croque-madame

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!

croque-madame

from Bouchon by Thomas Keller

serves 4

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)

Kosher salt

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.

strawberry cream tart

I have the luxury of spending my Fridays at school, in a photo studio, learning to be a better photographer. There is really nowhere I would rather be. One of my favorite parts of being a student, aside from learning new tricks and having a current student ID (and the small perks that come with that), are the people you meet. Over the past few semesters I have developed friendships with some of the coolest, kindest, most talented individuals. And I am extremely grateful that our paths have crossed.

Spring semester ended last week, and while I am super happy to be done with all of my assignments (photoshop was nearly the end of me a few weeks ago), I am really going to miss all of our Friday morning madness. Rather than having a traditional final on the last day of class, we ended the semester with an awesome dinner party hosted by our instructor, who we all love to pieces.

Dinner was fantastic – great food, great wine, and lots of laughs. After dessert, four little bottles of grappa appeared. It was my first time drinking grappa (the stuff is powerful!), so I definitely nursed my little glass. I think it’s safe to say we all left that night with full bellies and high spirits. It was a fabulous way to end the semester. I feel honored to be a part of such a special group of people.

I volunteered to be in charge of dessert for the evening, so I picked up a few pints of strawberries from the farmer’s market that morning, determined to make a pie. Somehow my pie turned into a strawberry cream tart. I was in a bit of a panic because blind baked tart crusts have been a challenge for me in the past and was worried that I would have to come up with a back-up plan in case of a disaster. But I focused. And nothing collasped or folded over(!!!). At one point, I decided that the pastry cream needed a splash of rosewater. Definitely one of my better decisions in the kitchen. I could’ve eaten an entire bowl of the pastry cream on its own, and I would have, had I not been aware of its egg yolk and butter content (I did have a little leftover at the end, so I had a dollop on top of apricot halves, which was sooo good it could easily pass for dessert as is). The rosewater cream made the whole tart so much more intriguing and really complemented the strawberries. I will definitely be making variations of this beauty in the future.

strawberry cream tart

adapted from Baking at Home with The Culinary Institute of America

makes one 8-inch tart

2 pints fresh strawberries, hulled, sliced if large

1/2 cup strawberry jam

1/4 cup melted chocolate (optional) – I used bittersweet

1 egg white, whisked

tart dough

8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature

1/4 cup sugar

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 large egg yolk

1-1/2 cups cake flour, sifted, plus extra for dusting

pastry cream

1/4 cup cornstarch

3/4 cup sugar (divided)

2 cups whole milk (divided)

4 eggs yolks, lightly beaten

1 pinch salt

2 teaspoons vanilla extract or 1 vanilla bean

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 teaspoon rosewater (optional)

to make the tart dough:

In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream together the butter, sugar, and vanilla extract at medium speed, scraping down the bowl with a rubber spatula as needed, until smooth and light in color, about 2 minutes. Add the egg yolk and blend until smooth, 1 -2 minutes more. Add the flour all at once, mixing at low speed or by hand with a wooden spoon until just blended, about 30 seconds. The dough will be very crumbly when you remove it from the mixer. Gently press the dough into a disk.

Wrap the dough tightly and refrigerate for 20 minutes before rolling.

to make the pastry cream:

Combine the cornstarch with 1/4 cup of the sugar in a mixing bowl, then stir in 1/2 cup of the milk. Blend the yolks into the cornstarch mixture, stirring with a wooden spoon until completely smooth.

Prepare an ice bath. Combine the remaining 1-1/2 cups milk with the remaining 1/2 cup sugar and the salt in a nonreactive saucepan over medium heat and bring to a boil. Remove the pan from the heat.

Temper the egg mixture by gradually adding about one-third of the hot milk mixture, whisking constantly. Add the remaining milk mixture to the eggs. Return the mixture to the saucepan and continue cooking over medium heat, vigorously stirring with a whisk, until the mixture comes to a boil and the whisk leaves a trail in the pastry cream, 5-7 minutes. As soon as the pastry cream reaches this stage, remove the pan from the heat and stir in the vanilla, rosewater and butter, one tablespoon at a time. Transfer the pan to the ice bath. Stir occasionally until the pastry cream is cool, about 30 minutes.

Transfer to a storage container and place parchment or waxed paper directly on the surface to prevent a skin from forming. Cover the container tightly and refrigerate until needed, up to 3 days.

to make the tart:

Preheat the oven to 400°F. Roll out the dough between two sheets of lightly floured parchment until it is 4 inches wider than your pan.  Carefully transfer the dough to the pan and gently press into the sides of the pan, being careful not to stretch the dough. Trim the excess dough from the edges of the pan. Using a fork, poke holes in the bottom and sides of the dough. Line the dough with parchment paper and fill with pie weights or dried beans. Place in the oven and bake until the dough is just set and edges look dry, 10-12 minutes. Take the shell out of the oven and  carefully remove the weights and parchment paper. Brush the bottom and sides of the crust lightly with the egg white. Return shell to the oven and bake until the dough appears dry and the edges are just starting to brown, another 6-8 minutes. Remove from oven and let cool completely on a rack.

Heat the jam in a small saucepan over low heat until it is warm enough to strain through a fine-mesh sieve. Strain the jam into a small dish and keep warm.

Brush the tart shell with the melted chocolate, if using. Spread the pastry cream in the tart shell in an even layer. Arrange the strawberries over the surface of the pastry cream.

Use a pastry brush to coat the strawberries very lightly with the warm jam. Let the glaze set for about 10 minutes in the refrigerator. If you are not serving the tart immediately, keep it covered and refrigerated for up to 12 hours.