Did you catch the big replica of a Velveeta cheese box in Central Park? I didn’t either, but its photo in the NY Times caught my attention. Combined with the TV ads for Velveeta that keep popping up, I wondered - what does Velveeta taste like to me now?
Back in the day, Velveeta was in every kitchen, appearing regularly in comfort foods such as grilled cheese and mac and cheese as well as simple preparations such as a cold cheese sandwich or with crackers as an appetizer. Later, it fell out of favor and food sophisticates looked down on Velveeta as a relic of the past, corny and crude, fit only for a child’s unschooled taste. Really? A while ago I attended a small cocktail party held at an Ivy League university with attendees who thought of themselves as having worldly and refined taste. The hit of the occasion? An unidentified cheese on crackers which the host asked us to name. No one got it. Just before we departed, the host revealed the secret - Velveeta! Imagine the chagrin!!
Velveeta is a wonderful name! It calls up velvet while the double “e” smacks of cheese. An apt appellation! Its got a velvety texture and mild cheesy taste with just a hint of sharpness. Would I like it now? As a child, I preferred American and cheddar cheeses.
First, how would Velveeta compare to a similar cheese, a mild cheddar, in taste and meltability? Most cheeses do not melt enough to spread much over the edges of the bread or to even out differences in the height of the cheese if uneven. Would Velveeta melt more than the cheddar? Plain, open-faced, unevenly covered, toasted cheese sandwiches make a good test.
As Velveeta’s unmelted texture is quite soft, it melted more quickly than the cheddar toast. The texture was pleasingly gooey against the crisp toast. However, as you can see, neither cheese spread evenly over the bread, although I thought Velveeta should because it was designed for great melting character. Velveeta’s taste was disappointing. It lost flavor - lost that bit of sharpness to become bland. In contrast, with melting, most cheeses, including cheddar, show an increase in umami and overall flavor as heat breaks down the proteins.
How would Velveeta fare in grilled cheese sandwiches? I tried three, with add-ons of my favorite ingredients.
Velveeta with sautéed apple on baguette
Just about any combination of cheese and fruit is delicious. Grilled cheese with sautéed apple is a wonderful combination that brings out maximum flavor of both ingredients. Would this be so when the cheese is Velveeta? Yes, the result was pretty good. The sweet/tart Fuji apple slices, still somewhat crisp, played off the mild, gooey cheese for contrast in taste and texture. To make, sauté peeled apple slices in butter, place them on your chosen bread, layer cheese on top and follow the instructions for grilled cheese sandwiches at the end of the post.
Velveeta with roasted, herbed tomatoes on whole wheat bread
Sweet and tart grape tomatoes, roasted with olive oil, thyme and rosemary is a great combination with many cheeses. At first bite, the two tastes of Velveeta and the tomatoes melded into each other to provide a sensation of just one ingredient. On second bite and reflection, the cheese and tomatoes were distinguishable. A pleasant result, but definitely mild. On a subsequent try, I would heat things up with hot peppers.
Velveeta with ham on seeded rye bread
This classic combination of ham and cheese on rye was the best of the lot. I think the sour dough of the rye bread enhanced the flavor of the cheese and tastefully set off the yummy Black Forest ham. The two made a lovely couple, distinctive yet complementary. With a bit of crunch from the seeds in the bread, this combo had the basic tastes and texture of a winner.
Tips to making excellent grilled cheese sandwiches
I’m always surprised by friends or articles that bemoan grilled cheese as difficult to make perfectly, I suppose because my mother always used the few simple rules that you will find in articles on the subject. First, do not use hard cheeses because they do not melt well. Second, although not necessary with Velveeta, grate the cheese; it melts much faster so that the bread isn’t overdone or burnt before the cheese is appropriately gooey. Use the largest holes in a hand-held grater. Third, coat the top of the bread slices with a thin layer of mayo; the mayo produces a crisp and golden-brown bread. Fourth, generously butter a skillet over low heat, place the sandwich on it and cover. Turn once, adding butter to the skillet if necessary.
A final note
Although I enjoyed these Velveeta sandwiches, I find other cheeses more flavorful and love to use several cheeses as well as other ingredients when making grilled cheese. Be creative. Open your refrigerator and cupboard, see what’s there and use your taste imagination to produce delicious and satisfying concoctions. But when I really want comfort, my go-to is Muenster cheese by itself, grilled with whole wheat bread.