Dear Friends & Eaters,
Recently, I have been in the mood for French food. It might be the season or Hurricane Sandy messing up with my Italian genes. It might be that I miss Paris a bit, I am not sure. When I lived in Italy traveling to Paris was not a big deal. You could get a cheap ticket on RyanAir or EasyJet and land in the Ville Lumiere in less than 3 hours. Now I live in New York and taking a stroll down Boulevard Des Capucines, the Rive Gauche or Montparnasse is no small feat. So I travel with the books I read and my kitchen, of course: you can call me an armchair/stovetop traveler.
During my first trip to Paris with my mom in 1992 (Oh dear, that is 20 years ago, I didn’t realize until I actually wrote it) we ate lots of delicious food. Vanna wanted to stir me in the direction of Chinese food because it wasn’t as popular in Italy as it is now… and my mom is quite adventurous when it come to food. But I wanted to eat like a local, so we had baguettes, croissants, soupe a l’onion, quiche loraine and macarons to choke a horse. Finally Vanna persuaded me to try what today I would call a kebab but at that point was just a steak sandwich with a LOT of onions (raw red onions that would make my friend Scott Conant cringe). To soothe the heartburn the following day we went looking for the Repetto Store so I could buy some pointe shoes for my ballet class (to date Repetto are the only pointe shoes that don’t make my feet blister – go ask Mila Kunis what she thinks, AH!). After walking all over Paris we stopped by this small cafe’ next to Place de l’Opera. We ordered Croque Monsieur and proceeded to review the shopping bags. When the garçon came back from the kitchen with our two dishes we were in heaven. Croque Monsieur is to France what grilled cheese is to America, just much cooler: two slices of bread stuffed with béchamel sauce, gruyere cheese and ham, grilled to perfection and served with a side salad. Then if you feel daring, you can ask for a Croque Madame, that in line with the funny yet X rated French sense of humor is a Croque Monsieur with boobs (sunny side up eggs). Recreating the recipe is always like recreating the memory of me and my mom digging into that plate of food as we had never seen anything like it before.
Croque Monsieur/Madame is perfect for Brunch or Lunch, but if you cut the bread slices in squares it can also be a perfect hors d’oeuvre. It can be made ahead and broiler/garnished when your guests have arrived. So it is perfect for a small kitchen and cooks who are short on time! If you need a recipe for béchamel sauce, I recommend you check out mine, which is (honestly) the easiest I have found on the web. FAIR WARMING: Croque Monsieur/Madame is addictive… after eating this gooey, cheesy yet crunchy sandwich I strongly doubt you will find regular grilled cheese appetizing anymore.
Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Spread the bechamel sauce of each slice and evenly distribute the gruyere. Place 4 slices of ham 4 slices of bread, then cover with the other slices of bread. Skewer the slices of bread at each corner with a toot pick or a skewer (so that they won’t slide when cooking). Turn the broiler on high and bake the croques until crispy and bubbly. Remove the skewers and serve immediately with a simple side salad of arugula and spinach.
If you are planning on making croque madame, serve each sandwich with a fried egg on top.