8 & $20: Dressed-Up Grilled Cheese with Caramelized Onions, Apples and Dijon

This more sophisticated take on a childhood favorite pairs well with a bright, fruity Chardonnay

8 & $20: Dressed-Up Grilled Cheese with Caramelized Onions, Apples and Dijon
A childhood favorite, grilled cheese, gets a mature makeover into an indulgent weeknight dinner. (Julie Harans)
Dec 11, 2019

Eight ingredients, plus pantry staples. That's all it takes to make an entire meal from scratch. Add in a good bottle of wine for less than $20, and you've got a feast for family or friends.

Though there are few things I love more than fine dining, I’ve always had a serious soft spot for grilled cheese sandwiches. Combining two of the best characters in the food world (bread and cheese, of course), they’re easy to enjoy in any form, from classic and minimalist to souped-up with fancy frills. Here, I hoped to take the best of the traditional diner style, with its golden, shatteringly crisp crust and mouthwatering gooeyness, but add sophisticated flavors and enough heft to make a full, well-rounded meal.

To ensure the toppings enhanced rather than distracted from what's best about the sandwich, I went with two classic pairings for cheese—caramelized onions and raw Granny Smith apples. They successfully embellished the age-old formula with contrasting flavors and textures: Thick, almost sticky onions balanced the crisp, juicy fruit, all enveloped in melty cheese and crunchy bread. Whole-grain Dijon mustard provided some kick.

I called on the basic caramelized onion recipe I also used for a tart with goat cheese and fried sage. I only wound up using half of it and saving the rest, so you can halve that portion in the recipe below, but the exact amount of toppings you’ll need depends on the size of your bread slices. Any extra onions can be kept in the fridge and repurposed in nearly endless ways; I’ll often stir them into pastas or spoon some onto avocado toast.

With everything going on inside this sandwich, I suggest a relatively neutral bread like the traditional Italian loaf pane di casa. As for the most important factor, the cheese, I went to my local cheese shop and let the experts guide me. I described my ideal candidate: superior melter, distinctly flavored but not too sharp or strong, high quality at a not-so-high cost. That lead me to a six-month-aged Gruyère from Switzerland, made from raw cow’s milk, with an alluring nutty-sweetness and luxurious melt.

Mayonnaise helps achieve an unparalleled crunch on the sandwich exterior, further aided by a cast-iron skillet. It might seem odd to use mayo instead of butter, but trust me, you’ll never go back.

Pairing this with a Chardonnay was a no-brainer for me. I chose Louis Jadot Bourgogne White Steel 2018, an unoaked version that mingled orchard and citrus fruits with just a touch of earthiness. Though I originally had a richer style in mind, this wine’s vibrant acidity kept the meal from feeling too rich and heavy, and echoed the tartness of the green apple.

Taking my first bite, cheese oozing onto my fingers, reminded me of all the times I’d indulged in my favorite sandwich as a child, only better—especially with a glass of Chardonnay.

Note: The caramelized onions can be made up to two days ahead, cutting the total time needed to prepare the sandwiches by about an hour.

Dressed-Up Grilled Cheese with Caramelized Onions, Apples and Dijon

Pair with a Chardonnay or other bright, fruity white such as Louis Jadot Bourgogne White Steel 2018 (87 points, $19).

Prep time: 10 minutes
Cooking time: 55 minutes
Total time: 1 hour, 5 minutes
Approximate food costs: $40


  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 5 large yellow onions, sliced about 1/8 inch thick
  • Salt
  • Pepper
  • 1/3 cup white wine
  • 8 slices pane di casa or similar white Italian bread, sliced about 1/2 inch thick
  • 1/2 pound Gruyère, shaved with a vegetable peeler or thinly sliced
  • 1 Granny Smith apple, thinly sliced
  • 4 tablespoons mayonnaise
  • 4 tablespoons whole-grain Dijon mustard


1. Prepare the caramelized onions: In a large pot, heat butter on medium-high. Add about half of the onions and cook for 5 minutes. Add remaining onions and season generously with salt and pepper. Stirring occasionally to break up the rings and prevent burning, cook for about 10 minutes, until there’s some browning at the bottom of the pan. Add wine, scraping up any browned bits. Reduce heat to medium-low. Cook the onions for about 30 minutes more, stirring every few minutes, until they’re fully caramelized. Look for a rich brown color and an almost sticky consistency. Transfer to a bowl and set aside.

2. Preheat cast-iron skillet (large enough to fit 4 slices of bread) over medium-high heat for 2 minutes. For each sandwich, spread a light layer of mayonnaise on top of 4 slices of bread and add them to the skillet, mayonnaise sides down. Using a flexible spatula, spread a thin layer of mustard on top of the slices, then top them each with a layer of cheese. Spoon some of the caramelized onions onto 2 of the slices. Let cook until the underside of the bread is golden-brown, about 2 more minutes, using a spatula to keep an eye on their progress and avoid burning. Reduce heat to low.

3. Top the caramelized onions with a layer of apples, then put on the other slices of bread to complete the two sandwiches. Press down with a spatula, carefully flip and let cook until cheese is fully melted and the bread has some slight charring, about 1 minute more. Slice in half and serve. Repeat for remaining 2 sandwiches. Makes 4 sandwiches.

Recipes Cooking Pairings White Wines Cheese

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