♫ Cooking to Little French Songs by Carla Bruni
Bastille Day is tomorrow, July 14th, and it’s one of the many days that makes me reminisce about my time living in Paris back in 2008. And by living, I actually mean eating my way through the City of Light…
One of the most common questions I get asked about Paris is “So how was the food?” This is often asked rhetorically, as it’s a well known fact that the French definitely know how to eat. My meals in France were undoubtedly delicious – rich, hearty, and thoughtfully prepared. While I miss the flavorful beef bourguignon, the slow-cooked cassoulets, or even the street side crepes, what I consistently crave is le Croque Monsieur.
It’s just a fancy grilled ham and cheese sandwich, right? Well, not quite. What makes this sandwich so special is the béchamel sauce, which consists of a flour-butter roux, warm milk, a pinch of nutmeg, and a mix of Parmigiano and Gruyere cheeses. The sauce is poured over the toasted sandwich, then topped with more Gruyere. Then the magic happens – the sandwich bakes for 5 minutes, during which the sauce soaks into the top layer of bread, creating a creamy, dense, and satisfying bite.
I used Ina Garten’s recipe as my guide for the béchamel sauce and cooking method. I modified her recipe to serve 4 people (one sandwich per person). Also, her recipe suggests taking the crust off of the bread, but it’s perfectly fine to leave the crust on. And, save your fancy bread for another dish – cheap, grocery store white bread makes a surprisingly authentic croque monsieur. Take the recipe’s measurements lightly; the amount of cheese, ham, and mustard to use can be based on your preference. However, it’s best to stick to the recipe for the béchamel sauce. If you find that the sauce isn’t thick enough after stirring in the hot milk for a few minutes, a little more flour can always be added. To avoid clumping, make sure to mix the flour into some melted butter, then add and stir into your sauce. Remember that the sauce will thicken once it’s removed from the heat.
I serve my croque monsieur right out of the oven, with a few cornichons and a little extra Dijon. A side of fresh greens with a simple vinaigrette balances out the richness of the sandwich. And, most importantly, I like to round out this Parisian bistro meal with a nice glass of kir, one of my favorite French drinks. It’s just 4 parts white wine (Chablis works best) to 1 part crème de cassis.
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- 1 cup milk
- ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- ¼ teaspoon nutmeg
- 3 cups Gruyere cheese, grated
- ¼ cup Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, grated
- 8 slices white sandwich bread
- Dijon mustard
- ½ lb Black Forest ham, sliced
- Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
- Lay the bread slices flat on a cookie sheet. Bake for 5 minutes on one side, then turn each slice and bake for 3 minutes. Remove cookie sheet from oven and let cool for a few minutes.
- While the bread is in the oven, melt butter in a small saucepan over low heat. Once melted, add all of the flour and immediately stir with a wooden spoon. After 2 minutes, the butter and flour will form a glue-like consistency.
- Microwave the cup of milk for about 1-2 minutes, or until bubbly. Add the milk to the flour and butter mixture. Whisk until the sauce is slightly thickened. Remove from heat and add pepper, nutmeg, ¼ cup Gruyere, and all of the Parmigiano.
- Spread mustard on half of the bread slices. Add ham and half of the leftover Gruyere. Add the sandwich top and spread the Béchamel sauce over the sandwiches. Sprinkle the last of the Gruyere and bake for 5 minutes.
- Broil the sandwiches for 4 minutes, or until the cheese on top turns a light golden color. Serve hot.