In Search of M. Croque

by on March 21, 2008

Perhaps I’ve been living in a sandwich bubble – I just ate my first croque-monsieur ten days ago. Well, I guess technically I’ve had hundreds of them, if you count all the “regular” ham and cheese sandwiches that made their way into my lunchbox growing up. But if you go by Larousse Gastronomique (a resource that’s new to me but is evidently the gospel when it comes to French cuisine) what distinguishes a croque-monsieur is that it’s grilled. And then there’s the béchamel sauce. Lord have mercy. How over the top is that? I mean, literally, a cheese sauce broiled on top of an already sodium-carb-cholesterol-loaded beast? Suffice it to say, that was a new experience for me. Apparently béchamel sauce isn’t necessarily a required component and the French eat them with or without it. My sense of health responsibility has to draw the line and say “hold the béchamel”! Want to skip ahead? Click here for the final recipe.

Croque-Monsieur Panini – Attempt #1

  • Bread: Ciabatta
  • Meat: Black Forest ham
  • Cheese: Smoked Gruyère
  • Condiments: Whole grain Dijon mustard
  • “Goodies”: Arugula

THE CONSTRUCTION: The fact that croque-monsieurs are traditionally grilled makes creating a panini version (as I have been doing as part of my Panini Happy Classics series) somewhat straightforward. But there were a few other considerations: the type of bread and cheese and, of course, the béchamel. White bread, which is typically used for croque-monsieurs, isn’t the best for pressing. It’s soft and so it flattens out pretty easily. So I turned to one of my favorite panini breads: good ol’ sturdy and flavorful ciabatta. I cut a roll in half lengthwise and turned the halves inside out – that is, I prepared to build the sandwich with the cut sides facing the outside in order to have nice flat surfaces for even grilling (as I recommended in “7 Tips for Making Great Panini”). Normally a croque-monsieur would be presented on buttered bread, but since I was using an olive oil-based ciabatta I drizzled a little olive oil on the cut sides to make them extra crispy and tasty once it came time to grill.

If I were to try to re-create the croque-monsieur I enjoyed a few weeks ago, next up would be a layer of rich, creamy béchamel sauce. I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. Instead, I thought I’d punch up the flavor and texture quotient with some whole grain Dijon mustard on both crust sides of the ciabatta.

Arugula was another “non-standard” ingredient I thought would add good peppery flavor as well as a bit of color in the sandwich. That went down on the bottom bread piece.

I’d intended to stick with the traditional Gruyère for cheese, but oddly enough the only Gruyère my local market carried was a smoked variety from Boar’s Head. I figured that might provide good additional flavor so I went with it. I lay about a slice and a half on top of the arugula, enough to cover the length of the roll.

Black Forest ham went on next. Now, I can’t claim to know a whole lot about the difference between various types of ham but I do know that I prefer this dry, smoky variety to the wet Oscar Mayer type. Not sure how strong the ham flavor was going to be versus the cheese, I decided to go with just one slice. I added another slice and a half of Gruyère, positioned the top half of ciabatta and grilled the sandwich on medium-high heat (375 degrees) for about 5 minutes.

THE RESULTS: Pretty good. It was nice and crisp, flavorful for sure. The mustard was definitely pronounced – not a bad thing, since I like it, but maybe a touch strong for some. I also kind of lost the flavor of the ham amidst the cheese, which wasn’t a huge surprise given there was twice as much cheese as ham on the sandwich! The smoky flavor of the cheese itself, by the way, was rather subtle and tasted great. I thought this version was good, but could be improved upon – on to Attempt #2!

Croque-Monsieur Panini – Attempt #2

To tone down the mustard prominence, I spread the whole grain Dijon on just one half of the bread. On the other half, I tried out my new roasted garlic aioli spread I recently picked up at Williams-Sonoma. I thought it would still provide great flavor plus a little of the creaminess that I was missing without the béchamel sauce. I also added a second slice of ham to balance out the ham-to-cheese ratio.

THE RESULTS: Very satisfying! Replacing some of the Dijon with roasted garlic aioli definitely mellowed the flavors – less tangy, more savory, which is what I was going for. And the additional slice of ham made the sandwich feel more “substantial” – like a ham sandwich with cheese, rather than a grilled cheese with a touch of ham. All in all, a tasty panini-fied adaptation of a croque-monsieur. Bon appetit!

Get the final recipe!

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