A Culinary Pilgrimage

It’s odd how strands of ones life come together.  The other day Scott Heimendinger, the The Bon Ton Cafe's Crab au Gratin, one of the first pics taken with my cell phone cameraSeattle Food Geek, tweeted “Every time someone says ‘American cheese’ and they aren’t referring to the entire set of cheeses made in the US, I die a little inside.”

Wow.  Really?  Where’s that coming from? Scott has one of the most delightfully tweaky and geeky food blogs out there.

He amazed the culinary hobbyist world with his plans for a do it yourself sous vide machine that might be assembled for $75.  He works for Modernist Cuisine, so it’s not like Scott is opposed to processing, or processed, food.  I mean, someone who has angst over where he’ll find 7 liters of liquid nitrogen on Saturday or is excited about using an ultrasonic cell disruptor isn’t afraid to process some food.

Maybe it’s not that the food is processed that is the issue, but that it isn’t very good.  And, sadly, most American Cheese isn’t very good.  Even though we’re cheese snobs, we love American Cheese.  Sometimes, American Cheese IS the right cheese for the job!

Of course, you have to get past the yellow stuff wrapped in individual slices.  Go for the white stuff. Two that are consistently good are Boar’s Head and Land’O’Lakes,  My real love affair with American Cheese began with the “Cheesy” episode of the Food Network’s “The Best Thing I Ever Ate” in which Chef John Besh swooned over the Crab au Gratin at The Bon Ton Café in New Orleans.  He talked about how it was the best overindulgence he could imagine, and had a near orgasmic experience with the dish.  He speculated about the cheeses in the dish, naming five or six nice cheeses.  When he asked the waiter to confirm his guesses, the waiter chuckled and said, “No, only American Cheese”.  John had his doubts, but the waiter produced an ingredient list from the chef.

About a year later, I was in New Orleans and made the pilgrimage.to the Bon Ton Café.  If The Bon Ton Cafeanything, John understated the wonderfulness of the dish.  My toes curled.  I made noises like Sally in the (in)famous restaurant scene.  It was that good.

I was so enamored of the dish that I had it a few days later at the Crescent City Brewpub.  It was made with a decent cheddar cheese, and that is where I learned how important it is to use American Cheese in this dish.  The cheddar overwhelmed the crab.  With cheddar cheese, it was a cheddar cheese dish. It was decent, and if I hadn’t had the Bon Ton’s version, I’d have really liked Crescent City’s version.  With the American Cheese used at the Bon Ton, the dish was in beautiful harmony.

I knew I had to make the Bon Ton’s version of that dish at home!  I hit the ‘net and Googled for recipes.  I tried and discarded several, and then modified one.  At first I had thought that the original recipe had some mushrooms in it, but finally realized that was just darker lumps of crab.  I think this is close.  I need to go back to the Bon Ton and try theirs again.

So, with no further ado, here it is:

Crabmeat Au Gratin

3 TBSP Butter
3 TBSP Flour
1/8 tsp White pepper
1/4 tsp Salt
1 1/2 c Half-and-half
1 1/2 Jiggers dry sherry
1 dash Cayenne pepper
1/2 lb  Grated American cheese
1/2 lb lump blue crab meat  (you can use less expensive crab meat if your budget is tight)
Buttered bread crumbs
2 tb Grated American cheese for topping
Minced parsley (optional)

Preheat oven to 450F

Melt butter in a saucepan; remove from heat and add flour, salt and pepper.  Blend in hot half and half, stirring all the time.

Return to heat and stir until it forms a nice cream sauce.

Add dry sherry and cayenne pepper.

Stir in cheese. Stir until the cheese has melted into the sauce.

Add the crab meat; combine gently so as not to break up the lumps of crab meat.

Spoon into a casserole or individual ramekins (I prefer the individual ramekins).

Sprinkle with buttered bread crumbs and a bit of grated cheese.

Run into a hot oven for about 10 minutes or until cheese on top melts, bubbles and browns.  Top with parsley before serving, if desired.

Every time I’ve had, and made, this dish I thought the sauce was too thin when it was served.  But as it cooled it thickened and was just right.  Serve it with a garden salad, a crisp white wine and some nice bread.  I think you’ll see American Cheese in a new light.


And Scott – I hope this didn’t kill you man.  Really!

13 thoughts on “A Culinary Pilgrimage

  1. Hi Mike,

    I think I owe you an explination…. 🙂

    I was ordering a sandwich at Subway on a quick lunch break from work and the sandwich lady asked what kind of cheese I wanted. Apparently, the white, taste-free triangular slices served at Subway are called “American cheese”. Here’s my problem… there are hundreds – perhaps thousands – of incredible cheeses produced domestically. These cheeses vary in style from soft, rich, spreadable cheeses to firm, sharp aged cheeses, to blue, to smoked, to feta-style, to yogurt-style, to unpasteurized, to goat, to sheep, to god knows what else. In the Pacific Northwest alone, I can count nearly a dozen cheeses that I absolutely love, including Dinah’s Cheese from Vashon Island, Rogue River cheeses from Oregon, and even Tillamook, which is the archtypal cheddar for a grilled burger, in my opinion.

    So why, with all the wonderful variety of cheeses produced in the United States, should we even _have_ a cheese style called “American”? I’m unaware of any cheese labeled “French Cheese” or “Italian Cheese”, and the term “Swiss Cheese” is an American convention, not a Swiss one.

