There is a slight chance we may be going to France this summer and if we do one of the dishes I’m planning on having at least once everyday is croque monsieur. This is France’s version of a grilled ham and cheese sandwich but that’s about where the similarities end. Found throughout the country, the sandwich is always eaten with knife and fork, it is prepared with Gruyère cheese and is baked in a very hot oven, 425°F to be exact. Oh, wait. And it’s smothered in a bubbly, cheesy, crunchy bechamel sauce. It is one of my favorite sandwiches and that’s saying something. I’m not big on sammies. We didn’t grow up on sandwiches. Being from Puerto Rico, my mother and her siblings were driven from school to home everyday for lunch. Lunch was served at the dining room table and, in European fashion, was a full, proper meal. I don’t think Mama had a sandwich until she moved Stateside after college. So growing up Mama mixed up quite a bit of tuna salad until she found these little, plastic bags of dried, chipped beef. Apparently this dried beef is to be mixed with a cream sauce and served over bread or toast but Mama never got that memo. No, we were expected to slap a few slices of the salty beef in between two pieces of brown bread and that was lunch. It was beyond awful to say the least. Vile. When we refused to eat the sandwiches Mama often said, “Well, then you can’t be THAT hungry.” I’m one of four and none of us ever invited any friends over for lunch. No way. For a short time, though, there lived a family of four or five kids that rented the house across the street. I don’t remember seeing the mom much, a single mother, she worked all the time… day and night, in a cocktail lounge. Whoever the father was, not once did he come around. The kids roamed the neighborhood with complete freedom and no time constraints. They were sweet kids, though, quiet…all towheads. And their names all rhymed…Larry, Barry, Sherry, Mary, Terry. There may have been a Kerry in there. We could never keep track of them. Whenever my siblings and I talked about them, we strung their names together as one, repeated in rapid fire and then collapsed in paroxysms of laughter. Those children were all closer in age to my little brother and sister, five and six years of age, and spent many an afternoon playing at our house. Then one day they moved away. They just disappeared. If memory serves me correctly, they left in the dead of night. We accepted it and shortly thereafter someone bought the house and we had a new neighbor. Years went by…15? 20? My siblings and I had grown and flown the coop. Mama was home alone when the doorbell rang. A young man in an ill-fitting suit stood outside, looking around. Mama greeted him and he asked if she recognized him. Mama was very kind but shook her head no. And this is what he said. “Mrs. Wattley, I’m sure you don’t remember me but a long time ago we lived across the street. I was in the area and wanted to stop by and thank you. You see, my brothers and sisters, LarryBarrySherryFerryDairyanMary and I used to play with Tommy and Pamela. And so many times you gave us chipped beef sandwiches for lunch. I want to thank you, Mrs. Wattley, because on those days that’s all we had to eat. We didn’t have any food so thank you for being so kind to us and welcoming. We never felt ashamed.” Mama said she smiled and hugged him and he left. We don’t always know the impact we have on other’s lives. Don’t dismiss or trivialize a small kindness because you don’t know the mark it will leave or how desperately it may be needed. My mother had a huge, non-judgmental heart and accepted everyone quietly and with confidence. Her compassion and generosity continues to astonish me even years after her death. She was an extraordinary example of how one should live and taught me to never underestimate a simple gesture or the power of a humble sandwich.
Mama NEVER made this sandwich but we did enjoy quite a few in Paris. The croque monsieur may be made open face or with two slices of bread. It can be assembled in advance and then popped into the oven prior to serving. The best bread seems to be a country-style bread which one would think would fall apart with the weight of the ingredients but lightly toasting the bread before assembling the sandwich eliminates that problem. Typically the sandwich is not served with fresh thyme to garnish but it adds such a delightful flavor I urge you to try it. And I strongly suggest grating fresh nutmeg into the bechamel. Makes all the difference in the world. This sandwich pairs beautifully when served with an arugula salad dressed with a lemony vinaigrette.
- 4 tablespoons butter
- 4 tablespoons flour
- 2 cups hot milk
- nutmeg, freshly grated to taste
- salt and pepper to taste
- 5 cups grated Gruyère, about 1 pound, divided
- 8 slices country bread, thickly sliced, lightly toasted
- 12 slices sweet ham, Black Forest or Virginia ham are fine, sliced medium thick
- dijon mustard, optional
- fresh thyme sprigs, optional
- Pre-heat oven to 425°.
- In a medium pot melt butter. When foamy add flour and whisk well.
- While whisking slowly pour hot milk in a steady stream. Continue whisking until all lumps have disappeared and sauce has thickened.
- Remove from heat and whisk in nutmeg. Season with salt and pepper. Remember both the ham and cheese are salty so go easy on the salt.
- Spread a thick layer of the bechamel on 4 slices of bread.
- Cover bechamel bread with a light sprinkle of Gruyère.
- Top Gruyère with ham evenly divided between the four stacked slices.
- Dollop a bit of bechamel on the ham and lightly spread.
- If using Dijon mustard spread lightly on the remaining 4 slices of bread, top the sandwiches with the bread and press together.
- Place sandwiches in cast iron skillet or baking sheet.
- Cover each sandwich with remaining bechamel and Gruyère cheese.
- Bake 15-20 minutes until cheese is bubbly and oozing out.
- Broil for an additional 3-4 minutes until golden on top.
- Garnish with fresh thyme and serve immediately.