I Know It's French; It's Still Delicious
I am breaking new ground here. The “View From My Italian Kitchen” is going to veer toward France and bring you a recipe for a decadent sandwich, the Croque Madame. (I am part French, after all.) I suppose I could try to Italianize it by calling it a “croccante signora” or a “tostata signora,” but that would translate to either “crispy lady” or “toasted lady,” neither of which would be too appropriate.
My wife got one of these classic French delights at a place called La Farm Bakery in Cary, North Carolina, where it is a signature item on their breakfast, brunch, and lunch/dinner menus. She fell head over heels in love with the dish and I have been making it for her regularly ever since. I know it's French, but it's still delicious. You can find my review of La Farm here: http://ronjamesitaliankitchen.blogspot.com/2015/04/review-la-farm-bakery-and-cafe-cary.html
The Croque Madame is a variation of another French classic, the Croque Monsieur. Basically a fancied up grilled ham and cheese sandwich, the Croque Monsieur traces its origins to French cafés and bars in the early 20th century, first appearing on a Parisian café menu in 1910. The name derives from the French croquer (“to bite”) and monsieur, French for “mister.” The Croque Madame variation came along later, supposedly inspired by the addition of a fried egg, fancifully resembling a woman's hat, to the top of the sandwich.
One thing you should know: it's pronounced "croke mah-DAHM," not "crock MAD-am." Yes, I actually heard somebody say it that way. A "chef," no less.
It's a super simple dish that you can knock together in minutes. Here's what you'll need for two sandwiches:
2 tbsp unsalted butter
2 tbsp all-purpose flour
1 cup milk
¾ cup coarsely grated Gruyere cheese, divided
salt and freshly ground black pepper
½ cup shredded mozzarella (optional)
4 slices hearty white bread
¼ pound thinly sliced sliced deli ham (Black Forest ham works well)
2 lg eggs
The only complicated part, if you can call it that, is the mornay sauce. So let's start there and get it over with.
To make a mornay, you have to start with a béchamel. Or as I prefer, a besciamella. It's really not that hard. It's all about ratios and proportions. You need three basic ingredients: flour, unsalted butter, and milk, plus salt and pepper for seasoning. The ratio for a simple béchamel is 2:2:1 – 2 tablespoons of flour, 2 tablespoons of butter, and 1 cup of milk. Scale up or down as required.
Begin by warming the milk. It's not strictly necessary, but some chefs swear by warm milk. Others don't. Personally, I just pop the milk in the microwave for a minute.
While the milk is warming, melt the butter in a saucepan over medium heat. Whisk in the flour and cook it in the melted butter for a minute or two, stirring constantly, until a paste forms and the raw flour flavor is cooked out. Stir in the milk, briefly bring to a boil, then lower the heat and cook, stirring frequently, until a thick, bubbly sauce forms, about five minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Some people like a little nutmeg. Your choice. Now you have a béchamel.
Turn your béchamel into a mornay by adding cheese. Gruyere is most common, but Emmental, white cheddar, or Parmesan work well. You can mix and match for extra flavor, or just go with Gruyere. Whisk about half of the grated cheese into the sauce until it thoroughly melts in and becomes smooth.
You can make the sauce a little in advance and either remove it from the heat and put a piece of plastic wrap directly onto the surface of the sauce to keep a skin from forming, or you can hold it over very low heat, giving it a frequent stir to keep it smooth and to prevent it from sticking to the bottom of the pan. You can hold it this way for about a half hour without having to worry about the sauce hardening, lumping, or overreducing.
Next, lay out your sandwich. Use a good, hearty country bread. Gummy white sandwich bread will be totally overwhelmed. Place as much ham as you like on two slices of the bread and top it with the remaining grated Gruyere and maybe a little shredded mozzarella. Spoon on enough of the mornay sauce to cover the ham and cheese and then complete your sandwiches, covering with the other slices of bread. This is where your kitchen equipment will play a role. I have a sandwich press in my kitchen, so I can throw my completed sandwich on there, close it up for a minute, and I've got a perfectly toasted sandwich. You might have to use a broiler, a grill pan, or some other toasting medium to get the same effect. In any case, toast the sandwiches.
Now you need to get a couple of sunny-side up eggs going. Spray a nonstick skillet with a little cooking spray and heat it over medium heat. Alternately, you can melt a pat of butter, if you prefer. Working low over the pan, so the yolk doesn't break, crack an egg into the heated pan. If you're afraid of breaking the yolk or of getting shell fragments in the pan, simply break the eggs into cups or small bowls and gently pour them into the pan. I have 4-inch egg rings; nice if you've got 'em, but not essential. The pan shouldn't be too hot. You don’t want the whites to start solidifying the second you drop the eggs in. The whites should stay clear for several seconds before they start to really turn white. If a drop of water sizzles when it hits the pan, you're at about the right temperature. Let the eggs sit there and happily cook slowly until the whites are completely set and the yolks begin to thicken but don't get hard. You want the yolk very runny. Takes about 4 or 5 minutes. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and they're done.
Time to bring it all together. Put your toasted sandwiches on plates, spoon a generous quantity of the mornay sauce over each, and top them with the fried eggs. At La Farm, they serve this with brunch potatoes, a mini scone and fresh fruit, but the sandwich is wonderful all by itself.
There you have it. A wonderful French dish that is easy to prepare, but will still impress your family and friends. And I don't really mind that it's French because everybody knows that the Italians taught the French how to cook in the first place, so........enjoy!