Try grilled cheese with a French flair – you’ll say ‘ooh là là!’

March 22, 2024

Who knew that a grilled sandwich could be the source of so much controversy? I was planning to make a classic French sandwich for lunch last week and did a quick check of the internet to verify ingredients and technique. Turns out I was wrong about both, and I discovered there’s been a great deal written about the croque monsieur, a simple grilled ham and cheese sandwich.

The name translates as “crunch” and “gentleman,” giving it the informal title of “mister crunch.” Tradition holds that the sandwich originated in the early 1900s as a bistro snack for busy Parisians, a rumor started by the Larousse Gastronomique, which claimed the first croque monsieur “was served in 1910 in a Parisian café.” However, the writer Marcel Proust mentions croque-monsieur in a letter he wrote to his mother in the 1890s, so it has been around longer.

Not only is the timeline murky, but also there are different schools of thought about its preparation. According to Jacques Pepin, all you need is white bread, thinly sliced ham, Swiss cheese and butter. A more complex set of recipes calls for ham layered with gruyere cheese between slices of soft bread spread with béchamel sauce, then topped with more sauce and baked. Others grill the sandwich before adding the sauce.

Béchamel is a basic white sauce considered one of the “mother sauces” in French cuisine. You’ll also find it in many dishes, from Greek moussaka to Italian lasagna. The base for the sauce is a simple roux made from whisking together melted butter and flour, then adding milk to form a creamy texture. Depending upon the recipe, flavorings such as nutmeg or white pepper may be added. Some croque monsieur recipes advise stirring grated Parmesan cheese into the creamy béchamel.

Of course, once there was a croque monsieur, someone needed to invent a croque madame. The second sandwich is identical to the original with the addition of a fried or poached egg placed on top. Like many popular dishes, any number of variations began to appear, the most familiar of which might be the Monte Cristo sandwich. 

Here, turkey is the new addition to the ham and cheese filling, the inside surface of the bread is spread with mayonnaise and mustard, and the entire sandwich is dipped into an egg batter and cooked in melted butter. This tastes best when the ham and turkey are sliced thin. Most recipes specify Swiss cheese, but Emmental, fontina or Comté will work just as well.

A range of tweaks can be found for the Monte Cristo, the most startling (for me) being the addition of jam and powdered sugar. I understand the appeal of a sweet and savory combination of flavors, or the need to highlight the “French toast” aspect of the dish; I’m just not sure the sweet elements are my favorites.

I’ve included the recipe for Jacques Pepin’s simple sandwich as well as the more sophisticated version of croque monsieur, to which you can add an egg to transform it into a croque madame. This Monte Cristo recipe omits the jam and sugar, but they’re easy additions if you are so inclined. By the time I finished my research, I was ready for a basic grilled cheese (see photo), always delicious.

Croque Monsieur*

4 slices white bread
4 slices Swiss cheese
4 slices ham
1 T softened butter

Preheat oven to 350 F. Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper; set aside. Spread a layer of butter on two slices of bread and place them in the pan, buttered-side down. Place a piece of Swiss cheese on each slice of bread; top with two slices of ham and another slice of cheese. Butter one side of each remaining bread slice and place them on top, buttered-side up. Bake until browned and crisp, about 10 minutes. Remove the crusts (if desired) and slice in half on the diagonal. Yield: 2 sandwiches. *Adapted from Jacques Pepin.

Croque Monsieur*

1 T butter
3 T flour
1 C whole milk
pinch nutmeg
pinch salt
pinch white pepper
4 slices white bread
1 T butter
4 slices ham
4 slices gruyere cheese

Preheat oven to 350 F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper; set aside. To make the béchamel sauce, melt the butter in a small saucepan over low. Add the flour and stir quickly to form a roux. Cook for about 2 minutes; slowly add the milk, whisking constantly. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a simmer, stirring until thickened. Add nutmeg, salt and pepper; set aside. Toast bread slices and butter both sides of each piece. Place two pieces of toast on the pan and spread with a thin layer of béchamel, then top each with one slice cheese, two slices ham and a final cheese slice. Top each sandwich with the remaining bread slice and cover with a generous spoonful of sauce. Bake until lightly browned, about 15 minutes. Yield: 2 sandwiches. *Adapted from the French Cooking Academy.

Monte Cristo Sandwich

2 large eggs
1/4 C whole milk
1/8 t nutmeg
1/8 t salt
4 slices white bread
2 T mayonnaise
2 t dijon mustard
2 slices Swiss cheese
4 slices turkey
4 slices ham
2 T butter

In a wide bowl, whisk together eggs, milk, nutmeg and salt; set aside. Spread 1 T mayonnaise on each of two bread slices and 1 t mustard on each of the other two bread slices. Place the mayonnaise-covered bread slices on the baking pan, dry side down. Place two slices ham, two slices turkey and one piece of Swiss cheese on each slice of bread. Cover with mustard-spread bread slices, dry side up. Melt butter in a large skillet over medium-low heat. Dip each sandwich in the egg mixture, turning to coat both sides. Place the sandwiches in the skillet and cook until golden brown on both sides, turning once. Yield: 2 sandwiches.

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