It is British Sandwich Week and while my tastes have not changed that much, my favourite is still an unctuous melting ham and cheese sandwich and I have found the most incredible way to prepare one. No more lengthy preparation for a correct Croque Monsieur, forget the oven, throw away your toaster and get out your frying pan, I want to shout out from the rooftop just how incredible this sandwich is, and I want you to try it today. I’m so proud I might just enter in the granddaddy of all competitions, the big cheese ( sorry ) of competitive grilled sandwich making the Wisconsin Grilled Cheese Championships and a $40,000 prize.
You can use any ham and any cheese that you have in the fridge and sliced white, it’s like the post night out store cupboard classic, I have just gone a little crazy in the delicatessen section and used some of my favourites.
2 or more slices of Swiss Cheese such as Gruyère or Emmental
2 or more slices of Mature Cheddar
1 large slice of Smoked Ham
Assemble the sandwich as follows, on one piece of bread spread half of the mayonnaise and place mayonnaise side down on a plate, spread the other side of the bread with the mustard and top with the ham. Repeat the process with a second piece of bread and top with the cheese. Place together mayonnaise on the outside.
Heat a medium-sized, heavy-bottomed, non-stick frying pan over a very moderate heat and lay the sandwich in the pan, pressing down several times as the sandwich browns rather slowly on the bottom, for around three to four minutes. Turn and brown the sandwich on the other side, pressing down upon the sandwich several times until its bottom, too, is lightly browned and the cheese is starting to melt. Serve with salad and tomato chutney.
What to Drink? Try pairing your Sandwich with a fruity and refreshingly acidic Beaujolais wine or the citrus, fruity hoppy flavours of an American style IPA.
It is apparently National Sandwich Week and not surprisingly bacon and chicken feature at the top of all the polls for people’s favourite sandwiches. I am sure you are aware that the sandwich was created by a gambling-obsessed Earl who asked a servant to put meat between two pieces of bread to enable him to continue playing cards and eat. Interestingly his direct descendants founded a chain selling guess what?
Now I like a bacon sandwich as much as any person, it is almost the chef’s staple diet but my favourite is a little different. At the simplest level, the Croque Monsieur is a French grilled ham and cheese sandwich. One of those all important combinations where the sum of the parts, in this case, ham, cheese (typically Emmental or Gruyère), white bread and butter transcend their humble origins and make a perfect match. Golden brown, crisp toast with a blisteringly hot creamy, melted cheese and slightly salty ham filling. C’est Magnifique as the French would say.
Unfortunately, for the French nation, there is no accurate record where or when the first Croque Monsieur was made and who was the unrecorded creator, they first appear on a Parisian café menu in 1910 and in literature in Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past in 1918. The rise of the Croque Monsieur is such it is now offered in Paris branches of McDonalds as the Croq McDo. C’est horrible. So for a classic Croque Monsieur, I am going to offer you the recipe of a magnificent pair of redoubtable chefs who should know their classic toasted French ham sandwich, the Francophile Julia Child and the even more actually French Jacques Pepin.
This recipe below is directly from Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home
Julia’s Croque Monsieur – One sandwich
2 slices fresh, reasonably soft home-style White Bread,
removed from the loaf in sequence for accurate reassembly*
2 or more slices Swiss Cheese (Gruyère or Emmental )
3/16 inch thick and large enough to cover each bread slice.
1 slice excellent baked or boiled Ham,
3/ 16 inches thick, trimmed of fat, and same size as the cheese
2 tablespoons clarified Butter
Preheat the oven to 300F / 150C / Gas mark 2. Assemble the sandwich as follows, on one piece of bread spread the mayonnaise and a thin smear of the mustard top with one piece of cheese. Add the ham the second piece of cheese and the second piece of bread. Gently push down on the fresh bread. Using a very sharp knife remove the crusts. Wrap in cling film until required.
Melt half of the butter in a medium sized heavy bottomed, ovenproof frying pan over a medium to high heat. When very hot but not browning, lower heat to moderate and lay the sandwich in the pan, pressing down several times as the sandwich browns rather slowly on the bottom, for around two minutes. Add the remaining tablespoon of clarified butter to the pan, then turn and brown the sandwich on the other side, pressing down upon the sandwich several times until its bottom, too, is lightly browned. Place the frying pan into the oven and bake for 7 to 8 minutes, until the cheese is fully melted.[Child, Julia and Pepin, Jacques. 1988 Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, New York.]
*Very Precise instructions for sandwich making.
The Next Level
The Croque Monsieur has been adapted both successfully and perhaps not quite so, I leave you, dear reader, the pleasure of deciding which, from the selection below;
Croque-madame with a fried or poached egg served on the top
Croque provençal with the addition of sliced tomato
Croque auvergnat with the substitution of bleu d’Auvergne cheese
Croque gagnet with sliced Gouda cheese and cooked Andouille sausage
Croque norvégien with smoked salmon instead of ham
( I would go so far to add a little sprinkling of dill )
Croque tartiflette with sliced potatoes and Reblochon cheese
Croque bolognese / croque Boum-Boum with Bolognese sauce
Croque señor with a tomato salsa
Croque Hawaiian with a slice of pineapple
But now we get into the territory of the serious sandwich maker, traversing from the original fast-food snack served in Parisian cafés and bars to grand, elaborate creations some coated in a Béchamel or Mornay sauce, the use of eggy bread ( Pain Perdu or French Toast ) and Montecristo – the sandwich not the Count or cigar. This sandwich varies across the world and in particular across the United States and many include sliced turkey as well as cheese and ham. They may be open or closed, grilled with extra cheese on top, mustard mayonnaise or Thousand Island dressing and even dredged with icing sugar.* If you feel inspired may I suggest to you the one and only Grilled Cheese Invitational for those of a seriously competitive nature? I am working on a few ideas already – see you there.
Preheat the oven to 300F / 150C / Gas mark 2. Press the washed baby spinach between two layers of kitchen paper to completely dry it. In a medium sized bowl whisk together the cream, eggs, cayenne and a good pinch of salt and pepper. Create the sandwich as on one piece of bread spread a thin smear of mustard and top with one piece of Swiss cheese. Add the ham, the spinach and a second piece of cheese and the remaining slice of bread. Gently push down on the fresh bread. Using a very sharp knife remove the crusts. Dip the sandwich in the seasoned egg mix, allowing both sides to soak up the liquid.
Melt half of the butter in a medium-sized heavy-bottomed, ovenproof frying pan over a medium to high heat. When very hot but not burning, lower heat to moderate and lay the sandwich in the pan, gently press down several times as the sandwich browns rather slowly on the bottom, for around two minutes. Add the remaining tablespoon of clarified butter to the pan, then turn and brown the sandwich on the other side, pressing down upon the sandwich several times until its bottom, too, is lightly browned. Remove from heat and sprinkle with the grated cheese. Place the frying pan into the oven and bake for 7 to 8 minutes, until the cheese is fully melted.
* A Monti Cristo with Thousand Island dressing is I am reliably informed by Wikipedia called a Cumberland Head. Anyone know why? As well as dusting the savoury versions with sugar, sweet Monti Cristo sandwiches usually contain fruit, berries, sour cream, sugar and/ or Maple syrup.