The memory is seared onto my brain like grill marks on a juicy rib-eye steak. Approximately two years ago, my former roommate and I both had terrible days at work and impetuously decided the occasion called for gluttony (as most bad days do). One phone call later, we were set with last-minute reservations at Campanile for their famed "Grilled Cheese Night," and approximately one hour later, we both came face to face with our first ever Croque Madame sandwiches.
An eerie silence descended over our table as we eagerly devoured the crisp, greasy sandwiches topped with a tender fried egg. We didn't look up. We didn't stop for air. We didn't pass go. (Or some other non-Monopoly line that makes sense here.) When there were only crumbs and stray lettuce leaves from our mixed green salads left on our plates, our eyes met across the table. We broke into hysterical laughter -- so amazed at how good grilled cheese could be that we had no idea how else to react.
Since that night, I've had many other encounters with the Croque Monsieur -- a decadent sandwich made with Gruyere cheese, French jambon and bechamel sauce -- and the Croque Madame -- the same sandwich with a fried egg on top. Yet despite my affection for my favorite form of grilled sandwich, I've never actually made it myself. (Partly out of laziness, and partly out of not actually wanting to see how much fat and buttery goodness goes into the decadent dish.)
When the NY Times posted a recipe for the Croque Monsieur in June 2008, however, it seemed that I was destined to give the sandwich a whirl in my own kitchen. Of course, since it was the middle of summer, I wasn't exactly in the mood for a big hot mess of cheese -- regardless of how delicious said hot mess might taste.
I promptly forgot all about my Croque Monsieur intentions until this past week when I began planning the recipes I wanted to try out over the weekend. With rain and gloom all over the forecast, I knew that Saturday would be the perfect day for some Frenchified comfort food.
Armed with Gruyere cheese, Black Forest ham from Whole Foods that was not very French at all, and a couple slices of whole wheat bread (courtesy of my freezer), I set about to create some Croque-style goodness for my lunch. Since I only had skim milk on hand, I was a little concerned that my bechamel sauce (made with butter, flour and milk) wouldn't thicken correctly, but after ten minutes of persistent stirring it came together perfectly. I slathered that luscious bad boy over one slice of my bread, topped it with two ounces of my lean ham and a generous blanket of grated cheese, and then covered it with the other slice of bread. Then it was into my 400 degree oven for approximately ten minutes (the amount of time it takes for the cheese to reach the oozy stage).
While my version of the Croque Monsieur was significantly healthier than both Campanile's version and the recipe in the NY Times that calls for the sandwich to be topped with another layer of bechamel and cheese, it was still delicious. Paired with some fancy greens that I dressed up in a light homemade balsamic dressing, it was the perfect lunch for LA's take on a "rainy" day. It makes me wish I could move to San Francisco or Seattle just so I can justify eating it every day.
Hmm... do people wear pink in San Francisco?
(Very loosely based on the recipe from the NY Times)
2 slices whole wheat bread
2 oz Black Forest ham, sliced thin
1 oz+ Gruyere cheese, grated
(Will make more than needed for one sandwich but feel free to save the leftovers for many of the other things made with bechamel)
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon flour
1/2 cup skim milk
Salt, pepper to taste
1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. In small saucepan, melt butter over low heat. Whisk in the flour to form a paste. Add milk and stir until combined. Continue stirring over low heat until sauce becomes thick. Remove from the heat and add nutmeg, salt and pepper to taste.
2. Spread a thin layer of bechamel sauce over one slice of bread (cover completely). Cut ham to fit neatly onto the bread slice (or tear it like me), and then top with grated cheese. Top with other slice of bread, and place on a cookie sheet lined with greased parchment paper. Bake for ten minutes or until cheese is melted.