I often wonder whether the infamous French grouchiness isn’t born of resentment over the fact that the most fertile, bountiful turf in all of the Western world has given them only the third-best cuisine, behind both Spain and Italy. That’s gotta blow. Everything grows in France, and beautifully, and then those damn Italians take slices of un-aged cheese from the milk of stank-ass water buffalos, slap a slice of uncooked tomato over it, drizzle it with balsamico, and blow away all the best France has to offer. I’d be snotty, too. Hell, I am snotty, and my land grows grass and nothing else.
The French have a habit of just plain overdoing things. Maybe you are familiar with this habit. I certainly am. I can’t make a pot of shellfish without incorporating 15 pounds of butter. My sundaes typically include every candy topping known to man, covered in a gallon of hot fudge. It’s just so goddamn exciting, indulging in the freedom to put whatever the hell you want in the thing you’re making. Often, this is a big dumb mistake that will render the thing you’re making almost inedible.
On the other hand, The Wall—which is ridiculous and completely over the top—gave us “Nobody Home” and “Comfortably Numb.” As Errol Morris once reminded us via a Miller High Life commercial, the French, god bless ‘em, did give the world mayonnaise. And this isn’t even their greatest culinary contribution! In their wild exploration of excess, the French discovered the thrill of stuffing and slathering a regular old ham sandwich in thick and rich and heavy cream sauce. Outrageous, insane, and breathtakingly delicious. To be sure, it is also the very height of gluttony.
Thankfully, the French also gave us a snooty French name for this abomination: the croque monsieur. This is how a bubbling, fat-drenched ham sandwich got to become the kind of upscale foodstuff that makes an appearance in a Nancy Meyers flick. Give something a fancy name, and it immediately gains prestige. Listen, call it whatever the hell you want—it is out of this goddamn world, and we are going to make it.
Here’s what you’ll need: some ham, some cheese, some bread, some butter, some flour, some milk, a little nutmeg, a dollop of whole grain mustard, and some dried herbs. Also, preheat your oven to 425 degrees.
This is a damn ham sandwich. You can run around town looking for Paris ham or thin-sliced Virginia ham if you want. Jambon de Paris—the traditional choice—is a pig’s leg, skin on, that’s been brined for a week or so and then slowly simmered, before being sliced thin. It’s got a nice edge of fat and skin along one side, and is delicious. It’s also expensive, and is not the easiest thing in the world to find. Plus—remember—this is a damn ham sandwich. Let’s not put any lipstick on this particular pig, you know? I mean, we’re about to coat it in a thousand calories-worth of cream sauce. Decent ham is a fine enough way to forgive the godawful sin we are about to commit against our waistline, but let’s not get carried away. Grab a few slices of whatever deli ham you like.
As for cheese, go with Gruyère. It’s the traditional choice, sure, but also, it is among the meltiest of cheeses, and has a flavor that isn’t too far from Swiss, which is the right cheese for a ham sandwich. Buy a block of Gruyère and grate it or buy some grated Gruyère and, I dunno, spend 30 seconds learning the guitar. You’ll need a few healthy pinches of Gruyère, in the end.
All this stuff is going between and on top of bread, and this is where you’ll want to take a step up from your usual flimsy, sliced, regular-ass bread. Well, wait, hang on. There’s a couple ways to think about this. For instance, the correct bread for the correct grilled cheese is flimsy, sliced, regular-ass bread. It soaks up the fat from the melting cheese and butter and turns crispy and delicious. And a grilled cheese is not so unlike a croque monsieur, in the way that Dom DeLuise’s skeleton is not so unlike Dom DeLuise. On the other hand, a thick, crusty bread will hold its shape and texture against bumped up levels of moisture, and, man, seriously, we are about to coat this sandwich in goddamn fondue, in the way that Dom DeLuise’s skeleton was covered in, well, mostly just fondue.
I recommend, then, going the thick, crusty bread route. If you can find something called pain de campagne, that’s a good choice. It’s a rustic French sourdough that will stand up to the frankly horrifying onslaught of melted fat headed its way. Since it’s French, it will fit with the story of sampling authentic French cuisine you tell the paramedics after they have finished defibrillating your ruined heart back to fleeting life. If you can’t find any pain de campagne, any crusty bread will do, so long as it can be cut into thick, roughly sandwich-shaped slices.
Ham’s good, bread’s good, cheese is good. The star of this show, though, is the béchamel, which we’ll be making first. Drop a hunk of unsalted butter into a sauté pan or sauce pan over medium heat and move it around until it is melted. What we’re doing now is making a roux, so you will now be adding roughly the same amount of all purpose flour to the pan. If you used about a tablespoon of butter, add about a tablespoon of flour. If you used half a cup, add half a cup. If you used a jar of peanut butter, shit, man, start over. I should have specified. Add an equal amount of all purpose flour to the pan, and stir it around in the butter with a whisk until it is light brown and a little foamy. We want the flour toasted so that it will lose some of that raw cereal smell and flavor.
