In my opinion, there is nothing better than tomato soup and grilled cheese on a cold New England day and nobody does it better than Barbara Lynch.
Spicy Tomato Soup with Crispy Grilled Cheese
Spicy and really easy to make, this is a great soup. But it’s what the soup is paired with that makes it exceptional—crisp, full-flavored, croutonlike sandwiches that feel more like cheese that’s been grilled than a traditional grilled cheese. (By the way, I know at least two people who swear they hate caraway yet love these sandwiches.) I make the grilled cheese on a well-buttered baking sheet, weighing the sandwiches down with another baking sheet on top. This ingenious method makes them super-thin, amazingly crispy, and beautifully browned. It also means you can make a lot at one time. Though delicious as a comforting main course, the grilled cheese can also be cut into tiny pieces and served as part of an hors d’oeuvres spread, with the soup in shot glasses; people go wild for it.
FOR THE SOUP
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 small onion, sliced
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes (up to 1/2 teaspoon more if you want it spicy, as I do)
2 28-ounce cans plum tomatoes
1/4 cup fresh basil leaves
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
6 tablespoons crème fraîche (optional)
FOR THE GRILLED CHEESE
Good country, French, or Italian bread
1 1/2 tablespoons caraway seeds
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/2 pound Morbier or other good melting cheese, such as Italian fontina, Gruyère, or Mimolette
TO MAKE THE SOUP: Heat the olive oil in a large heavy saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion and red pepper flakes and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion is tender, about 7 minutes. Add the tomatoes and 1 1/2 cups water and cook, stirring occasionally, for 30 minutes. Add the basil, season lightly with salt and pepper, and let cool briefly before pureeing the soup in a food processor or a blender, in batches if necessary. Pass the soup through a fine-mesh strainer, pressing on the solids with a ladle. (Save the pulp, if you like; though it has no place in this soup, it’s great on crostini or baked eggplant.) Keep the soup on medium-low heat if you plan to serve it right away.
TO MAKE THE GRILLED CHEESE: For easier slicing, stick the bread in the freezer briefly; it will be easier to slice when cold and firm. With a serrated knife, cut the bread into 12 exceedingly thin slices—as thin as you can without the bread falling apart. (I use a meat slicer and slice it about 1/4 inch thick, and I cut it long enough so I can balance the sandwich across a soup bowl, though you can certainly serve the sandwiches alongside the bowls.)
Heat a small, dry skillet over medium heat. Add the caraway seeds and toast them, stirring occasionally, until fragrant, about 3 minutes. (It’s easy to burn spices, so stick around during this part.) Transfer the seeds to a bowl. Go ahead and melt the butter in the same skillet. Let it cool a bit and then add 1 tablespoon of the toasted caraway seeds to it.
Heat the oven to 400°F. Have ready two heavy baking sheets of the same size so that one can nestle into the other. Line one with a sheet of parchment paper.
Slice the cheese thinly, too. (How thin is not as crucial here, as the cheese melts so thoroughly that it practically disappears into the bread.) Brush 6 of the bread slices with the melted butter and lay them on the parchment-lined baking sheet. Top each with a single layer of cheese and then top with another slice of buttered bread to make sandwiches. Put the sandwiches on the prepared baking sheet, leaving some space between them. Cover the sandwiches with a piece of parchment and stack the second baking sheet on top of the first; this will cook the sandwiches on both sides without the need to flip them and will also flatten them a bit. Bake until the sandwiches are golden brown and crisp, 15 to 20 minutes. Carefully peel away the top layer of parchment, transfer the sandwiches to a cooling rack, and serve warm or at room temperature. If there are any ragged bits of baked cheese hanging off the sandwiches, just trim them away by hand; you’ll want to eat these, so go ahead.
To serve, divide the hot soup among six bowls. Float a tablespoon of crème fraîche on top of the soup, if you like, and garnish with some of the reserved toasted caraway seeds. Position a grilled cheese sandwich across the top of the bowl, if it fits without falling in, or beside the bowl, and serve.
You can make the soup a few days ahead; refrigerate it, covered with plastic wrap, and then reheat it when ready to serve.
I think it’s easier to make the grilled cheese sandwiches earlier in the day or even a day ahead. Store them, once cooled, in a sealed container at room temperature.
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