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The croque monsieur is the mainstay of French snack bar menus

How excited can you get about cheese toast? Or even a grilled cheese sandwich?

The answer is: A lot! In America, the grilled cheese sandwich has assumed legendary proportions and every chef brags about how his sandwich is better than everyone else’s.


In England, cheese toast is called Welsh rarebit (why that name? I’ve done a piece which you can google if you care enough) and has a certain retro appeal.


   But it is the French who make the biggest fuss about their ham and cheese toasted sandwich. They don’t call it that, of course. They call it a croque monsieur (which translates roughly as mister crunch) and it is the mainstay of French snack bar menus.


   The original croque monsieur became famous in the early part of the 20th century, when cafes and bars started putting it on their menus. I reckon that the sandwich was born out of convenience. You took two slices of white bread (cheap!), some basic cheese (cheap!) and added a slice of inexpensive ham. You cooked it in an overhead grill till the cheese began to bubble and a café favourite was born. It didn’t cost much to make and it was such a simple recipe that any fool could follow it.


   That may actually have been the problem. If any fool could make it and the ingredients were so basic, then why did you need to pay restaurant/café prices for it? Far easier and cheaper to eat it at home, surely?


   So inevitably, the sandwich took off on the road to gentrification. Early recipes for croque monsieur ask for no more than ham, cheese and bread. If you check the recipe in Larousse Gastronomique till around the 1960s, there was nothing much to it. But, at some stage, chefs decided that the recipe needed to be more complicated to justify listing it as a restaurant dish. The chefs found a simple solution: béchamel sauce.


   If you cook western food, then you know what a béchamel is. If not, you probably know it better by the name we use in India: White sauce. It is a simple sauce made basically from maida and milk and there was a time when even Indian cooks made it in every club or ‘continental’ kitchen.


   It is not difficult to make but few of us bother to make it at home. (Some Italians do though: They have version of béchamel that goes into lasagna).


   In nearly every French kitchen for all of the 20th century, they made a béchamel every day. It is what Auguste Escoffier called one of the mother sauces of French cooking (and the easiest to make) so you could not begin kitchen service in a French kitchen until your béchamel was ready.


   Chefs decided that one way of making it clear that a croque monsieur was a restaurant dish and not just the cheese toast people made at home was by making béchamel an integral part of the recipe. Nearly every fancy croque monsieur recipe you are likely to find on the net these days will require you to make béchamel.


 "I have come to the conclusion that it has now become such a generic  dish that there is no longer any standard recipe, though most French chefs will insist on béchamel."

   It’s basically the same recipe as before: Put ham and cheese on bread and then cook it (under a grill, in the oven or even, fry it in a pan). Except that now you add béchamel to the bread before the ham and cheese.


   Does it make a difference to the taste? Yes, of course it does. You can’t eat white sauce on bread and expect it to taste of nothing. Does it enhance the taste of a croque monsieur? Maybe. Or maybe not. It is all a question of taste.


   For whatever reason, the croque monsieur has not become as much of a mainstay of global menus as it is in France. Most international sandwich menus will include a burger of some sort and club sandwich (both sandwiches are American in origin) but a croque monsieur may or may not turn up. (In India: It may not.)


   Personally I think that’s a shame because a good croque monsieur is one of the most delicious sandwiches there is. Most chefs agree and long before Daniel Boulud and his ilk started taking the hamburger upmarket, chefs had already tried to add a touch of luxury to the croque monsieur.


   Nearly 25 years ago Eric Ripert, the French chef at the three Michelin star Le Bernardin in New York, created a smoked salmon croque madame. Ripert covered the bread with paper-thin slices of Swiss Gruyère cheese. Then, he spread a layer of caviar on the cheese. The smoked salmon went on top of the caviar. He closed the sandwich with another slice of bread. He then fried the sandwich till brown in butter, taking care to see that the caviar did not ooze out. When his sandwiches were ready, he cut each one into quarters and sent them out for service.


   Gordon Ramsay does a fancy but still delicious version. He does not use béchamel. He uses slices of cheese (Gruyère or Emmental) alternated with slices of parma ham. When the sandwich is ready, he dips it into a mixture of egg and Parmigiano cheese and then fries it in butter.


   At the Wolseley, the famous London restaurant, they make their version with béchamel and Gruyère and fry it in butter. When it is ready, they put a fried egg on top turning it into what the French would call a croque madame.


   I have been eating croque monsieurs all over Paris for the last week and while the quality has varied from boring to very good, I have come to the conclusion that it has now become such a generic  dish that there is no longer any standard recipe (though most French chefs will insist on béchamel.)


   I found two croque monsieurs invented by Alain Ducasse, the greatest chef in France, which threw out all the rules. For a start Ducasse did not use Swiss cheese but used the French Comte (which meant that his croque monsieur was delicious with red wine). More surprisingly he threw out the ham and used diced chicken instead. I have always thought that the point of croque monsieur was the marriage between the dairy umami of the cheese and the taste of cured pig. But no, this version, made with chicken, worked brilliantly.


   The following day, I tried another of Ducasse’s croque monsieurs. This time he used veal not ham and it also worked very well. So, when a great chef is involved, he can make up this own rules.


   If you do want to make a croque monsieur at home, I recommend the Gordon Ramsay version. You don’t have to use Parma ham. Any reasonable ham will do. But the trick is in the egg mixture. Use free range eggs and lots of good quality Parmigiano. That makes the recipe foolproof.


   Can you dispense with the béchamel? I think you can. How about the ham? Yes, absolutely if you are Eric Ripert or Alain Ducasse. Otherwise, stick to the formula. It is pretty much foolproof.




  • Jill Singh 20 Aug 2023

    OMG as I read your piece and the different varieties you described I had visions of the roadside stalls cooks murdering the sandwich
    if you thought a cheese sandwich was bad, this is even worse,
    they actuallly make the amdavad roadside food experiments sound delish

Posted On: 16 Aug 2023 11:30 AM
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