You’ve been shipwrecked on a desserted — ahem, I mean deserted — island. Your food options are limited to a sandwich (minus the “wich” part) and a very peevish looking saltwater crocodile who doesn’t seem to want you gnawing on him. After awhile your beard begins to rival that of Tom Hanks’s in Castaway, only there’s no Wilson to keep you company.
You’re hungry. You’re alone.
You’re gonna die.
Okay, sorry; that was an unpleasant beginning for a post, wasn’t it? And there’s that big knife up there underscoring the point.
I promise it gets better. Well, not too much better — you’re still gonna die. But something amazing happens first!
One day you’re wasting away on the beach entertaining fond memories of pizza while chewing on a piece of driftwood. Suddenly, a tiny Tiki Fairy appears. You know this is probably a brief hallucination indicating that an agonizing death is imminent, but you indulge your brain and greet her.
What do you know, she has a surprise for you! Drifters who find themselves starving to death on her island get to choose one last meal. Filet mignon? Truffle burger? Mom’s macaroni and cheese? You name it, you get it.
Photographer Melanie Dunea is the one who had the brilliant idea to email 50 great chefs this question and compile their responses in her book, My Last Supper. Some of the chefs go fancy: caviar and spit-roasted pigs would be in Gary Danko’s final spread. Others prefer simple, comforting food from their childhood: Marcus Samuelsson wants gravlax with a dill mustard sauce in his last hours.
Funnily enough, the death row inmates seem to divide along similar lines. There are cost (and other) limitations to ensure the inmates’ meals don’t become extravagant, but some still think big! One, for instance, asks for two steaks, two burgers, a sliced turkey breast, bacon, two baked potatoes, one chef’s salad, one ear of corn, one pint of ice cream, and four sodas. Others cling to small pleasures; one asks only for cool whip and cherries.
Personally, I’m torn. I want comfort food. I want my mom’s chocolate sheet cake, macaroni and cheese, and yeast rolls for sure. I want a pimiento cheese sandwich on white bread, Dad’s chicken and dumplings, and at least a dozen Coke Zeros.
Can I also have some Chinese pork buns?
Oh, and one more thing. A grilled cheese sandwich wouldn’t ordinarily make my list, but this isn’t your average grilled cheese — it’s the World’s Best Grilled Cheese.
In fact, Sommer from Mama With Flavor (have you seen her blog? hilarious.) started all of my “last meal” daydreams when she responded to my tweet about this sandwich. She proclaimed it “last meal worthy.” And worthy it is: sharp cheddar cheese and sweet caramelized onions are piled high and toasted between two slabs of buttery, freshly baked beer bread.
Trust me, this sandwich would be a far better companion on your deserted island than any anthropomorphized volleyball. With the very first bite I took, I knew I’d struck genius. Lunch (or dinner, or midnight snack, or breakfast, or even dessert) just doesn’t get much better than this. And with a recipe for fresh bread that consists of only four ingredients, it doesn’t get much simpler than this either.
You know what I have to ask for my parting question — and I can’t wait to read your answers! What would your last meal be?
Sharp Cheddar, Caramelized Onions, and Beer Bread Grilled Cheese
Recipe by: Adapted from Catherine Bienik (beer bread) and Simply Recipes (caramelized onions)
Yields: one loaf of beer bread (up to about 4-5 sandwiches)
3 cups self-rising flour
scant 1/2 cup sugar
12 ounces beer (I used Guinness)*
3 tablespoons butter, melted
Caramelized Onion Ingredients:
4 onions, sliced thinly
salt to taste
Other Sandwich Ingredients:
about two tablespoon of butter per sandwich desired
sharp cheddar cheese
Make bread: Preheat oven to 375. Grease a loaf pan or line it with greased parchment paper. Mix flour, sugar, and beer until combined and pour batter into pan. Cook for 40-45 minutes, or until top is well browned and loaf feels firm (you can also stick a toothpick in; if it comes out clean, the loaf is ready). When the loaf is close to done, brush the top thoroughly with melted butter and let the loaf bake for 3 minutes. Remove to a cooling rack to cool for about 20 minutes before removing it from the pan and cooling completely.
While bread is baking and cooling, caramelize onions: Put a few tablespoons of olive oil into a skillet over medium-high heat. Once the oil is translucent and shimmering, add onions and cook for about 10 minutes, stirring every few minutes. Add salt to taste and continue to cook, stirring every few minutes, for 30 minutes to an hour. The goal is to let the onions sit long enough that they start to cook down and caramelize, but not to let them burn. If they seem to be sticking or burning at any time, you can do any of the following: add some more oil to the pan, turn down the heat slightly, or add some water to the pan. Once the onions are a rich brown, remove them to a container to cool slightly before use. Store extra onions in an airtight container in the refrigerator.
Assemble your sandwich: Once the bread has cooled, use a serrated knife to cut it into slices. In a skillet over medium heat, melt one tablespoon of butter. Place a slide of bread into the skillet and pile on sliced cheese and caramelized onions (note: you can brush the underside of the bread all over with melted butter first if you want to ensure even browning). Place another slice of bread on top.
Cook until the bottom slice of bread is well toasted (peek every now and then by lifting a corner) and then gently flip, using your hand to brace the top slice of bread as you do so. You can add more butter if your skillet looks dry, lifting the sandwich to allow the butter to run underneath. When both sides are golden and toasted, remove sandwich to a serving plate and microwave for 30 seconds to insure melty cheese. Repeat these steps to make as many other sandwiches as you want! Serve immediately.
*NOTE: I don’t drink, so I wasn’t sure what sort of beer to use. This recommendation from a friend was outstanding, though! For information about how much of the alcohol cooks out of a given dish, please see this chart. In this particular recipe for beer bread, only about 30% of the alcohol remains in the entire loaf after cooking.