A BITE OF PARIS
Lekker Brekker Monday: Croque Monsieur, ooh la la!
The famous Parisian street food is not just a ham and cheese sandwich. Who fries a sandwich? Yes, they’re fried. And then grilled. In Paris, you can eat this speciality at any time of day, but it’s perfect for breakfast.
A Croque Monsieur is the classic Parisian sandwich that any visitor to Paris quickly discovers. It’s a day-warming mélange of ordinary bread, jambon (ham), cheese and mustard. And it all comes together in an oozy, gooey, delicious way, if it’s done properly. But it’s how you make it that counts.
I watched all manner of supposedly expert videos on how to make a proper Croque Monsieur, and trust me, not one of them concurs with any of the others. It’s a free-for-all. So it took some distilling before I felt I could finally write down a reasonably definitive recipe for it.
A host of recipes use slices of cheese, not grated. Many of them say you must, on pain of death, also put la béchamel on the top slice and then du fromage rȃpé (that’s the grated cheese) on that. Many more say non non non, only la fromage must be a l exterieur!
It transpires that there are some rules:
The butter must be on the outside of the bread.
The béchamel must be smeared on the dry (inside) slice of the bread.
The Dijon mustard goes … actually, nobody seems to know where to put the mustard, but there was mustard in the Croques Monsieur I’ve eaten in Paris and it has to go somewhere so I decided that it goes right onto the dry bread before you put the béchamel there. So we have already broken one rule. I suppose you could smear it on the ham. Or incorporate it into the béchamel.
In the end, when I finally found the courage to revisit the recipe this week, after careful deliberating, the watching of many YouTube videos by a slew of experts, none of whom agreed with any of the others, and in the full knowledge that by dint of being a foreigner I was risking scorn and an armoury of pins being stuck in an army of effigies by legions of outraged les Grands-Méres (and yes, I checked the plural of Grand-Mére and that is it), the recipe on this page is the one I like to think I perfected. (My palate, which I trust with my life, loved it.)
The cheese I used was Emmental, and yes, my research did show that this is a suitable cheese for a Croque Monsieur, although Gruyère is more commonly used. In any event, they’re both Swiss. I did use two layers of la béchamel, which I admit is nontraditional and earns me extra effigy pins. Nor did I use store-bought plain South African tranches de pain. I persuaded my wife to make a simple white loaf instead, because it would (and does) look better in the pictures. But your plain old store-bought white bread is perfectly acceptable.
4 slices plain white bread
Butter (for the outside)
3 Tbsp more butter for frying
2 or 3 slices of Emmental or Gruyère cheese per croque (so you need 4 to 6 slices for the two croques monsieur)
2 or 3 slices of decent quality ham per croque (so 4 to 6 in all)
1 quantity béchamel sauce for which you need:
2 heaped Tbsp flour
2 generous Tbsp butter
500 ml milk
Heat the milk but do not boil. Melt butter in a saucepan on a low heat. Remove and vigorously stir in the flour to make a smooth roux. Put the pot on a low heat and pour in half the milk, whisking until it thickens. Add remaining milk and whisk until it thickens again. Season with a little salt and a grating of nutmeg. Keep aside till needed.
Turn on the oven grill (that is, the type that heats from above) to get really hot before you need to grill them.
Do not butter the inside of the bread.
Do butter the outside.
Lay a slice of bread down, buttered side underneath. Smear it with Dijon mustard, as much as you like i.e. to taste. Spoon la béchamel on the mustard-smeared bread. Lay the ham on la béchamel. Lay the cheese slices or grated cheese on the ham. Put the bread on top of the cheese.
Do not add more on top at this stage because you first need to fry them.
Melt butter in a pan. Fry the croques on one side until golden brown. Turn carefully and fry the other side till golden brown. Place on an oven pan, or a rack over a pan, in the correct order (you flipped them while frying, so flip them back) and spoon more béchamel onto the buttered top of the upper slice of bread, the idea being that the bread will absorb the sauce. Top with more cheese slices (or grated if you are more of a conformist than I).
Now pop it under the grill for the cheese on top to melt into the béchamel which in turn oozes into the bread and everything becomes the most desirable sandwich in the world. Et voila! DM
Tony Jackman is Galliova Food Writer 2023, jointly with TGIFood columnist Anna Trapido.
Follow Tony Jackman on Instagram @tony_jackman_cooks.