This is part two of an ongoing series about recreating Café Mac dishes and experiences at home. Here is my introduction to this series and the first installment.
Recipe: Panini Press Grilled Cheese
Is there any presence at Café Mac more elusive than the panini press? This gem of an appliance disappeared for a long time, then made a rare coveted appearance this spring. Whenever it materialized, the panini press was a reminder of how close we are to animals as lines of hungry students snaked around the press. Anyone attempting to heat up a sandwich knew their creation would be coated with a thin layer of burnt cheese. It was never quite clear how some previous panini press user had managed to get so much cheese outside of their sandwich and straight onto the hot, hot metal of the press, but nonetheless it always happened. Although many types of sandwiches are made in the Café Mac panini press, I elect to go with the simple grilled cheese.
3 slices of cheese
2 slices of bread
Butter or olive oil
Heat up the panini press. Place one slice of cheese directly onto it. Close the panini press and let it get nice and burnt.
Spread olive oil and/or butter on both slices of bread. Create a sandwich with the remaining slices of cheese between the bread, olive oil or butter sides facing out.
Place the sandwich inside the panini press on top of the burnt cheese. It helps if there’s already a super thick sandwich in there so closing the panini press is impossible.
Leave to get something else for an arbitrary amount of time. Depending on the potency of your panini press, properly time it out so that when you return it is either completely untoasted or mostly burnt.
I thought it best to grill this cheese outside in order to minimize burnt cheese smell in my apartment. With the help of an extension cord, I brought my George Foreman grill out to the balcony. Though not exactly a panini press, I deemed this appliance close enough.
I’m not sure how the panini press at Café Mac got so much burnt cheese on it, but it turns out it wasn’t placing a whole slice of cheddar directly onto the metal and shutting it closed. This resulted in a crispy, burnt layer of cheese on the bottom of the George Foreman grill and a slightly greasy area on the top. Nonetheless, this imparted essential burnt cheese flavor onto the press.
As I brought my prepared sandwich outside, I noticed that the light on my George Foreman grill had turned off. I checked if it was on, then if it was plugged in, and lastly checked the extension cord. Unable to identify the problem, I quickly realized that this was the perfect plan. By cooking my grilled cheese with only residual heat, I could accurately recreate the undercooked quality that Café Mac grilled cheese so often had.
After a few minutes on the grill, my sandwich was complete. The side that had been touching the top looked like a fairly normal grilled cheese. The piece of bread that had been on top of the burnt cheese sheet, however, looked soggy and disgusting.
Although the sandwich looked pretty gross, it tasted fine enough. The burnt cheese flavor was subtle, but present. I ate some of it, and so did my roommate. It may be worth mentioning that we are both lactose intolerant. Ultimately, it was a below average grilled cheese but a pretty good time all around. I give it a 6/10 for flavor and a 9/10 for accuracy.
My panini press did not look exactly like its mythic counterpart at Café Mac, but the sandwich ended up being similarly fine-but-mildly-disappointing. If you also have nine dollars to burn on a George Foreman grill at Goodwill and are willing to deal with a memorable cleanup process, then you can get a very close approximation of this dining hall experience in your own home kitchen.