These classic French bistro sandwiches have to be at the top of the list when it comes to simple but elegant dining. The only difference between the two, is that one of them has an egg on top. That would be the Madame, of course. Neither of these is the type of sandwich that one would normally indulge in on a regular basis due to the rich ingredients involved. The overall calorie count isn't something that I've ever looked up, and frankly, I have no intentions of changing that. Obviously, the Madame is even more of a heart attack on a plate because of the addition of the fried egg. If I knew how many calories this rich, gooey, cheesy sandwich racked up, I'm afraid that I'd feel guilty the entire time I was eating it. ;~)
The recipe is a simple one, for the most part. As with most classic recipes, I've seen different variations made by celebrity chefs and in cookbooks, and I have my own preferences about just which ingredients go into it and how I like to arrange those ingredients. When all is said and done, the end result can be very basic or quite elaborate. As far as I can tell, mine is pretty close to the "original". The Original?? Hmmm. Because this sandwich can be found at just about every cafe or bistro in France, it's true origin is unknown. What is known, is that it seemed to show up in the early part of the twentieth century, (approx 1910) based on the mention of it in literature. It was referenced in Volume II of Proust's "Remembrance of Things Past", written in 1918.
- 4 half-inch thick Slices of Hearty Bread (I use a Tuscan Bread, but it can be any bread you like)
- 8 Slices of Black Forest or Baked Ham, sliced thinly
- 1 Cup Gruyere Cheese, shredded
- 4 Slices Gruyere Cheese
- 6 Tbls Butter, divided
- 4 Tbls All Purpose Flour
- 1 Tsp Kosher Salt
- 1/2 Tsp Fresh Ground Black Pepper
- Pinch of Ground Nutmeg
- 3 Cups Whole Milk (2% can be substituted)
Make the Bechamel Sauce: Melt 4 Tbls Butter in a saucepan over medium heat. When the butter is melted, add the 4 Tbls Flour, Salt and Pepper and whisk thoroughly until a medium thick "paste" is formed. Keep whisking for about 2-3 minutes to cook off the raw flour taste. Add the milk in small amounts (about 1/4 cup at a time, whisking continuously, incorporating the milk and flour mixture well, until thick enough to just coat the back of a spoon. Add the shredded cheese and continue stirring with a spoon until it's melted. If the sauce becomes too thick, you can thin it out with a bit more milk. Remove from heat and whisk in the Nutmeg. Set aside.
Assemble the Sandwiches: You can cut off the crusts or leave them on. If cutting them off, do so before the sandwiches are made, placing 2 slices on top of each other before cutting so that sandwiches are pretty even. Place 1 slice of cheese on each piece of bread. Layer 2 slices of ham on top of each slice of cheese, in a sort of piled up fashion. (not laying flat) Drizzle about 2 Tbls of the Bechamel over the ham on each piece of bread. Put each 2 sides together to make 2 sandwiches. Spread both sides of each sandwich with as much of the remaining butter as you need and place them in a preheated skillet over medium heat.
Completing the Sandwiches: Check the sandwiches frequently making sure they don't burn, turning heat down if necessary and when they are golden brown on one side, flip them to the other side and do the same until that side is also golden brown. Remove the 2 Sandwiches to a parchment lined cookie sheet. Turn your oven on broil. Ladle the Bechamel liberally over the tops of each sandwich allowing it to drip down the sides a bit and place them under the broiler, watching them constantly until they are hot and bubbly. You can cut them on the diagonal if you wish, but the traditional way is to serve them whole.
To Make a Croque Madame: Follow the recipe above, except place 1 fried or poached egg on top of each sandwich before ladling the Bechamel over the top. Place them under the broiler just as with the Monsieur.
I like to serve these with something light to balance out the richness of the Bechamel and Cheese. My usual choice is blanched chilled Asparagus, drizzled with a light Vinaigrette and maybe a little bit of chopped hard boiled egg. A big green salad is perfect too.
Now all that's left to do is to pour yourself a glass of white wine or sparkling water if you prefer, and imagine yourself sitting outside at a lovely cafe along the Rue St. Germain in Paris. Perhaps the seat you're sitting in was once occupied by Hemingway, Wilde or Morrison.....
Bon Appetit !!