In college, I studied two years of French to fill my foreign language requirement, and I think I picked French because of the movie Sabrina (the Harrison Ford version). I loved the transformation she underwent while living in France, coming home and surprising everyone with her new look and experiences in Europe; although she really didn’t change that much, still being shy, awkward and a little unsure of herself. I can relate to the awkwardness she felt, having spent most of my teen years and early 20s feeling like the ugly duckling who didn’t quite fit in, and being completely unsure of who I was or who I even wanted to be.
I imagined myself strolling along cobblestone streets, fashionably dressed with a perfectly tied scarf, eating pastry and cheese and wine every day, taking gorgeous black and white photos of the architecture, and writing the next great American novel, after which I would finally feel like I had found myself.
Surprisingly, though, I ended up finding myself in China; amidst the pollution and poverty, the politics I didn’t understand, the lunches of chicken feet, silk worms, turtle soup and rice instead of beautiful little French pastries, the humid summers, the breeze carrying the scent of salty seaweed and fish off the ocean, and the bone-chilling winters, I found a part of myself I didn’t know existed.
My French teacher was an odd little man with many strange quirks. For example, he would ask a question while looking at one student, and then at the last second switch his eyes to someone else, taking that person by surprise, who was left fumbling for the right answer. He would appear very calm and pleasant, but then suddenly fly off the handle if someone dared to yawn in class. I’m sorry, but in college, every second of every day it was a struggle to stay awake, between work, classes and late-night studying. Yawning in class is unavoidable. I learned to discreetly hide my yawns behind my hand under the pretense of scratching my nose.
I didn’t quite reach an intermediate mastery of French, although I should have after two years. But I remember that I would sometimes dream in French, strange, too-much-studying-and-working-induced dreams, and in my dreams, I spoke and understood the language flawlessly. Living in China, I also dreamed in Chinese. I tend to have odd dreams in general, though – the other day I dreamed that a friend of mine had a secret basement that was accessed through a hidden door in her washing machine, and they were into some sort of shady business down there. The next night, I dreamed I ordered a sandwich for lunch, and the employee who made my sandwich took a bite out of it before handing it to me, like it was no big deal.
My teacher used to tell us about eating Croque Monsieur when he visited Paris, and while it sounded completely exotic to me at the time, I realize now that it’s just a fancier version of a grilled cheese sandwich. Although there are many possible variations, with smoked salmon or chicken, tomatoes, and various types of cheeses, a Croque Monsieur is a grilled ham and cheese sandwich, typically made with Gruyere cheese, and topped with a Béchamel sauce. When a Croque Monsieur is served with a fried or poached egg on top, it’s known as a Croque Madame.
Of course I had to make one with the egg. There are few things more satisfying than breaking the yolk of a perfectly cooked egg and watching it cover everything like a creamy cheese sauce.
I wasn’t able to find any Gruyere cheese, except for a ridiculously overpriced bag of shredded cheese for fondue, so I bought a tiny little package (very tiny, as in three dollars worth, since it cost over $20 a pound!) of another soft cheese with bits of black truffle. Some shaved ham from the deli counter.
Béchamel sauce isn’t something I make too often, since it’s typically a heavy, fattening sauce made of butter, flour, cream and milk, seasoned with salt, pepper and a pinch of nutmeg. But a little bit goes a long way, and not much was needed for this sandwich. I made ours with skim milk and a little half ‘n’ half instead of cream, and it was thick and delicious, just like a white Southern gravy (without the sausage), that you want to smother on some hot, steaming biscuits.
A little cracked pepper over the egg was all it needed for garnish, and we ate our sandwiches for breakfast on Sunday morning. Maybe someday I’ll get to enjoy one in a little French café with a perfectly brewed cup of espresso…
Croque Monsieur and Croque Madame
- 4 slices bread
- 2 ounces thinly sliced ham
- 1/2 cup finely grated Gruyere cheese (or your favorite cheese)
- 1/2 tablespoon butter
- 1/2 tablespoon all-purpose flour
- 1/2 cup 2% milk (or a combination of skim milk and half 'n' half), warmed
- coarse salt and cracked black pepper, to taste
- pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
- olive oil, for the griddle
- 2 eggs (optional - w/o eggs, this sandwich is a Croque Monsieur; w/ eggs, it's a Croque Madame)
Place two slices of bread on a cutting board. Sprinkle with half the grated cheese, then add the sliced ham, the rest of the cheese, and the other slices of bread. Set aside.
To make the Bechamel Sauce, in a small, non-stick skillet or saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat. Sprinkle the flour into the pan. Cook the mixture, whisking constantly, for 2-3 minutes to create a roue which will thicken the sauce. Very slowly add the warm milk and/or cream, whisking to smooth out the sauce. Continue to cook over medium heat for 5-6 minutes, whisking constantly. Add the salt, pepper and nutmeg to taste. Reduce heat to low, and set aside.
Preheat a griddle to 350. Brush lightly with olive oil. Grill the sandwiches until golden brown on one side. After flipping the sandwiches, drop the whole eggs onto the griddle; fry the eggs until the whites are set.
To assemble the sandwich, place the grilled sandwiches on plates. Spoon the Bechamel sauce over the sandwiches and top with the fried egg. Sprinkle with a little cracked black pepper and serve immediately.
Yields 2 sandwiches.
Recipe from Curly Girl Kitchen