Ah, such a simple dish, really. Bread, ham and cheese. I’m tempted to say the French version of our American grilled cheese, but I think it works the other way around.
I so distinctly remember my first croque monsieur in Paris at the very hip “le Pain et le Vin” wine bar just around the corner from the Arc d’Triumphe. I ordered it unaware of what it was, mostly to soak up several glasses of wine. It can be a very memorable sandwich. Meryl Streep proved that when she had us all salivating cooking up her version in the movie “It’s Complicated”.
History says this sandwich began as a snack at French bistros and cafés. Croque Monsieur translates literally to “Crispy Mister.” The most basic version layers sliced ham and Gruyere cheese in white bread grilled with butter. Another dips the sandwich in egg before grilling it. A little more elaborate is to top the grilled sandwich with Mornay sauce (a simple flour, butter and milk white sauce with a little grated Parmesan cheese) and finish it under the broiler with a little grated Gruyere cheese. This is my recommendation.
I like Croque Monsieur as a quick and simple dinner served with a pile of arugula or field greens on the side and a glass of white wine. Preferably a Sancerre from the French Loire Valley to temporarily make you forget you are sitting in your own kitchen and not one in France. A good dish will do that.
For the bread buy a really fresh loaf Artisan-style bread and slice it yourself. Black Forest ham is my preference and grated rather than sliced Gruyere cheese because it melts and blends better.
For a lighter version, eliminate one piece of bread and make it open-faced.
- Mornay Sauce:
- 2 tablespoons flour
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 1-1/2 cups milk
- ⅓ cup grated Parmesan cheese
- ⅛ teaspoon nutmeg
- Kosher salt
- Fresh ground black pepper
- 8 thin slices Artisan-style bread
- ½ cup Dijon mustard
- 2 cups (8 ounces) grated Gruyere cheese
- 8 ounces thinly sliced Black Forest ham
- ¼ cup (1/2 cube) softened butter
- For the Mornay Sauce, melt butter in a saucepan over medium heat; whisk in flour then slowly whisk in milk and bring to a simmer. Cook until slightly thickened, about 1-2 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in Parmesan cheese, nutmeg and season with salt and pepper; set aside.
- For the sandwiches, spread mustard on one side of four slices of bread; layer ham slices over Dijon then sprinkle each with ⅓ cup grated gruyere (reserve remaining cheese for tops of sandwiches); top with remaining four slices of bread.
- Lightly butter each sandwich. HEat a large skillet over medium heat; add sandwiches and cook until browned and cheese is melted, turning once.
- Preheat the broiler.
- Transfer sandwiches to a baking sheet; top each sandwich with sauce, spreading evenly all the way to the edge of the sandwich; sprinkle remaining gruyere cheese over the sauce. Broil until tops of sandwiches are bubbling and lightly browned.