The grilled cheese sandwich is one of my all-time favorite comfort foods. The earliest grilled cheese I remember were made of Kraft singles and white bread and whatever margarine my mom kept in the house in the 80’s. My nine-year-old self thought they were hella good (actually, my twenty-eight-year-old self would most likely agree). Over the years my grilled cheese have evolved. While I don’t really discriminate when it comes to cheese, sourdough is my bread of choice these days, and I love to sneak in a few tomato slices (and sriracha on the side) .
I mentioned a while back that I had lunch at Bouchon in April. And of all the wonderful things on the menu I chose the croque-madame for my entree. The croque-madame is the fanciest incarnation of the grilled cheese sandwich. It’s a ham and cheese sandwich, grilled and topped with a fried egg and Mornay sauce. I am a total sucker for anything topped with a fried egg. Like everything else we had that day, the sandwich was absolutely delish and the accompanying pommes frites were to die for – skinny, salty and perfectly fried. The French sure know how to take a simple concept and turn it into something glorious.
I decided that I would make croque-madame as soon as I could get my hands on some real ham. By real I mean off the bone and ovenbaked, not pre-sliced or packaged. I had a feeling the wait would not be long. And I was right. Fun fact about my folks: they randomly cook whole turkeys, bone-in hams, and corned beef throughout year. These people do not wait for holidays to indulge in such things. Luckily for me my mom decided to bake a ham for Sunday night dinner with Grandma a few weeks ago. And there was plenty leftover to go towards my croque-madame mission.
As it turns out, a loaf of brioche is not so easy to come by in these parts. Apparently, a lot of the smaller bakeries that I frequent make only mini brioche daily; loaves have to be specially ordered in advance. For a heartbeat I considered making my own brioche, but I wasn’t feeling that ambitious, nor did I have the patience to wait for dough rising, etc. Thank goodness for La Boulange, who sells brioche in convenient half loaves and just so happens to have a location right by my BART stop. So aside from literally having to hunt down the brioche and preparing the Mornay sauce, which in the future I’ll make in advance and reheat, this was a super fast and easy little number.
My brother happened to be visiting the weekend croque-madame was in the test kitchen. According to him, it was the best thing I’ve ever cooked. Not to toot my own horn or anything, but it was pretty fantastic. The brioche becomes almost pastry-like when it’s grilled and the subtly flavored Mornay is so good that I wanted extra on the side for dipping. It surprises me that more restaurants don’t include croque-madame on their brunch menus. Because it is seriously in the running for my new favorite brunch dish. Move over, eggs Benedict!
from Bouchon by Thomas Keller
8 1/2-inch thick slices Brioche, other egg bread, or pain de mie
8 ounces thinly sliced ham
8 slices (about 1/2 ounce each) Swiss cheese
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
4 large eggs
2 teaspoons chopped Italian parsley
Freshly ground black pepper
1 cup Mornay Sauce, warmed
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 cup diced Spanish onion (Vidalia)
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 cups milk
1 cup heavy cream
1 bay leaf
3 black peppercorns
3 whole cloves
Freshly grated nutmeg
Freshly ground white pepper
1/3 cup Comté or Emmentaler Cheese
to make the Mornay sauce (2 cups):
Melt the butter in a medium heavy saucepan set on a diffuser over medium heat. Add the onion and a pinch of salt and cook slowly, stirring occasionally, for 2 to 3 minutes, or until the onion is translucent. Sprinkle in the flour and cook for about 3 minutes, stirring constantly so that the roux doesn’t burn or color. Whisking constantly, add the milk and cream and whisk until fully incorporated. Bring to a simmer, whisking, then add the bay leaf, peppercorns, and cloves. Move the pan to one side of the diffuser, away from direct heat to avoid scorching, and bring back to a gentle simmer. Adjust the heat to maintain a gentle simmer and cook, whisking occasionally, reaching into the corners of the pan, for about 30 minutes. (If the sauce does begin to scorch, pour it into a clean pan – don’t scrape the bottom of the pan – and continue.)
Remove the sauce from the heat and season to taste with salt, a grating of nutmeg, and a pinch of white pepper. Strain the sauce, add the cheese, and whisk to melt. Use immediately, or place in a storage container, press a piece of plastic wrap against the surface to keep a skin from forming, and refrigerate for up to a week. If the sauce is too thick after refrigeration, it can be thinned with a little heavy cream.
to make the croque-madame:
Preheat the oven to 375°F.
Lay out the bread slices. Divide the ham among them, making sure it does not extend over the edges of the bread. Place the cheese over the ham. If the cheese is larger than the bread, bend it over to fit.
Heat two large ovenproof nonstick pans or griddles over medium heat. (If you only have one large pan, make 2 sandwiches and keep them warm in the oven while you make the second batch.) Add 1 tablespoon of butter to each pan. When it has melted, add half the bread cheese side up to each pan and cook for 1 to 2 minutes, or until the bottoms are golden brown. Transfer the pans to the oven for 2 to 3 minutes to melt the cheese.
Meanwhile, melt the remaining 1 tablespoon of butter in a large ovenproof skillet and fry the eggs. Cook the eggs until the bottoms are set, then place the skillet in the oven for a minute to set the top of the whites.
When the cheese is melted, remove the sandwiches from the oven. Place 2 slices together to make each sandwich and put each sandwich on a serving plate. Place an egg on top of each sandwich. Pour about 1/4 cups of the Mornay sauce over the white of each egg, leaving the yolk uncovered. Grind black pepper over each egg and garnish the eggs with a diagonal sprinkling of chopped parsley.