We are now going to add milk. Many béchamel recipes call for hot milk, but I am here to tell you you absolutely do not need to add hot milk. We’re gonna alter the process a little bit, and everything will turn out fine, and then we will thumb our noses at the chef types who are washing an extra vessel they used to needlessly preheat milk. Assholes! We don’t even have an extra vessel to use for heating milk.
Back the heat off to, say, medium low, and drop a splash of milk into your roux, stirring constantly. Here’s what’s gonna happen: the milk is gonna cause a lot of steam to rise off the pan, and the roux is gonna seize up immediately and become clay. Don’t freak out! Add more milk, and keep stirring. Stir and stir and stir, and add and add and add, and soon your béchamel will start to take shape, not as an obscene clay sculpture, but as a smooth, off-white cream sauce. You might notice small flecks of un-emulsified roux floating around in there. That’s fine! Keep the béchamel moving over medium low heat until it has reduced and has the semi-thick texture of, say, Olive Garden alfredo. Now, knock the heat back to low and clamp a lid over that thing.
This is weird, and vaguely alchemical, but a quick steam-room session under that lid over low heat is going to turn your thickened béchamel foamy and perfectly smooth. After a few minutes, yank the lid off, and stir salt and ground nutmeg into your béchamel, tasting as you go. MMMMMMMMMMMMMMM. You will have to resist the urge to just eat up all the béchamel with a big spoon, here. Man is it delicious. When you’ve got it where you want it, stir in a teaspoon or so of whole grain mustard. You want it to just pick up a mustardy kick, so start small and taste as you go. There! Done. Get the sauce off the heat.
Let’s assemble a ham sandwich. Slather one side of one of your slices of bread with béchamel, then throw down on top of that however much ham you want on your sandwich. I like a lot of ham. Heap a not-too-ambitious pile of Gruyère on top of the ham, and then top it with the other slice of bread. But wait! you are saying, what about another slathering of béchamel in there, on the bottom of the other slice? Resist! Here’s why: as your cheese melts, you want it to have something to grab onto and melt into, so that it won’t simply spill out the sides of your sandwich, like every damn cheeseburger ever made. A dry plane of bread will make the perfect surface—thirsty as it is for moisture, it will absorb the melted cheese with it’s hundreds of mouth-like air bubbles.
Ah, but we’re not done slathering, thank God. Slather the top of your sandwich with a thick layer of béchamel, then top that with another not-too-ambitious pile of Gruyère. Hell yeah, buddy, hell yeah. That damn top layer is gonna be like a slice of white pizza.
We’re about to cook the sandwich, but before we do, sprinkle some dried herbs over the top. The traditional choice, here, is Herbs de Provence. Lovely, lovely choice. The truth, though, is this: you can use almost any combination of herbs and it will be lovely. For crying out loud, it’s a cream-filled ham sandwich with a slice of pizza on top. I happen to think dried thyme and dried basil are an almost impossibly good combination, if you’re looking for a recommendation and/or aren’t wild about the flavor/aroma of marjoram. (What the hell even is the flavor/aroma of marjoram?) Set your sandwich on a cookie sheet or baking dish and slide it into your hot oven. It’s gonna need, say, 10 minutes in the heat. When the cheese on top is brown and bubbly, yank it out of there. You are done. There is your ham sandwich.
So, what are the flavor components of a cream-filled pizza-topped hot ham-and-cheese? Well, have a bite. OH MY FUCKING GOD. Yes, hmmm, and is that your taste buds talking, or perhaps your arteries? Or is it because a geyser of scalding hot cream sauce just erupted into your mouth and burned through your soft palate? Give it a few minutes to rest, then have a bite. You’re still gonna say OH MY FUCKING GOD. That is one indecent ham sandwich, man. It’s cool, though, to be eating a goddamn ham sandwich for dinner and getting another colorful stamp on your foodie card. Croque monsieur. Who are we even kidding with this shit.
It’s got the familiar ham-and-cheese flavors, and a familiar little zing of mustard here and there. The béchamel, as you might expect, is intensely rich and soul satisfying, in addition to being rib-sticking as a mofo. Don’t eat consecutive croque monsieurs, is what I’m saying. The composition, overall, has enough richness and complexity to stand up as a dinner offering, even while it is just a trumped up ham sandwich. Serve it with a quick green salad and some chilled white wine, or slap it down on some wax paper and serve it with a cold beer. It’s good to eat. Voilà. Good job, France.
Chris Thompson lives in Virginia, hate-loves and writes about the Wizards, and spends too much of his meager income on meals out. He’s also written for Gawker, Vice Sports, and The Classical, and can be found on Twitter @MadBastardsAll. He’ll be doing these every other Saturday; check the Foodspin archive here.