When I was little, both Sunday night suppers and toasties were my father’s domain, and the venn diagram between the two were almost perfectly overlapping circles. Many of his fillings cruelly haven’t made it into the mainstream toastie world (although corned beef and onion has stood the test of time in our household, and tinned chicken curry was my mother’s favourite). Toasties remain a mainstay in my grown up home, even if they don’t quite scale the tinned heights (and delights) of Dad’s.
The croque monsieur is the more cosmopolitan, French version of the humble toastie. A croque monsieur is ham and cheese between two slices of toasted bread, often with a bechamel sauce inside and on top, bubbling and golden. There are lots of variations: the most famous is the croque madame, in which a fried (or sometimes poached egg) is placed on top of the croque monsieur. The less popular or common variations include the croque boum-boum (with bolognese) and the croque Hawaiian (with a slice of pineapple).
Of course, it’s easy to dismiss a croque monsieur as a cheese toastie with pretensions, and it does take a little more time investment than its simpler cousin, but the combination of nutty, stringy gruyere, thick cut ham, and creamy bechamel has elevated it to deserved French classic status.
When it comes to bread choice, eschew the fancy sourdough. The best bread for this kind of sandwich is a soft, white bloomer. Aside from the fact it is traditional, you need to be able to bite through the bread with ease to prevent bechamel tidal waves.
Now, I know you’re supposed to cut the crusts off. I know this. But I couldn’t bring myself to do it, sorry Larousse. It seems such a shame and a waste, especially when it means losing those little crispy bits of ham and crunchy bits of bread (and it makes me feel a bit like a child). Technically, a bechamel shouldn’t have cheese in it (when you add cheese, it becomes a sauce mornay), but if you’re going to ask me to make a white sauce and hand me a piece of gruyere, you’d best believe I’m going to grate it in there – and anyway, the French often do the same, so I think I’m safe.
Makes: Two sandwiches
Takes: 10 minutes
Bakes: 5 minutes
For the cheese sauce
20g plain flour
200ml whole milk
20g gruyere, grated
1 teaspoon dijon mustard
2 slices of good quality, sliced ham
4 slices of a firm, white bread
1 tablespoon grated gruyere
1. First, make the bechamel sauce. Melt 20g butter in a small pan, and add the flour. Stir to combine and cook over a medium heat until you hear it begin to sizzle. Add the milk bit by bit, stirring it in with a whisk to avoid lumps. Stir in the mustard and the grated cheese. Set to one side.
2. Set the grill to a medium heat. Melt the remaining butter and paint it onto one side of each slice of bread, and place them on a tray, butter side up. Grill just until they have taken on some colour and crisped a little.
3. Now build your croque monsieur. Place one of the slices of bread, toasted side down on the tray. Place a slice of the ham and third of the sauce on the untoasted side of the bread, spreading the bechamel to the edges of the bread, and place a second slice of bread on top, toasted side up. Repeat with the second sandwich, and then spread the remaining sauce on top of the sandwiches, then sprinkle with gruyere. Grill for just a few moments until the gruyere and bechamel has melted and bubbled, and any bits of ham that stick out beyond the sandwich have crisped. Serve hot.