Once you learn how to bake bread, the next step should be learning how to make a fantastic croque-monsieur. This iconic French sandwich is incredibly simple to make, but also requires culinary finesse. Legend has it that the idea was stumbled upon by accident when a group of workers left their sandwiches too close to a radiator, creating the hot meal that is now a French staple. Of course, this is likely nothing more than folklore.
The sandwich became popular in its country of origin around the beginning of the 20th century, first appearing on a cafe menu in 1910. Croque-monsieur literally translates to “crunchy mister.” An early mention of the sandwich was written in Marcel Proust’s infamous epic tome “In Search of Lost Time.” Croque-monsieur is perhaps pedestrian by nature, but like many French foods, some cooking know-how is necessary to take this ham and cheese sandwich to the next level.
A focus on ingredients
The simple truth is that this sandwich relies on quality ingredients. Good white bread, a strong Gruyere cheese, and thinly sliced ham will make all the difference. Also, a genuine croque-monsieur requires that the bread be doused in Bechamel, so learn to make this signature French sauce beforehand. A pinch of nutmeg is often added to the sauce to complement the nutty flavor of the Gruyere cheese.
The cornerstone French cooking text, “Larousse Gastronomique,” mandates that a true croque-monsieur have the crust cut from the bread. Despite tradition, this point is preferential, and if you’re a fan of crust, it’s probably better just to make a sandwich that suits you. Remember when making this dish that the bread provides the foundation, and the Bechamel and melted cheese will likely soften it up a bit. With that said, find yourself a strong white bread that won’t turn to mush.
Most recipes list Gruyere as the cheese of choice for this sandwich, but other flavorful white cheeses can work as well. For example, in the United States the combination of ham and Swiss has become extremely popular, so that cheese makes a good substitute.
To ensure you get the best quality ham, visit your local butcher and have it sliced fresh.
Since croque-monsieur is a pretty straightforward dish, conservative chefs don’t stray too far from the traditional recipe. However, Dijon mustard is often added for flavor. Other variations include add-ons such as mushrooms or apples.