When Melody Fitzgerald landed her first pastry-chef job, she found herself working up to 16-hour days.
Though she loved this learning opportunity -- and its setting, in a beautifully wooded area of Maine, where she was fortunate enough to meet Julia Child -- she was exhausted and homesick for her husband, Daniel, who was finishing his business degree back in Arlington. Her daily therapy? Grilled cheese sandwiches.
"When I'd get home from work, I'd make a different grilled cheese sandwich every day," says Fitzgerald, who now owns Southern Breeze Market Cafe in Keller with her husband. "I've always been pretty obsessed with grilled cheese. It's comforting."
Most of us can relate to the sentimental attachment to a sandwich from our growing-up years, and it's no wonder that with the culture's growing embrace of comfort food -- and the need of many to eat at least somewhat inexpensively -- the humble sandwich has returned to widespread popularity. An especially successful show on the Food Network remains Sandwich King, in which host Jeff Mauro proves that a sandwich can be a fully realized meal.
In talking to local chefs about sandwiches, we found that, like Fitzgerald, they enjoy bringing their long-ago favorites into their modern menus with a few contemporary twists.
A Southern update
Fitzgerald's passion for the foods of her childhood, in fact, inspired her calling.
"The way I became a pastry chef in the first place is having made biscuits with my grandmother. We spent a lot of time baking together, and she let me start testing new recipes in her kitchen," says Fitzgerald, who now works with the rolling pins once used by her late grandmother.
At Southern Breeze, Fitzgerald features a sandwichlike offering of sweet potato biscuits with ham and honey butter, as well as a variation on the pimento-cheese sandwich of her youth. There's almost nothing on the menu to which she doesn't have a personal attachment.
Grown-up tomato sandwich
Dena Peterson, executive chef at Café Modern inside the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, recalls the joy of putting one of summer's jewels between two slices of bread.
"Growing up, I ate a lot of tomato sandwiches, but it was the very simple kind, on squishy white bread with mayonnaise, salt and pepper," says Peterson, who offers a number of sandwiches on her menu today, including a healthy crunchy veggie sandwich with hummus and feta on nine-grain bread.
To update her beloved tomato sandwich, however, she chooses a crustier white bread, such as a sourdough or pain de campagne, "that won't stick to the roof of my mouth," she says, laughing. She likes to slice local tomatoes, such as those from Scott Farms, west of Fort Worth, and add a local goat cheese or cambozola (triple cream, blue-veined cheese), fresh herbs, and kosher salt and coarsely ground black pepper.
A better breakfast sandwich
Nearby at Swiss Pastry Shop in Fort Worth, owner and baker Hans Peter Muller has acquainted legions of his cafe fans with the breakfast sandwich that comes from one of his favorite childhood memories. When he inherited the bakery from his Swiss-born dad, Hans Muller, about 10 years ago, Hans Peter added the croissant sandwich to the menu.
"It's part of my teenage memories that Dad, who was married to the bakery, was an amazing chef. Dad doesn't say much anymore. He's in a nursing home with dementia. But he always was a man of few words. Hans Muller let his baking doing the talking," the younger Muller says. "I enjoyed Sunday-morning breakfasts because he was actually around and not in a hurry. He used to make a simple sandwich, a breakfast croissant, and it was always perfect."
Here are the updated renditions of these longtime favorites. Interestingly, each chef offered a warm version, and that speaks volumes. Try the sandwiches to revive good memories, and maybe even start new traditions for your family.
Southern grilled pimento cheese & bacon sandwiches
Melody Fitzgerald, co-chef and owner at Southern Breeze in Keller, says to use real butter when toasting the French bread slices in your skillet. The pimento cheese should be “slightly melting but not completely melted,” too.
4 slices French bread
1 1/3 cups pimento cheese (recipe follows)
2 to 4 slices bacon, cooked crisp
2 tablespoons butter
1. Spread about 1/3 cup pimiento cheese on each slice of bread. Place bacon in the center and put slices of spread bread together, making two sandwiches.
2. Melt butter in a large skillet on medium-high, and place sandwich in pan, toasting both sides. Cut each sandwich in half. Serve warm.
Nutritional information per serving: 599 calories, 48 grams fat, 28 grams carbohydrates, 17 grams protein, 88 milligrams cholesterol, 907 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber, 70 percent of calories from fat.
— Southern Breeze Market Cafe, 138 Olive St., Keller, 817-337-5177; www.southernbreezemarketcafe.com
4 slices crusty bread, such as baguette or pain de campagne
1/2 tablespoon olive oil
2 ripe farmers market tomatoes or heirloom varieties, cut into slices (in this case, Scott Farms tomatoes and yellow beefsteak tomatoes)
4 ounces (about 1/2 cup) cambozola cheese
Fresh dill sprigs
Cracked black pepper
Brush bread lightly with olive oil. Lightly toast under the broiler on both sides. Top bread with tomato slices and cheese. Return to broiler and cook until cheese melts. Remove from broiler and sprinkle with chopped dill and cracked black pepper.
Nutritional information per serving: 363 calories, 19 grams fat, 32 grams carbohydrates, 17 grams protein, 41 milligrams cholesterol, 793 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber, 47 percent of calories from fat.
Hans' breakfast croissant
Hans Peter Muller likes to use pungent cheeses, in the Swiss fashion. "If your kitchen doesn't stink, you're using the wrong cheese," he says. "To fancy it up, I've been known to sauté some sliced button mushrooms and wilt a little spinach for color and flavor, but you can add fresh arugula, heirloom tomatoes or whatever is fresh, local and in season." He thinks this sandwich is best served with mimosas.
4 to 6 thin slices smoked Black Forest ham
2 to 3 teaspoons butter
2 freshly baked croissant rolls
4 slices Swiss cheese, preferably cave-aged gruyere or Appenzeller
3 to 4 teaspoons mayonnaise
2 to 4 eggs, scrambled until fluffy
1. Sauté ham in a pan with butter.
2. Slice croissants and toast under a broiler.
3. Building on the croissant bottom, add cheese and return to oven to broil until bubbly.
4. Spread mayonnaise on the croissant tops. Add ham and eggs atop the bubbly cheese and top with the other croissant halves.
Nutritional information per serving: 651 calories, 42 grams fat, 28 grams carbohydrates, 37 grams protein, 345 milligrams cholesterol, 1,480 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber, 59 percent of calories from fat.