I can’t remember the first time I had a Croque Monsieur. It may have been when I went to Paris for the first time. I was 21 and I flew from Toronto to Paris alone to visit a friend of mine who lived there. I mostly remember eating baguettes and cheese and walking. I don’t recall a Croque Monsieur, but there may have been be one.
Maybe it was visiting my sister or other friends in Quebec over the years, although for that, I have memories of $1 crab straight off the boat from the Gaspe Peninsula, Poutine anywhere the eye could see, and everything cultural Montreal had to offer .
I would have to say the first Croque Monsieur I fell in love with was in an extremely popular French restaurant here in Playa del Carmen. As I’ve mentioned a few times, my breakfast of choice isn’t usually pancakes or waffles, I’m more of the savory type. So when I saw this ham and cheese sandwich on the menu, as done by the French, I thought, I must try. Wait 20 minutes for it? Okay.
It was worth the wait.
It was life-changing bread, ham and cheese worth biting into, and a béchamel sauce that was not too rich but just right and broiled until there were little bits of crunch. I know that you’re supposed to eat the salad that goes with it to cut the richness, but I don’t. I take one bite of it in the middle of my sandwich, and just go back to the beauty that the Croque Monsieur is. Once I had the Croque Madame I switched to that. The perfect egg on top, that yolk breaking and slithering down the sandwich? Perfection.
The first time I tried to recreate it at home I didn’t do so well. I didn’t pay attention to the details (remember, that’s why I’ll never be a pastry chef). I bought okay bread, worse ham, and doable cheese. The sauce was way too heavy and overwhelmed the sandwich. I was disappointed. Maybe it was just for the French to perfect.
When I was thinking about national sandwich day and what would be my favorite sandwich, I went straight to the Croque Madame. I knew I had to try again. What do I do when I want to well on a dish that I’ve failed at before? I read articles on it. Not just recipes, entire articles, combining what I like from one recipe to the next and the next. I guess I feel if I’ve burned the information in my brain I’ll learn my lesson.
The information that I gathered was this: make sure you start with good quality ingredients. I was already stressed out. There are very few places that provide decent lunch meat or great bread here in Playa del Carmen. But I was determined to try. So next visit to grocery stores I took my time, paying more than the usual for good quality ham, the perfect cheese, and that right bread. I ended up using a sour-dough bread and did not cut off the crusts. I bought good ham, and Emmental was my cheese of choice. I found me some fresh thyme which was exciting because owe day we have something available to us here and the next day we don’t. I was determined to pace myself, having plenty of ingredients to use in case the first sandwiches did not turn out and I had a tantrum.
Most Mexican ovens don’t have broilers, but my mom bought a little toaster oven that had a broiler so I was getting excited. I started with the béchamel sauce, which I’ve actually made many times, but because I was so nervous, was afraid I’d ruin it. I’m whisking and whisking and it’s not thickening up. Whhhhhyyyyyy. Oh , I ran out of gas
Mexican stoves use gas. The tank in our home is a stationary one on the roof which means I don’t know when I’ll run out unless I send my son scaling like Spider-Man uup the wall to check the gauge. Anyone in apartments have smaller tanks outside their windows they can check any time, and another one of our houses had stairs to the roof so we could check all the time. But where we are now doesn’t. And I always run out at THE MOST ANNOYING TIMES. That’s not all: if you’re lucky and run out of gas in the morning, you can get it by the end of the day. If you’re home waiting all day. After 11 am, forget it, it’s next day for sure. Since it was early, I called, but still didn’t want to wait until 5 pm for gas.
So I bundle all my stuff up and go to my moms two doors down. Could my sauce be salvaged? First good news of the day, it was! I proceeded to slice my bread, layered on my ham and my cheese, added cooked down mushrooms (I add them to everything I possibly can because it’s the one thing we don’t make our kids eat and I don’t have enough of them in my life), then the sauce, and sent it to broil. Those were the longest 8 minutes I had to wait . As it came out I looked at it and thought it looked pretty good. Then I took my first bite.
It was good. So very good.
Bye bye French restaurant. I don’t need you anymore.
(Ok that’s not true I buy baguettes and croissants and macaroons still but I said that for the drama factor. I’ll always need a French bakery in my life)
I was pleased with myself. I made more sandwiches for my family, glad for the empty house at my parents that morning. No teenagers asking when can I eat that? Did you get a good picture already? Me having to threaten nobody would be eating anything if they asked me one more time.
All of a sudden , it seemed so simple. I had overcome my fear of the sandwich I loved most. You can too. Try it and spoil your family with a sandwich so rich that you won’t have to make lunch . Or maybe dinner. Just promise me you’ll try it .
The French know their food . And I’m glad I know theirs .
Except for the béchamel , this recipe is just about ingredients. It’s up to you how much you put on each sandwich.
- good quality ham, thinly sliced
- Emmental or Gruyere cheese, grated
- any good quality bread (I’ve used sour-dough, white, even rye)
- 2 TAB butter
- 2 TAB flour
- 1 cup whole milk
- sprigs of thyme
- 1 TAB dijon
- 1/4 tsp nutmeg
- 1/4 tsp kosher salt
Béchamel: Melt butter in a medium pot over medium heat until foamy. Sprinkle flour on top and cook, stirring constantly for about two minutes. (It will clump together and bubble). Gradually add milk, whisking until mixture is smooth. Add sprigs of thyme and continue until mixture thickens, about 3-4 minutes. Whisk in dijon, nutmeg, and salt. Remove from heat. Remove sprigs before using, but it’s fine if some of the leaves have fallen into the sauce.
Slice bread. Butter one side of each slice and place facing down on your baking sheet. If you like, you can spread dijon onto the inside of the bread for extra zest, or just smear with béchamel. Place ham and grated cheese on top, then the other slice of bread. Smear more béchamel on the top and more grated cheese. Broil for 5-8 minutes or until tops are golden. Remove and serve immediately.
For Croque Madame, add a fried or poached egg to the top.