just because of the variation in dunking time and eating time. Each bite is just slightly different enough to provide and sustain interest.
Children would particularly appreciate the dish since it doesn't have any bitter elements at all. This is what most likely accounts for the memory factor.
These days we have come full circle from the production of these dishes. We balk at opening a can for the soup or using crappy cheese and the dish isn't even hard to make. It took the CC no more than 30 minutes. Of course, we have the modern-day convenience of immersion blenders, dishwashers, and the like.
To understand the seemingly-backward nature of this, you'd have to first understand that the three products talked about above were very different 70 years than they are today. The tomato soup was really tomato, broth, salt and pepper. The breads had long fermentations. The cheese was actually cheese. There were no preservatives and the shelf-life was similarly constrained. As time went on the products just got worse and worse and today it bears no resemblance whatsoever to its original conception.
And hence it's back to the past.
The CC is not a purist. The tomatoes came from a can but they were real tomatoes and salt. Nothing else. The bread is one made with a long ferment but it's a standard Pullman bread. The cheese is the only place where the CC went "fancy" but that's because he had all three in his refrigerator.
The recipe is going to be exactly as good as the ingredients that go into it. Even poor ingredients will make it work but good ones will turn it into magic.
The combination is exactly as magical as the CC remembers it.
l large onion (or 4 shallots)
4 cloves garlic
1 32-oz San-Marzano canned tomatoes
4 cups chicken stock (read notes below for substitutions)
2 tbsp. unsalted cultured butter
2 tbsp. olive oil
1 sprig sage
sugar (optional - read below!)
Heat up the butter and olive oil at medium heat. Sautée the onions and garlic in them for about 6-7 minutes. Add the tomatoes, sage and the broth and bring to a low simmer. Add salt and pepper.
Skim the fat as it comes to the surface. Let it cook for about 20 minutes.
Using an immersion blender, purée the mixture.
Taste it. You may need to add a little sugar to balance the acidity of the tomatoes. Also additional salt and pepper. You may also need to thin the soup a little using some water. You can prepare it until this point ahead of time.
Reheat and bring it to a boil again. Serve.
Note: If you are vegetarian, instead of chicken stock, you must make a quick Japanese dashi using just kombu. You absolutely need the umami. Plain water is not going to cut it and vegetable broth would change the flavor towards a more bitter element which is not what you want either.
8 slices of good bread
1/2 cup cheddar
1/2 cup parmigiano-reggiano
1 cup gruyère
salted cultured butter
Note: The tomato soup calls for unsalted cultured butter but this one calls for the salted variety. Just sprinkle salt on the buttered side otherwise. Yes, the CC demands some perfection.
Shred the cheese using a grater.
Classically, this is made using a skillet but it's time-consuming work. The oven works just as well for a larger crowd.
Preheat the oven to 350°F.
Butter one side of each of the 8 slices of bread. Assemble them on a baking sheet. Between two slices you put in the grated cheese. The buttered slices are on the outside. Yes, this is messy work.
Put the pan in the oven for 10 minutes.
At the ten-minute mark, flip each of the sandwiches and put them back in the oven for 6 minutes.
Slice them diagonally. Yes, this matters. It makes the dunking work in a clean and elegant fashion.
(Sorry Mom, you are still not forgiven for slicing it wrong occasionally but you need to know that the CC had good intuition even as a kid but now can express the same fact analytically.)