Happiness comes in many forms: grated, shredded, sliced, diced, and melted are just a few. Over the weekend, I found Cheesus and praise be; it was a very spiritual experience, almost like my very own, Eat, Pray, Love right in Troy, NY. And it wasn’t just me; everyone was cheesin’ at Melt N’ Toast: the Capital Region’s first annual Grilled Cheese Festival, held at Takk House in downtown Troy, NY.
(There’s nothin’ cheesy about that place though, let me tell you!)
Troy loves to Pig Out on BBQ, and lest we forget the variety of Chowerfests, Soup Strolls, and Wing Walks popping up in the Capital Region (at least we’re getting in our cardio right?). But there’s a new sheriff in (flavor)town who’s ready to give Chester Cheeto a run for his money and leave you feeling all sorts of warm and toasty, and your insides ooey gooey.
Enter grilled cheese, perhaps the most underrepresented item within the food fest circuit. It’s the perfect age appropriate snack for six year-olds (no crust, please!) and sophisticated adults alike, and it finally had its moment to ooze in the spotlight at Melt N’ Toast over the weekend, as hundreds of enthusiasts nomnomnom’d their way through the pop-up grilled cheese maze, vying to try about 20 different grown-ass recipes.
These were not the white bread, single slice cheese sandwiches of your childhood, either. I’m talking about high quality cheese, ingredients and/or flavor combos that make you go, “Hmmm?” And it’s proof that with just a little creativity, grilled cheese can morph from a quick and simple midnight snack or sidekick soup dipper to a glorious standalone cheese meal worthy of lunch or dinner.
You kinda know before you even bite into a grilled cheese whether it’s going to be transcendent or not. In a really good one, the cheese slowly oozes from the edges. The bread’s face is an even golden brown that’s suffused with butter. Pick it up and you can feel the butter in the bread (but it doesn’t leave your fingers greasy—at least, not too greasy), while the crust is crisp yet flexes ever so slightly, revealing a layer of tender crumb underneath.
And that’s all before you shove that glorious medley of textures and tastes into your mouth.
So, back to the cheese whizzes: there were eight official vendors, but twenty different types of grilled cheese sandwiches. You don’t have to be a Einstein to crunch those numbers and realize that the math just doesn’t add up, and that’s because in addition to creating and serving one grilled cheese sandwich/recipe for its official festival entry, each kitchen was grilling up a few additional concoctions for us to taste and really make sure we earn that heart attack down the road.
Speaking of heart health, bacon is my jam, and The Cheese Traveler must have seen me coming because one of their recipes was created with my arteries in mind. While they were grilling up three different sammies, I was immediately intrigued with “The Classic,” a sizzling little number featuring a housemade cheese blend, bacon, and a housemade bacon jam. Yeah. Just think about that. Not only does their name hint to the fact they know what they’re doing in the cheese department (hello, they have cheese mongers!), but they didn’t go bacon my heart because they nailed the bacon jam, too. These guys have an amazing cheese shop/specialty grocery store on Delaware Avenue in Albany, and while any time of year is a great time of year for cheese, they host weekly Friday Night Cookouts during grilling season (May-September), and I highly suggest getting in on some of those weekly hot from the grill dinners.
Jam appeared to be a key ingredient of the day, as Slidin’ Dirty came through with a grilled cheese inspired by the classic BLT. In true Slidin’ fashion, they kept it dirty and retained elements of their famous menu, using chipotle cream cheese and brioche bread, but dressed things up a bit by adding a homemade tomato jam to the mix that brought a nice strong flavor and texture. I’m also loving the mother-son bonding goin’ on here – it melts my heart and serves as a reminder to us all that you slide or die for family.
The third and final jam that had my tastebuds groovin’ came from Dinner Demons, the culinary counterpart to The Beer Diviner’s brews. They whipped up two recipes, and the “Hell Burger Helper,” had a smearing of pepper jam on the other side of its buttery crust which gave the sandwich a hot take and a sweet and spicy kick. Furthermore, I learned that the “Hell Burger Helper’s” burger meat was locally sourced, and the cows are actually fed the spent grain leftover from The Beer Diviner’s brew cycles. This grilled cheese was decidedly yummy and unique, and I really liked the whole, “Circle of Life,” vibe it had going on. And the pepper jam.
Pro Tip: Anything that works well on your cheese plate will work well in a grilled cheese.
I have to give a shoutout to Merv from Merv’s Meatless for creating the best faux cheese I’ve ever had! Proof that you don’t have to be vegan to like vegan food. It was a smoked cashew butter cheese that was extremely flavorful and had a really creamy quality to it. I don’t normally eat vegan cheese, like ever, but this one was pretty impressive and one that I’d definitely go out of my way to try again. Not only did I try a grilled cheese hot off the grill, but I also found a way to get my mac ‘n cheese on by purchasing a cup of his homemade vegan cheese blend. I could eat it by the bucketloads, so kudos to the little vegan cheese that could, holding its own in a sea of dairy.
Muddaddy Flats, Troy’s chief quesadilla architect, didn’t disappoint, and even though they were grilling their usual tortillas in lieu of a more traditional, gluten-riddled bread, their red wine poached pears were out of this world! They were so dark and red in color I thought they were beets, but if poached pears aren’t your thing, in queso emergency, their Heart Attack Mac Quesadilla delivers on it name.
I could go on and on about all the grate grilled cheese sandwiches I devoured at the festival, but I Havarti run of out time.
Who knew a spot called Fresh Greens at the Park would be the Big Cheese of the day, winning both Judges’ Choice and People’s Choice awards. I guess you really can’t judge a book by it’s cover, huh? This winning recipe might best be described as a, “white pizza grilled cheese,” and while all the ingredients are pretty common in most kitchen pantries and supermarket aisles – provolone, basil, balsamic glaze – the game-changer with this one was the smear of cream cheese on the inside and an herbed garlic butter spread that was seared into the grilled white bread. The creamy, fluffy cream cheese melted into the toasted bread to make every bite taste like a cloud! When I asked Andrew, who served me a toasty sample right off the grill, what he thought was so special about this particular recipe, he said, “it’s unexpected.”
Being crowned the cheesiest was just the icing on the (wedding) cake for owner Shawn Starring, as he had a solid back up plan to ease the pain of a potential loss. “When I woke up Saturday morning, all I wanted to do was two things. One: win the first ever grilled cheese competition in the Capital Region. Two: marry the love of my life. I can’t say it all went perfect, and many people thought I was crazy for doing anything else on my wedding day. It was an awesome wedding gift to be granted both People’s and Judge’s Cheese. Add to that a great night out with my close family following the wedding ceremony and I couldn’t be happier. Looking forward to next year’s Melt N’ Toast. Until then, keep it cheesy Capital Region.” (you heard the man!)
The $40 entry fee included a drink token and ten tickets for ten quarter sandwich-sized grilled cheese samples; collectively they served as my very own Wonka’s Golden Ticket for the day, so step aside, Charlie Bucket and Grandpa Joe, ’cause you ain’t got nothin’ on me!
Does life get much better than gooey melted cheese on golden, buttery bread? I think not. However, it can be a bit more interesting, and even though you can’t revise your childhood, your therapist would agree that you’re free to revamp your favorite grilled cheese sandwiches to your heart’s content, and sometimes that’s the only therapy we really need. Cheese be with you.
Stay tuned for future Melt n’ Toasts
, which plan on hosting these cheesy events all over upstate New York, including an encore next year right here in the Capital Region.
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