Cooking to Cook, Vol. 3: The Croque Monsieur
This column came about last year, based around the idea of cooking for one’s own pleasure, for the purpose of making mistakes and learning along the way. Reviving it for 2019, Creative Director Raquel Reyes brings us along on her cooking lessons, based on favorite and seasonal meals. For more, check out Vol. 2 here.
I’ve been missing France a lot lately. I think I always miss it in certain weather, like when it’s as overcast and damp out as it was the Spring I first visited but also as it happens to be on occasion in the summers here. The memories aren’t exactly time specific, instead they evoke more of a mood: seeing children chasing each other in the Louvre courtyard, getting lost at Mont Saint Michel, giving up all hope of finding my tour group and settling instead for a solo dinner in a tucked away bistro that made their chocolate mousse from scratch, sitting in the Tuileries drinking endless cafés au lait. I have seen friends circulate in and out of Paris recently, including our very own Mishka (and Rachel last month!), and the content on my instagram feed has been vicariously appreciated.
What is it about France in particular that sparks our love for its culture? The food, perhaps, or wine or architectural sensibility... Of course this shared love applies to other places for overlapping reasons, New York, London, Geneva, but these are cities, and I think France has a love for it that extends across the country. Sure, Paris is a landmark beyond words, and there is more to England than London and likewise more to The States than New York. Perhaps those pieces will come at a later date. But when I think of France I don’t just think of Paris — I think of Normandy, I think of Annecy, I think of Provence. I think of my short days living on a dairy farm eating homemade tartines and how the first sip I ever had of alcohol was from a bottle of champagne in a cave in the Mayenne.
Back in America, and living minutes from a small French bistro in my second year at university, I often found my “missing France” moments transpire in a walk down the street to this charming place, where I would stock up on fig confiture, brioche, and biscuit tins smuggled over from Mont Saint Michel herself. Enjoying sparkling lemonade in their patio chairs, I would also frequently treat myself to my favorite dinner, their decadently rich Croque Monsieur.
A grilled cheese is approachable enough, but the Croque Monsieur, as done for maximum richness, includes a couple of extra steps. I would wholeheartedly argue that they are entirely worth the trouble, but can also be skipped in moments of extreme exhaustion or heat. You do you. In the summertime especially, my life revolves around fast salads (more on that soon), easy drinks, and sandwiches I can recreate in multiples based off a single trip to the market. Measurements here are barely a guideline; you can eyeball a béchamel and should always season and pile on cheese to whatever extent you feel appropriate.
The Croque Monsieur
You will need:
4 slices of sourdough bread
4 to 6 slices of good ham
Sliced gruyere or swiss cheese
Shredded gruyere or swiss cheese
*I would buy this in an 8 oz or so block, slice half and shred the rest.
2 tbsp / 1 oz unsalted butter (plus more for cooking)
2 tbsp / 35 g all purpose flour
1 cup / 8 oz milk (warm is best but room temperature will suffice)
If you’re going the easy route, you don’t need a béchamel. If you decide to include it, start there.
— Melt butter in a small saucepan over medium heat until frothy. Sprinkle in flour and whisk until fully incorporated, cooking for about a minute. Continuing to whisk, slowly drizzle in the milk and whisk until smooth. Be careful not to overcook, or the sauce will break. (You can bring back a broken sauce by adding more butter in small amounts if need be but I like saving myself the stress and try to get it right the first time.) Remove from heat, season with salt, pepper, and nutmeg, and set aside.
— Assemble your sandwich by spreading mayonnaise and mustard together over one side of each bread slice, layering ham between slices of cheese to optimize melting everywhere, and top with a matching slice. You know how to make a sandwich. At this point if you’ve made the béchamel you also want to preheat your broiler.
— In a sizeable cast iron or frying pan over medium heat, melt a pat of butter (enough to coat however many sandwiches you’re putting down at once) and place sandwiches into it. After they have soaked up the butter, remove and repeat with the other side. This is how I like to coat the outside all of my grilled sandwiches to avoid hopelessly dragging cold butter over untoasted bread. If you need more butter in the pan, add and bring the pan’s heat up to medium high. Cook sandwiches a minute or so before flipping. While one side cooks you can add more butter in spots that might need it for even browning. Once you have a light toast going spreading more butter on will be infinitely easier. If your sandwich is toasted but the cheese still not melted, turn heat to low and cover for a minute.
Once done, you can enjoy as is or proceed with the sauce!
— On a sheet pan coated with cooking spray or if you've used a cast iron like myself, place sandwiches together and top with a healthy helping of béchamel and shredded cheese. Place under your broiler until the cheese melts and everything becomes toasted and bubbly. This happens almost instantly so make sure to watch with your oven light on, and rotate if you see it happening unevenly. Remove and let cool slightly before eating.
I enjoy a peppery salad with this, baby kale or arugula tossed with oil, salt, and balsamic vinegar. Or you can go American and have it with potato chips, again salt and vinegar.
Drink-wise, I was also introduced to grenadine in France, where the people I met enjoyed it poured as a light sweetener into still or sparkling water. I love that pomegranate delight in any variation, and don’t see the harm in having it here that exact same way.
Enjoy! What foods bring you back to your favorite places?
Raquel Reyes is Creative Director at The Attic on Eighth. She enjoys styling photo shoots, dramatic hair accessories, and old fashioned cocktails.