Chef Masterclass: George Barson's cheese and ham toastie

By Bill Knott

- Last updated on GMT

Chef Masterclass: George Barson's cheese and ham toastie
George Barson, head chef of Cora Pearl in Covent Garden, has fond memories of the toasted cheese and ham sandwiches from his childhood.

“Thick sliced white bread, mild cheddar, and that ham from Tesco that always comes wet out of the packet. And Branston pickle on the side.”

Somehow, these base ingredients achieved a kind of alchemy in a sandwich toaster, beguiling the young Barson so much that he became intent on refashioning the humble toastie as a dish worthy of being served in his restaurant. “I’d been thinking about it for a while,” he explains, “but it had to be the right site: Kitty Fisher’s (Cora Pearl’s elder sister) was a bit too Mayfair. But it works really well in Covent Garden, where people just drop in for a glass of wine and a toastie before or after the theatre.

“My aunt gave me a sandwich toaster for Christmas: they’re about 30 quid from Argos. But you can use a plancha, or just a dry non-stick frying pan. 

“The bread is just a vehicle for the filling, so I just use ordinary, thick-sliced white bread: sourdough has too many holes, it’s too crunchy and it’s liable to cut the roof of your mouth.”

The cheese he uses is a few steps up from mild cheddar: he likes Montgomery’s cheddar “which melts well and has a sour, lactic punch”. Barson uses it in what he calls a cheese “ganache”: a rich, smooth, thick custard “with beer – I like the ‘draught’ Guinness you can buy in cans – to give it a kind of rarebit flavour”.


There is a hint of modernist cuisine in the recipe, too: Barson uses Gellan F, a gelling and thickening agent, because it stops the ganache splitting and is resilient to heat. And he adds white miso paste, to give it a hit of umami.

The most intricate part of his cheese and ham toastie, though, is the ham: actually a kind of brawn or terrine, made by slow-cooking smoked ham hocks and pig jowls with root vegetables and  aromatics, then stripping them of their meat, adding a flavour-packed ‘pork sauce’, letting it set, and slicing it into sandwich-sized strips. Unlike the Gellan F, the gelatin in the jellied ham hock melts when heated, giving an unctuous texture to the sandwich filling. His recipe will make more pork sauce than you need, but it will keep in the fridge for a week or more.

Barson couldn’t resist making his version of Branston pickle, either: a purée of pickled walnuts, mixed with chardonnay vinegar, brown sugar, a little more Gellan F, and a very fine dice of vegetables. It has a sharpness that works perfectly with his toastie, which emerges from his latest Breville – Auntie’s Christmas present packed up a while ago – perfectly golden brown, basted lavishly with butter. “What bread are we using today?” he shouts over the pass. “I think it’s Hovis,” comes the reply from the kitchen. Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be, so they say. In the case of Barson’s cheese and ham toastie, it tastes a whole lot better.

George Barson's cheese and ham toastie


(makes enough for 20 toasties)

For the cheese ganache

200ml double cream
100ml milk
170g egg yolks (about 10)
500ml Guinness, reduced to 100ml
300g mature cheddar, grated
1.5g Gellan F
30g white miso

For the pork sauce

1.5 kg pork bones
2 tbsp vegetable
8 banana shallots, peeled and thinly sliced
2 cloves garlic, peeled and thinly sliced
2 carrots, peeled and finely chopped
2 leeks, chopped
2 sprigs of thyme
200ml Madeira
6l brown chicken stock

For the jellied ham hock

7 smoked ham hocks
7 pig jowls
3 carrots, peeled and
3 onions, peeled and roughly chopped
1 head garlic, chopped in half
2 leeks, roughly chopped
300g finely chopped shallots, gently softened in 250g butter
30g chopped chives
30g chopped tarragon
30g chopped chervil
300g pork sauce

1. For the cheese ganache, put everything but the cheese in a Thermomix at 85˚C, speed 4. Once at temperature, add the cheese and continue to run until a smooth ganache is formed. Pass through a chinois, put into piping bags and chill. If you don’t have a Thermomix, put the double cream, milk, Guinness and miso in a pan and bring to a simmer. Meanwhile, lightly whisk the egg yolks in a bowl. Add a splash of the hot milk mixture to the eggs and whisk in immediately. Add the remaining milk and mix thoroughly. Add everything back into the pan and place on the heat. Whisk in the Gellan F and bring up to 85˚C, whisking constantly. Add the cheese and whisk until smooth. Pass through a chinois, put into piping bags and chill.

2. For the pork sauce, roast the pork bones in a 240˚C oven, until golden. Meanwhile, heat the vegetable oil in a large pan and caramelise the shallots, garlic, carrots, leeks and thyme over a high heat. Add the madeira and evaporate, then add the chicken stock and bones. Simmer gently for 2 hours, skimming a few times, then strain through a chinois. Return to the pan, and reduce to about 800ml, with a consistency that coats the back of a spoon.

3. For the jellied ham hock, cover the ham hocks and jowls with water and add the carrots, onions, garlic and leeks. Simmer for about 4 hours until the meat falls away cleanly from the bone. Allow to cool in the liquid, then pick carefully, removing sinew and excess fat: you should have about 3kg of picked meat. Add the shallots, herbs and pork sauce and mix thoroughly. Double-line a gastro tray with cling film and spread the ham hock mixture over it evenly. Put a double layer of cling film on top, removing any air, and press under an even, heavy weight overnight. The following day, turn the ham out onto a board, and cut into strips the same thickness as a slice of bread.

To assemble each toastie

1. Take two slices of thick-sliced white bread and cover one with slices of the jellied ham hock. Using a 0.75cm nozzle, pipe 5 or 6 stripes of the cheese ganache  across the top and cover with the other slice.

2. Brush the top with some melted butter, then place butter-sidedown in a toastie maker or panini press. Brush the top with some more melted butter, and toast until golden brown. Remove from the toastie maker, brush with a little more butter, and leave to rest for 1 min. Remove the crusts and, using a serrated knife, cut into three slices. Serve immediately, along with a sharp pickle or chutney.

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