Loyal as I am to the classic cheese toastie, sometimes the occasion demands something with a bit more je ne sais quoi, which is where the croque monsieur comes in. Though in truth it’s not much more than a hot cheese and ham sandwich with a fancy name, it always conjures visions of busy brasseries – which is exactly where I’d like to be right now.
Prep 15 min
Cook 10 min
4 slices soft white bread (see step 1)
1 tbsp flour
80g gruyere (see step 4)
Nutmeg, to grate (optional)
2 tbsp dijon mustard
2 slices baked ham
1 Choose the right bread
This, in my opinion, is a recipe for which you need a good-quality white sandwich loaf – brown bread somehow feels too worthy, and crusty bread too chewy, while cheap sliced white has a tendency to sog once covered in sauce. Sweet, soft pain de mie would be the choice in France, but any white tin loaf will do nicely.
2 Prepare the bread
Slice your bread, if necessary, fairly thinly, and cut off the crusts (or don’t – it’s traditional, but I never like to waste bread). Melt the butter in a small saucepan over a medium-low heat (you’ll be using the same pan for the bechamel, so there’s no point doing this in the microwave).
Arrange the bread on an oven tray, well spaced out, and brush one side of each slice with melted butter.
3 Make the bechamel
Put the remaining butter on a medium-low heat, whisk in the flour (just about any flour will work) to make a paste, then cook for a minute or so, until lightly golden.
Gradually whisk in the milk a little at a time, until you have a smooth mixture. Bring slowly to a simmer, then cook, stirring regularly, until thickened.
4 Choose your cheese, then grate it
Meanwhile, grate the cheese. Gruyere is my preference, as much for its magnificent melting qualities as for its sweet, nutty flavour, but cheaper, milder emmental or pricier, more complex comté or beaufort will also do the trick (as will most cheeses that melt well; Babybel would undoubtedly be effective, if a little bland, while cheddar will give a more aggressively cheesy result).
5 Finish the sauce and prep the bread
Stir 30g of the cheese into the sauce until melted, then season to taste with salt and grated nutmeg (or black pepper, if you’re not keen on nutmeg).
Grill the buttered side of the bread slices until golden and crisp, then set two to one side.
Spread the untoasted sides of the other two slices with mustard – dijon, for preference, though English or wholegrain will do, if you must.
6 Top with ham and cheese
Top the mustard with the ham – you could use a cured ham, if you like, but I think it’s always at least 50% less nice when served warm; or, to keep things meat-free, use fried mushrooms, caramelised onions, tomatoes or grilled vegetables instead.
Put the remaining grated cheese on top of the ham.
7 Grill, then top with bechamel
Put the two ham-and-cheese-laden slices under a hot grill for a couple of minutes, until the cheese has melted.
Remove the tray from the grill, pop on the reserved slices of bread toasted side up, then spoon over the bechamel (don’t worry if it runs down the sides).
8 Grill again, then serve
Put the croques back under the grill for about five minutes, until the bechamel is bubbling and slightly browned, then serve at once with a knife and fork – and ideally also with a crisp, green salad to mop up all that lovely bechamel. To turn them into croque madames, top each croque with a fried egg.
There are many other twists on the croque monsieur: a croque hawaïen with (you guessed it) pineapple; a version with blue cheese and smoked ham known as an auvergnat; a provençale with tomatoes, olives and goat’s cheese; an italienne with mozzarella, tomatoes and basil; and, my own particular favourite, the croque tartiflette made with sliced boiled potatoes and reblochon cheese.