My childhood home is at the end of a dirt track at the top of a hill, and in the winter we often woke up to waist-high snow drifts. We couldn’t get out to go to school, so we’d spend the day throwing ourselves into heaps of snow, or watching the dogs disappear, bewildered, into the drifts. I still love the feeling of snow days, warm body, cold face, crisp air. It’s just the best.
For days like these, we had a selection of tinned Heinz soups (and the occasional Campbell’s) in our cupboard. It makes me shudder a bit now, but my favourite was the Cream of Chicken. I have no idea how they preserved those little floating shreds of chicken, but I loved them. The soup was salty and comforting (and, apparently, only 3% chicken), and was always my first choice. As for the Cream of Tomato soup, I didn’t care for it. The texture was uncommonly smooth, and the creamy but slightly tart flavour sat uncomfortably at the back of my throat. It was a soup of last resort.
As I grew up, I started to find joy in homemade tomato soup. Delia Smith has a delightful recipe for roasted tomato soup. It might seem excessive to roast tomatoes only to put them in soup, she notes, but it is worth the effort. A chilled gazpacho on a hot day is like ambrosia. Then, a couple of years ago, my American husband introduced me to tomato soup served with a grilled cheese sandwich.
When I was a kid, we made cheese toasties in our sandwich maker. It clamped down on the bread, hermetically sealing the cheese and all the heat inside. The first bite unleashed a flood of molten cheese, scorching your tongue and leaving you unable to taste for the next two days. The American grilled cheese is different.
In the late 1920s, when cheap, sliced white bread became widely available, people began grilling it with Kraft American cheese. The convenience and low cost of grilled cheese made it popular during the Great Depression. In 1945 The Cook Book of the United States Navy featured a recipe for “American cheese filling sandwiches”. Post-war, the government deemed grilled cheese sandwiches nutritionally deficient and mandated that they could only be served in schools and other institutional cafeterias if paired with something more nutritious. And, thus, the tomato soup and grilled cheese combination was born. The idea was that the low calorie tomatoes, rich in vitamin C, would balance out the nutritionally lacking toasted sandwich. And, nutritious or not, grilled cheese and tomato soup are a perfect match.
Whereas a cheese toastie is made in a lightly oiled sandwich maker, the grilled cheese is a greasier affair: two slices of bread stuffed with cheese, fried in butter. It has been upgraded in recent years with the advent of artisanal bread and cheese making. The sandwich of humble beginnings is spruced up with sourdough bread, exciting cheese combinations, various pickled bits and bobs, kimchi, mustard, truffle, bacon. The restaurant Serendipity 3 in New York City holds the Guinness World Record for the most expensive sandwich: a $214 grilled cheese made with Dom Perignon champagne bread, white truffle butter, Caciocavallo Podolico cheese, and 24 Carat Gold flakes. Personally, simple bread, a smear of wholegrain mustard, and some good vintage cheddar will do me just fine.
Winters can be rather testing in Berlin. Though the occasional blanket of snow is quite charming, it’s mostly damp and grey, and a challenge to even the most upbeat souls. On the handful of days when the sun shines but the temperature doesn’t creep above 0°C, I love to indulge in a bit of warm-body-cold-face time, followed by a bowl of hot soup. I still don’t like Heinz Cream of Tomato soup, but in the spirit of nostalgic comfort, I came up with my own version. My recipe uses tinned tomatoes, though I’d love to try it with fresh when they’re in season. I use my own homemade bread for our grilled cheese, though I’m not ashamed to admit my fondness for white sandwich bread too. With meals like this you should use whichever bread pleases you most. The comfort is all for you. I strongly encourage you to enjoy this after a chilly walk, and to dip your sandwich in your soup.
Tomato soup with grilled cheese
For the soup
1.2 kg tinned tomatoes (I like Mutti Pelati)
1 onion, finely chopped
4–5 cloves of garlic, crushed or grated
4 tbsp olive oil
1–1.5 tsp fine salt
3–4 tbsp sugar (or to taste)
1 tsp Marmite or Vegemite (optional)
500 g water
150g crème fraîche (min 30% fat)
For the grilled cheese (per sandwich)
2 slices of bread (I like each slice to be around 1 cm thick)
wholegrain mustard (or whichever mustard you like most)
vintage cheddar cheese, grated (or any strong flavoured, good-melting cheese)
unsalted butter at room temperature
Add the olive oil to a large pot (I use one that holds 9 litres) and set over a medium heat. Once it’s hot, add the onions and fry for five minutes. Add the garlic and reduce the heat to low medium for another five minutes, or until the onions are soft.
Add the tomatoes and mash them a bit if they are whole plum tomatoes. Add the water, 1 tsp of salt, a generous grinding of black pepper, 3 tbsp of sugar, and the Marmite/Vegemite (if using). Mix together and taste. If the saltiness and sweetness needs adjusting, add some extra salt and sugar. Once it seems balanced to your taste, bring to the boil, cover, and reduce the heat to low for 30 minutes.
Taste again to make sure the flavour is to your liking and adjust the salt and sugar as you see fit. Take off the heat. Using a stick blender (or a food processor if you have one), blend the soup until it is smooth. Add the crème fraîche and stir until it is completely mixed in. Keep the soup warm while you make the grilled cheese sandwiches.
Lay out your slices of bread and spread one per sandwich with mustard (if you you’re using it). Add as much grated cheese as you like. Be generous—if you’re going to have a grilled cheese, then you might as well commit. Better to be a bit too cheesy than not cheesy enough. Sandwich the other slice on top and press down firmly.
Place a nonstick frying pan on a medium-high heat. For the frying, you have two options: 1) Spread one of the outside slices with unsalted butter and place the sandwich butter-side-down in the pan, then butter the unbuttered side (the one facing up). Alternatively 2) you can add a decent chunk of butter to the pan and melt it so it covers the whole bottom. Then place the unbuttered sandwich in the pan.
Using a spatula or a fish slice, apply pressure evenly to the surface of the sandwich so that it starts to sizzle. Once it has browned nicely on one side, flip to brown the other side. (Add more butter to the pan if necessary.) Once it’s golden brown and crisp on both sides, remove from the pan, slice in half, and serve with a bowl of hot tomato soup.