It is funny how certain languages lend themselves to sounding much sexier when spoken. Say almost anything in French and it sounds poetic, maybe even sultry. Try saying the name of the famous French sandwich Croque Monsieur (croak muh·syur). It sounds so sophisticated, so refined. It may even instill some unfounded desire to raise your pinky like a dandy at the French court.
When you order your first Croque Monsieur in a Parisian bistro you might be surprised to find out that you just ordered is nothing more than a glorified grilled ham and cheese. What will make you laugh even harder is the name ‘Croque Monsieur’ literally translates to ‘Mister Crunchy’. Which sounds much more at home on a neon sign above a diner than at a fancy French bistro.
Croque of Merde
Croque Monsieur was invented in Paris in the early 1900s. It appeared on the first menu in 1910 at the Bel Age, a bistro on the boulevard des Capucins in Paris. The exact origin story will never be known and quite frankly who cares. Two quickly researched theories suggest that either a French worker accidentally left his lunch pail near a radiator and it melted his Jambon Beurre, creating the world’s first Croque monsieur.
The other theory is far more elaborate and may involve cannibalism. The story begins with a resourceful brasserie chef who unexpectedly ran out of baguettes, so he substitutes pain de mie, the French equivalent to our white bread. He toasts the bread because the horror of horrors no self-respecting Frenchmen could ever eat bread without a crust. One guest was so enthusiastic about this creation that he inquired the chef about it. The chef sarcastically pointed towards the town butcher, who is conveniently eating at a nearby table and mutters: “that’s Monsieur’s meat”. At the time, Bel Age was rumored to serve human meat so perhaps this story came from an early fake Yelp review.
How To Make the Crunchiest Croque Monsieur Ever
You may remember the famous grilled cheese scene from ‘Chef’, the 2014 cult-classic by Jon Favreau. My nipples still get hard upon hearing the sound of that crunch when he cuts the sandwich in two. It is the foodie’s equivalent to Meg Ryan’s fake orgasm at Katz Deli in ‘When Harry Met Sally.’
My technique for the perfect Croque Monsieur is quite simple: Copy what Jon did in Chef. You start by slathering copious quantities of soft butter on soft bread, the more the better. Stack Gruyere, Cantal, Compte, or any other cheese you like and then layer a few pieces of ham just so you can call it healthy-ish. Cook the sandwich in a non-stick skillet until golden brown on both sides and crispy as can be.
Note: If you don’t have a defibrillator charged on your kitchen wall or you are hoping to live longer than the covid-19 quarantines than just bake your sandwich until the cheese is warm and bubbly.
Here’s where we start splitting the Croque herd into different camps. Some cooks will call that plate of deliciousness sitting in front of you Croque Monsieur. Others will sneer and tell you that you have only gone part way, that to make a proper French sandwich you need a French mother sauce smothered all over the top. I fall firmly into the second camp.
Just what the heck is a Croque Madame?
At this point, you are probably wondering: how can I make this even richer? I don’t blame you, the very same thought crossed my mind too. When you’ve waded this far into the cholesterol pool, you might as well go all the way. Croque Madame is a Croque Monsieur with a fried egg perched perilously on top. I presume the name resulted from a crude joke about a woman’s reproductive system rather than an egg seller sitting next to the butcher at the Bel Age.
Note: If you want to guarantee a trip to the cardiac ward of your local hospital then replace the ham with a slice of sauteed foie gras (Croque Landais), but I would have to ask why.
Croque Monsieur (Croque Madame)
Croque Monsieur is nothing more than a glorified grilled ham and cheese sandwich with a French mother sauce smothered all over the top.
For the Béchamel
- 3 tbsp unsalted butter
- 3 tbsp all-purpose flour
- 1 - 1/2 cups whole milk
- 1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
- to taste sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
For the Croque Monsieur
- 8 slices white bread
- 8 tbsp unsalted butter room temperature
- 8 slices ham
- 1 cup shredded Gruyère cheese
To make the béchamel, in a medium saucepan over medium heat, melt the butter until foamy. Add the flour and cook, stirring constantly, until the mixture is foamy, about 3 minutes. Gradually add the milk, stirring until smooth. Cook, stirring, until the sauce is thick, about 3 minutes. Stir in the nutmeg and salt and pepper to taste.
Preheat the broiler to it's hottest setting.
To make the Croque Monsieur, butter 8 slices of the bread. Top 4 slices with cheese and then 2 slices of ham. Top with the remaining slices of bread and cook in a non-stick skillet over low heat until golden brown on each side, about 5 minutes.
Spread the béchamel evenly over the top and broil until bubbling and golden brown, 5 to 10 minutes. Eat immediately, though, bear in mind, it is hot; this is a fork-and-knife sandwich rather than a handheld kind of sandwich.
VARIATION: CROQUE MADAME: Make a Croque Monsieur. Top each sandwich with a fried egg when you pull them out of the broiler.
Variations on a Theme
You may be like me and realize that Croque Monsieur lends its self to creativity. It really is the perfect covid-19 sandwich as almost anything in your refrigerator will taste great inside a fancy grilled cheese. A few minutes searching Google you will quickly conclude that there are as many Croque variations as there are Parisians in Paris.
Here are some of the most inspiring variations:
- Croque Poulet Creme that replaces the ham with chicken in creme fraiche.
- Croque Provencal that includes a slice of tomato.
- Croque Auvergnat made with bleu d’Auvergne cheese smeared on the top.
- Croque Mademoiselle is made without ham and usually has some form of vegetables inside.
- Croque Norvégien that uses smoked salmon and creamed cheese.
- Croque Tartiflette that includes slices of potatoes and Reblochon cheese;
- Croque Bolognese made with Bolognese sauce. Think Franco-Italian sloppy joe.
- Croque Senor made with salsa.
- Croque Hawaiian that includes a slice of pineapple.