    The reason this term makes me die a little inside – OK, perhaps I was being a tad melodramatic 🙂 – is that it reinforces the notion that so many Americans’ food _only_ comes from industrial-scale sources. Using the term “American Cheese” to describe the pasty, bland stuff at Subway is insulting to all those other American cheeses that are made with care.

    However, I’ll concede that the cheese genre we choose to call “American” may include some tasty, well made cheeses. There’s nothing wrong with the genre of semi-firm, mild cow’s milk cheeses, and while I haven’t gone out of my way to seek great examples, I have to assume they exist. You can make a great cheese in any style, I just wish we didn’t call that particular style “American”.

    Those awful “American Cheese” slices at Subway are good for one thing, though: calculating the speed of light. http://seattlefoodgeek.com/2011/01/modernist-cuisine-geeky-food-trick-calculating-the-speed-of-light-with-kraft-singles-and-your-microwave/

  2. Thanks for taking the time to weigh in Scott!

    Indeed, there is an amazingly wide range of cheeses made in America that are as good as any made anywhere.

    Every year Scardello’s cheese shop here in Dallas has a Tour du Fromage which in a light-hearted (but double blind) way tries to find which country, and region, makes the best cheeses in the world. It’s handled like a single elimination tournament with different countries and regions competing. Last year the final tournament was New England versus England. New England won. Interestingly a number of the judges were British and “knew” that England would win.

    Rich Cheddar, stunning blues, creamy bries, mind blowing goat cheeses and many, many more kinds of superb cheeses are made in the USA. All these cheeses are great by themselves, or as ingredients where they are a key flavor ingredient. Sometimes though, you really need a character actor who is content to quietly play a role instead of a megastar who has to be the center of the scene.

    A traditional or “deluxe” American cheese can nicely fill that role.

    There is an enlightening discussion of American Cheese and why it’s called that at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_cheese

    As big a question is, of course, why that stuff at Subway is called cheese at all. It probably isn’t, not in any real sense.

    Subway American Cheese ingredients, from fastfoodingredients.com:
    Cultured milk and skim milk, water, cream, sodium citrate, salt, sodium phosphate, sorbic acid (preservative), citric acid, acetic acid, enzymes, lecithin.

    Cheddar cheese ingredients, from tillamook.com:
    Cultured Milk, Salt, Enzymes, Annatto (color).

    Its not that it’s processed that bothers me, but that it’s so poorly processed.

  3. Okay then Mike, what specific cheese DID you actually use in that crabmeat au gratin? (E.g., if Tillamook cheddar, which one?)

    • Either Land’o’Lakes White American Cheese or Boars Head White American Cheese. I wouldn’t want these cheeses to nibble on with a beer or glass of wine, but they are just right for this dish.

  4. The time we had it with cheddar cheese it was made by the folks at the Crescent City Brewhouse, so we had no control over the cheese and no real way to find out what it was. It was, however, a fairly mild cheddar and it still overwhelmed the crab. It’s a question of balance and vision. What do you want the dish to taste like.

    It’s not that the dish was bad with cheddar, but we really couldn’t taste the crab. And given the price of even mediocre crab meat, there’s not much point in having crab meat au gratin if you can’t taste the crab meat.

    We have used both Land o’lakes and Boarshead white American cheese with good results. Buy a block and grate it yourself.


  5. The other day I finally saw the show THE BEST THING I EVER ATE with Cheese. John Besh went to the Bon Ton Restaurant and loved their Crab AuGratin. They filmed them making the dish and the chef DOES use mushrooms. Later when they were handing John Besh the piece of paper telling him what the cheese was in the dish he loved so much, he was shocked to see that it WAS American Cheese! He was such a food snob that he was shocked!! He said the same thing that you did of how it does NOT overwhelm the sweet crabmeat where cheddar would. I taped it and wished I had not erased that show now!

    • I just looked, and I’m afraid it’s not at the food network. Or at YouTube. At least, not yet.

      I’ll keep the mushrooms in mind. My wife doesn’t care for them, so for her it’s no loss. I’d miss them.

      If you go to the Bon Ton, they offer two different versions of crab meat au gratin, and you get both of them in a single ramekin. Next time I’m in nawlins, I have three culinary goals – to go to The Grocery again (http://www.yelp.com/biz/the-grocery-new-orleans and http://www.thegroceryneworleans.com/), to go back to the Bon Ton Cafe and to go to one of John Besh’s restaurants. A friend went to one of his places and swooned for days!

  6. I was just at Bon Ton, and I had this dish.. Holy Cow! It is delicious. I love to cook, so I immediately wrote down ingredients.. they included (this is directly from the server).. cream, sherry, white wine, mushrooms, cheese.. of course. You may want to try to add these as I’m certain they are in the original recipe. I’m going to go try out yours as well! Cheers!

  7. Pingback: Warning Signs That This Restaurant Visit Will Dissappoint You | The New Burgundians

  8. Literally watching the best ever now and wanted to add the chefs recipe… They didn’t give actual measurements but eyeballing it here goes… 2 tbsp butter, 2 tbsp flour (or enough to thicken slightly), milk 1 tbsp , 1/2 – 1 tbsp sherry to make a rue. Add sautéed mushrooms and fold in blue crab meat, top with american cheese ( looks like regular yellow shredded american) bake at 450 degrees until golden… Looked like there was parsley or some other minced herb and John Besh mentions thyme but that’s not what it looked like. Obviously s/p and have guess from there.

    • If the issue is that you don’t care for sherry or don’t have any, you could try using Marsala, or any wine you’d serve with the dish.

      If you prefer to avoid alcohol, you could use some apple juice.

      Hope this helps!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.