Last year I promised my beloved Diane that we would celebrate her April birthday in Paris. It didn’t happen. And it doesn’t look good for this year either, but we can still enjoy some Parisian comfort food – croque monsieur.
April in Paris was a famous song first recorded in the 30s and covered by everyone from Frank Sinatra to Count Basie. Doris Day starred in the eponymous film musical in 1952. Diane, of course, knew all the words to the lyric.
It brings back memories of the last time I was in the City of Light, just one brief day at the end of a memorable chevauchée in the Loire Valley. Five of us riding pals sat outside a little café in the August sunshine, where the rude Parisian waiters had all gone on holiday, and we had pleasant service from an eastern European who spoke little French and even less English. We got around this by pointing to items on the menu. My croque monsieur was sublime, although I had to ask twice for my side of frites. The version at Café de la Place near the Montparnasse station, where our TGV from Tours terminated, was called croque Parisien. It was described as containing fromage et jambon au torchon, which literally means “ham in a tea towel.” Never fear, this just refers to the ham being cooked in broth wrapped in a cloth bag, and not how it is served!
Croque monsieur (Mr. Crunch in French), is really nothing more complicated than a dressed up grilled ham and cheese sandwich, but the béchamel sauce adds so much more. I shall make it today and think of that long-ago day in Paris with friends and the wish that I could be there soon. The dish originated in Parisian bars and cafés over 100 years ago and has been popular as a hot snack in Paris ever since.
Served with a fried egg on top, it’s known as croque madame (Mrs. Crunch) because it looks like an old-fashioned ladies’ hat. The vegetarian version, without the ham, is called croque mademoiselle. I shall serve that to Diane with a simple green salad on the side.
In the UK, the so-called toastie is very popular and across North America, the good old grilled cheese sandwich is ubiquitous. At my local marina on Toronto Island, Andrik, the young snack bar cook, made mine with bacon and two sorts of cheese. He has moved on to a career in the hotel business, where we wish him well. Who knows when The Upper Deck will reopen, but it won’t be the same without Andrik’s outstanding grilled cheese.
To make the dish even tastier, it can be dipped in beaten egg, much like French toast, or an egg batter, and fried in butter, which is known as a Monte Cristo sandwich in the United States.
- 4 thick slices white sourdough bread
- 2 TBSP butter, unsalted
- 4 tsp Dijon mustard
- 1 cup Gruyère cheese (or a combination of Gruyère and Emmental), grated coarsely
- 1 cup béchamel sauce*
- 4 very thin slices of ham
- Fresh parsley, chopped and stalks discarded OR a sprig of fresh basil
- Green salad with a vinaigrette dressing
*NOTE: See FOOD FOR COMFORT for the béchamel recipe.
Cooking and preparation
- Pre-heat the broiler.
- Prepare the BÉCHAMEL SAUCE.
- Prepare the ham by shaving it into very thin slices with a mandolin or sharp carving knife.
- Spread one side of all the bread slices generously with butter and the other with a scrape of Dijon mustard.
- Mix the grated cheese and half the béchamel sauce in a bowl. Using about half the mixture, place a dollop onto the Dijon mustard side of two slices of bread and spread evenly. Fold a couple of slices of ham onto each (or leave off for the vegetarian version) and press the other piece of bread on top.
- Heat a non-stick frying pan and place the sandwiches, butter side down, onto the hot surface. Fry until the bread is golden, then flip and fry the other side.
- Using a wide spatula, transfer the two sandwiches onto aluminum foil on a baking sheet. Cover the bread with the rest of the cheese and béchamel mixture and then the rest of the béchamel. NOTE: This amount of sauce make a very sloppy sandwich, which needs a knife and fork to eat, but that’s how I like it. Add less sauce inside and on top if you want to pick it up and eat it without cutlery. Broil for a couple of minutes until the surface is bubbling and beginning to brown. NOTE: The difference between browning and burning is mere moments, so keep an eye on the broiler (grill) after the second minute.
- Cut each sandwich in half and plate decoratively. For the authentic Parisian touch, serve with a side of frites and a small green salad with a light vinaigrette dressing. Garnish with chopped parsley or a sprig of fresh basil. (Serves two.)
- Add a fried egg on top of each serving.
- Leave out the ham.
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Categories: Simply food