I can't believe I didn't actually discover raclette in France. It was in London (don't tell!). And being the cheese lover that I am, I'm shocked that it took me until my late twenties to make such an epic discovery. The guys at the Kappacasein cheese stall at Borough Market secure huge wheels of the semi-soft, pungent cheese under special-made broilers, that heat, melt, bubble and char the top layer of cheese exposed to the heat. That cheese is then scraped off the wheel -- and right onto a plate of fluffy potatoes, with some cornichons on the side to add some bite to cut through the fat. Raclette, if you haven't had it, has the exceptional meltiness of a Fontina or Mozzarella or even, almost, a brie. But it has that sharpness and nuttiness or something between a Gruyère and something a bit riper, like a Camembert. It's just something that everyone should put in his or her mouth every once in a while. It's primaly, undeniably, resolution-floutingly delicious.
But I don't have a special raclette grill at home, and I don't eat it often enough to warrant buying one. Nor do I always feel like trekking down to Borough Market. So I came up with this ultimate grilled cheese as the antidote to a raclette-less life. The key to this simple sandwich is to use the best ingredients you can find: the best bread (Poilâne if you can swing it), raclette (you'll need to find a terrific cheesemonger), mayonnaise (excellent imported French mayo, which has a mustardy, vinegary edge that adds a lot to the sandwich) and sea salt (fleur de sel or Maldon preferred, for salinity as well as crunch). This may seem nitpicky, but I'll explain.
The best thing about raclette is that it can actually toast. Much like a Gruyère on top of an onion soup, it can brown and crisp and char, adding a different texture and flavor to the oozy, gooey bits of cheese under the toasted crown. By using an airy pain au levain with a great crust, you create tiny little holes through which the raclette can melt as you toast the sandwich. So, the inside cheese is gooey and runny, like a pungent mozzarella, and the crust of the sandwich is a crispy combination of toasted sourdough, sea salt, a swipe of sharp French mayonnaise and little rivulets of toasted cheese. So you get the experience of a real raclette grill with just a stove and a skillet. A little American ingenuity and a lot of great French flavor. This is my ultimate grilled cheese. Bon app!
Raclette Grilled Cheese
2 6¼- x ½-inch slices of pain au levain, preferably Poilâne if you can get it
1 teaspoon good French mayonnaise
Good flaked sea salt, like Maldon
3 ounces sliced raclette cheese
Preheat a small nonstick skillet (or a large nonstick skillet, if doing two sandwiches at once) on medium heat. Use a butter knife to spread the mayonnaise all over the outside of the two slices of bread, and crumble the sea salt onto the mayo-ed bread and press it gently into the bread so it sticks. Fill the inside of the sandwich (the mayonnaise will face OUT) with the raclette.
Put the sandwich together, cheese on the inside, mayo on the outside and place in the preheated skillet. Place another small skillet or a round cake pan on top of the sandwich, and put a heavy can or brick inside to weight the sandwich down. Grill for three minutes, until the bread is golden brown and the cheese is softened.
Flip the sandwich over with a thin spatula, and raise the heat to medium-high. Replace the weight on top of the sandwich. Grill for another two to three minutes, until the bread is golden and crisp and the cheese is completely melted. The cheese will start oozing out from between the bread and crisping in the pan. You don't want to loose this -- it's what raclette is all about. Use a silicone spatula to scoot the cheese up next to the crust of the sandwich on all sides, then use the thin metal spatula to lift it out of the pan to a plate. Cut in half and eat immediately, with cornichons on the side.