I love traveling. Apart from seeing a different part of the world and experiencing the culture, I get to taste the local fare. A few summers ago, I visited Paris and various parts of Italy. I was super excited because this was my first time in Paris. I had dreamed of walking down la rue heading for the Louvre and stopping at quaint cafes for a latte and croissant. I had meticulously planned out charming outfits, beret included, for this trip.
But, of course, the airline lost my luggage when I landed. After two hours of “Guess What I’m Saying” with a native French speaking airline rep, we finally found out my suitcase was left behind at the connecting airport. They couldn’t tell me exactly when the suitcase would get to Paris, but it would definitely be “within the next day or two.” This is when panic ensued. I was leaving Paris in two days to go to Florence – what if it didn’t get to me in time? The French man told me there was nothing else he could do and proceeded to close up his kiosk. Now what? Well, there wasn’t much to do except go to the hotel. Luckily, I always have a set of clean clothes in my carry-on for emergencies. So what did I change into? Yoga pants and a t-shirt. So much for flowing summer dresses and strappy sandals. I sternly told myself to stop moping around and go enjoy the scenery. I kept trying to shake the negative feelings running through me as I walked around. I stumbled across a bistro and realized I was starving.
The bistro had a picturesque store front: outdoor seating for anyone who enjoyed basking in the hot summer sun; little black and white awnings above the windows; dark green ivy growing along the red brick walls; and a few locals sitting outside sipping on espressos and wine. I chose to sit inside the bistro in a little corner to people watch. Everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves. After a quick look at the menu (the waitress was kind enough to bring me the English menu), I settled on a favorite of mine: croque-madame.
The hot sandwich came out with golden fried pomme frites (french fries) and a lightly dressed salad on the side. As usual, I cut the sandwich directly in the center. This way, the runny yolk leaks back into the sandwich and not off onto the sides. What’s better than yolk soaked bread? Nothing, I tell you, NOTHING. The first bite of the croque-madame was amazing. The warm crispy fresh baked bread mixed with the thick cut black forest ham and Gruyère mixed béchamel sauce made me feel better instantaneously. The béchamel sauce really put the sandwich over the edge though. It was the perfect consistency; it was extra thick to be used as the sandwich filling. It was hearty and homey and gave the sandwich the creaminess and moisture it needed to not be dry. The melted Gruyère cheese gave the sandwich an extra saltiness and earthiness that added complexity to the flavor. All in all, it was exactly what I needed at that moment. I forgot about my missing piece of luggage for the next hour of the meal as I controlled my impulse to lick the last bits of food off the plate.
I think it’s safe to say that croque-madame has become one of my comfort foods since Paris. I loved them before, but now they hold a special place in my heart (and stomach). And since then, I’ve tried perfecting my own version of the croque-madame. Here’s my recipe for some ham and cheese goodness.
- 5 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
- 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- 2 cups whole milk
- ⅛ teaspoon grated nutmeg
- 12 ounces Gruyère cheese, grated, divided
- 4 slices of bread
- ¾ pound of good quality thick cut ham
- 2 eggs
Preheat oven to 400°F
Prepare béchamel sauce:
- In a small heavy saucepan, melt 3 tablespoons of butter over medium low heat
- Add the flour and whisk together
- Stirring constantly, cook for 2-3 minutes until mixture is cooked but not browned
- Add milk and bring mixture to a boil while stirring from time to time until it thickens, about 10-15 minutes
- Whisk in salt, pepper, nutmeg, and half of the Gruyère until cheese is melted
- Remove sauce from heat and cover surface with saran wrap to avoid a skin from forming
- Lay out 2 slices of bread on a flat surface
- Spread about 1½ tablespoons of the béchamel sauce on the bread, then top with 3-4 slices of ham and top with another 1½ tablespoons of sauce
- Cover with another slice of bread
- Heat a large skillet and then add 1 tablespoon of butter
- Add the sandwiches to the skillet and brown on one side for roughly 2 minutes on medium low heat
- Add the remaining 1 tablespoon of butter and flip the sandwiches and brown for another 2 minutes
- Place sandwiches on a baking sheet
- Add another 2 tablespoons of bechamel on top of each sandwich and top with Gruyère cheese
- Clean skillet of any crumbs and excess butter
- Add oil and fry eggs in the skillet
- Place sandwiches into oven until cheese is melted and tops of sandwiches are golden brown, 3-4 minutes
- Season eggs with salt and pepper and top each sandwich with a fried egg and serve immediately
My serving suggestion is to pair the croque-madame with a lightly dressed mixed greens salad. The sandwich itself is pretty decadent with the sauce and cheese. The salad will balance out the heaviness of the sandwich and lighten up the meal a little. However, if you are seriously craving something crispy and crunchy, french fries is also a perfect companion with the sandwich. As croque-madames are usually enjoyed during brunch, hash browns or breakfast potatoes can also be served as the side.
The next thing to consider is the type of bread that you want to use. You can most definitely use any type of white bread (or wheat if you’re trying to be health conscious) from any local grocery shop. Or, if you want a really fancy meal, you can also get some fresh baked french batard or sourdough from speciality grocers. For the ham, it is best to use a thick cut style versus the thinner sandwich meats. This will lead to a heartier taste and more texture in the sandwich.
So what are you waiting for? Go savor a croque-madame and lick the plate for me.