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Croque Monsieur (It's More Than a Ham and Cheese Sandwich)

Linda explores food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes one ingredient at a time.

The perfect croque monsieur

The perfect croque monsieur

Our story begins on the Reu des Beaux Arts, a centuries-old cobblestone street in the 6th Arrondissement of Paris. Although the sidewalks are filled with pedestrians—apartment dwellers, shoppers, tourists—the real activity is below the surface. Two repairmen shiver in a cold, damp basement, their frozen breath hanging in the air like vapor over an icy lake.

At long last, the aging furnace of L’Hotel shudders and groans as it sparks to life. Smiles and laughter; the job is complete. The men wipe their hands, gather their tools, and make their way through a subterranean labyrinth to the exit.

A noisy radiator is now emitting a welcome warmth, and near that heater sits the men’s lunch pails. The baguettes inside have warmed with the heat, the ham is fragrant, and the cheese is melted.

The above story is a total fabrication, a whim of my imagination, but there are many who have accepted the legend that careless workers (isn’t that always how the story begins?) left their lunch atop a radiator which heated the contents and croque monsieur was created. Although this is probably nothing more than an urban legend, L’Hotel is real, and it is very near the place that claims to be the actual birthplace of the sandwich.

Café Procope was established in 1686 by chef Procopia Cutò in the heart of the Latin Quarter on Rue des Fossés-Saint-Germain-des-Prés. Voltaire dined there (his oft-reserved table now set aside as a ”shrine”). Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin were regular guests, as were Honoré de Balzac and Victor Hugo. It is any surprise that the croquet made its first “published” appearance in Volume II of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time?

The name itself, croque monsieur, roughly translates to “crunchy mister,” and was a common mid-morning snack or brunch offering in early 20th century Parisian cafes. What sets this sandwich apart from all others, what makes it so much more than mere “ham and cheese” is the blanket of béchamel sauce.

Sandwich bread

Sandwich bread

1. Bread

Of course, the foundation of the perfect croque begins, literally, with the bread. This is not the place for a study 12-grain. Resist the urge to choose an artisanal loaf with a crunchy outer crust. White sandwich bread, sliced no more than 1/2-inch thick, and with the crusts removed is the way to go. If you can find brioche, that's even better. Remember, the croque is not a pick-it-up sandwich; it's a knife and fork masterpiece.

Brush both sides of the bread with butter and toast gently on the grill until golden and lightly crisp (note that I said lightly crisp; don't turn it into a big crouton).

Ham

Ham

2. Ham

The ham should be thinly sliced, but not paper-thin. Please don't buy the stuff in the cellophane pouches (next to the pre-shredded cheese). Go to the deli counter and ask them to slice some ham for you—not honey-glazed ham, not smoked ham, but uncured ham.

Gruyere cheese

Gruyere cheese

3. Cheese

Swiss cheese—that's the stuff with holes, right? What could be easier? That's not the cheese for a croque monsieur. The pre-sliced stuff in the grocery store is bland and doesn't melt well; it just makes a sweaty, oily mess.

The perfect cheese for your perfect sandwich is Gruyère (pronounced groo-YAIR). Named for the town of Gruyères in Switzerland, this cow's milk cheese is a pale yellow, the color of rich sweet cream. This cheese is quite firm but is still classified as a slicing cheese (as opposed to one that must be grated). It's long-aged, from six months to 300 days) and tastes of nuts and dark caramel.

Perfect béchamel sauce

Perfect béchamel sauce

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4. Béchamel Sauce

Of the five mother sauces, this is indeed the simplest, and an easy one for the beginner. Only three ingredients are required—milk, flour, and butter. The key to success in the creation of this sauce is preparing the roux (rhymes with Winnie the Pooh).

Béchamel Recipe

Now that you've seen the technique, here's the recipe:

Ingredients

  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 2 cups whole milk
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • Freshly grated nutmeg, to taste (optional)

Directions

  1. Heat the milk in a saucepan. While it is warming, melt the butter in another pan.
  2. Add the flour to the melted butter and stir to create a white roux. Slowly add the heated milk to the roux, a little bit at a time, whisking all the while.
  3. When the desired thickness and smoothness is achieved, bring the mix to a boil. Reduce the heat and stir frequently for 3 to 5 more minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Note that you probably won't use all of this sauce for the sandwiches. Cover the leftovers and refrigerate. Warm gently, stir in some cheese, fresh herbs, olives, sun-dried tomatoes—whatever sounds good to use and toss the warmed sauce with cooked pasta. If the sauce seems too thick stir in some milk or chicken broth.

Basic Croque Monsieur Recipe

Yield: 4 sandwiches

Ingredients

  • 8 slices sandwich bread
  • Softened butter (for spreading on both sides of the bread)
  • 2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
  • 8 thin slices of uncured ham (about 6 ounces)
  • 1 1/2 cups shredded Gruyère cheese (about 3 ounces)
  • Béchamel sauce (see recipe above)

Instructions

  1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.
  2. Begin with the sandwich bread, sliced 1/2-inch thick, which has been buttered on both sides and lightly toasted.
  3. Place the four slices of bread on a parchment paper-lined baking sheet. Spread with a gentle smear of Dijon mustard (not grainy, not brown, not yellow).
  4. Add a layer of sliced uncured ham (uncured does not mean raw; it actually is cured but naturally, not with smoke or additives). Two thin slices are perfect.
  5. Top the ham with half of the Gruyère cheese, then the other four slices of bread.
  6. Cover each sandwich with a generous dollop of béchamel sauce. Cover the entire surface; don't leave any bread exposed. Top with the remaining cheese and bake for about 5 minutes or until the sandwiches are heated through.
  7. Change the oven heat to broil; the sandwiches are done when the cheese is melted and the sauce is bubbly and ever-so-lightly golden. Watch carefully. Depending on the heat of your broiler it might take as little as one minute. You want golden brown, not cinders.

Of course, there are adaptations; every chef on planet earth always tries to improve on perfection. Here are a few ideas:

  • Croque madame: A gently poached or sunny-side-up egg is placed atop the sandwich.
  • Croque poulet: The ham is replaced with thin slices of tender, moist, sliced chicken breast.
  • Croque norvegien: Smoked salmon replaces the ham.
  • Croque auvergnat: Gruyère is replaced with bleu cheese.
  • Croque provençal: Sweet red tomato slices and herbed mayonnaise are added.
  • Croque señor: The basic sandwich gets spiced up with salsa
  • Gluten-free bread is, of course, an option for those who are sensitive.
  • Vegetarians can omit the ham—sauteed mushrooms or zucchini ribbons would work well.

Sources

© 2020 Linda Lum

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