One summer day in Alaska, Patrick had to work while I had the day off. So I decided to bring him lunch. I had just read a magazine article about the cool new trend of making fancy grilled cheese sandwiches. These sandwiches had fruits and vegetables and jams and jellies and meats and, of course, cheeses. I rummaged through our refrigerator and managed to whip up a pretty good sandwich with pear slices, bacon, and jam. I thought I was so hip and trendy with my fancy grilled cheese. Of course, I should have known that France has been keeping the grilled cheese fancy for ages. And they don’t even need any of the bells and whistles. Just cheese, meat, and bread.
Croque monsieur has been a popular dish in French cafes since at least the early 1900s. It literally means something like “Mr. Crunchy,” but it may as well be French for “fancy grilled cheese.” It is a grilled ham and cheese sandwich that is then broiled with extra cheese and béchamel sauce (basically, a fancy word for gravy) on top. It’s not too terribly complicated, and it sounds super impressive. Definitely worth trying.
Croque monsieur sandwiches are often topped with béchamel sauce. Though I had seen the word on menus, I honestly did not know what béchamel sauce was until we attempted this recipe. Basically, béchamel sauce is white gravy. It often has a hint of nutmeg and bay leaf in it. But, other than that, gravy. To make the sauce you start by melting two tablespoons of butter in a pan then adding the flour and combining.
Once the flour and butter is combined, you slowly add the milk while constantly whisking…or asking your husband to constantly whisk while you take photos. When the milk, flour, and butter are all combined you’ll notice that the mixture is just starting to thicken. You can add the nutmeg and bay leaf if you’d like then bring the mixture to a boil. Stir it frequently until it’s as thick as you want it to be. Remember, you’ll be topping the sandwiches with it.
Once the béchamel sauce has been made, or while you’re making it, you can start on the grilled ham and cheese. You make this exactly how you would make any grilled ham and cheese sandwich. Build your sandwich. Heat a skillet. Cook the sandwich in the skillet with butter until the outside of the bread is browned and the cheese is at least starting to melt. On a side note, I really think Patrick could be a professional hand model. He’s got some good looking hands.
Now is also a good time to start pre-heating your broiler. For those of you who have never used a broiler before, don’t be afraid. I did not know what a broiler was until I was at least in my twenties. As it turns out, on most ovens, that drawer at the bottom of your oven where you store pans and cookie sheets is actually your broiler. It creates super hot heat from above and is great for things like browning the cheese on top of a sandwich. So, move all those spare pans for a few minutes, turn your oven to the broiler setting, and give it a try. Trust me.
Once you’ve grilled your sandwiches, transfer them to a cooking sheet. Pour the béchamel sauce over the top of the sandwiches, and add lots and lots of grated cheese. We used 1/4 cup, but honestly we could have handled more.
Finally, pop your sandwiches in the broiler for about two minutes. You want the whole thing to be ooey gooey melty, and the cheese on top should be slightly browned. Voila! A delicious, fancy, French, grilled ham and cheese sandwich to impress all your frends and loved ones.