Leave it to the French to dress up a homey comfort staple into a rich, scrumptious treat guaranteed to transform any casual meal into a memorable occasion.
Born in Parisian cafés soon after the turn of the 20th century, at the waning of the Belle Époque, the croque monsieur is a toasted ham-and-Swiss sandwich taken to the max. Elegantly simple and profoundly satisfying, it delivers a richness enhanced by the inclusion of brioche bread and béchamel sauce, and features a deliciously savory, molten core punctuated by a delightfully crispy exterior. The title can be literally translated as "Mr. Crunchy." The monsieur becomes a madame when topped by a fried egg, which, proverbially, lends the impression of a lady's hat.
Seeking an authentic source, I contacted chef Laurent Tourondel, 53, who, from humble beginnings in Montluçon, a small town in France's Auvergne region, found success in the United States.
Tourondel's first cooking stint on these shores was in 1988, at the tender age of 21. By the end of the 1990s, he had earned rave reviews for his own Upper East Side restaurant, Cello.
Though his training was formal, Tourondel's notable commercial success came via a more casual approach. By 2008, he had established a flourishing chain under his Bistro Laurent Tourondel (BLT) brand and published the second of three cookbooks under the same moniker with the subtitle "New American Bistro Cooking" (John Wiley & Sons, 2008). His current mini-empire includes L'Amico in Manhattan, LT Burger in Long Island's Sag Harbor and LT Steak and Seafood at the Betsy Hotel South Beach in Miami.
"In France, every household has its own special version of the croque," says Tourondel, adding that his mother Louise's is topped with delicate spears of asparagus before being finished under the broiler. His cookbook variation adds a luxurious kick: shaved white truffles and drizzled truffle oil.
"You want it gratinée—crunchy on the outside, soft and melted on the inside—and you definitely want some coloration in the cheese," explained Tourondel, demonstrating on the elegant La Cornue range in his home kitchen. To achieve this delectable contrast, he recommends chilling the assembled sandwich in the fridge before cooking; this allows the sauce to infuse the bread and the ingredients to become set in anticipation of a thorough toasting.
David Gibbons is co-author of Mastering Cheese.
LAURENT TOURONDEL'S CROQUE MADAME
About 3 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
1 tablespoon flour
1 1/4 cups warm milk
Pinch freshly grated or ground nutmeg
Salt and pepper to taste
1 cup coarsely grated Gruyère or other top-quality Alpine cheese, such as Beaufort or Comté
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
8 slices brioche, pain de mie or other good-quality white bread
About 1/2 pound Black Forest or other good-quality ham
1. Melt 1 tablespoon of the butter in a small saucepan over medium heat. Add flour and cook, whisking, for 1 minute. Whisk in the warm milk, bring to a boil, lower heat and simmer, stirring frequently, until saucy and thick, about 5 minutes. Stir in the nutmeg; season to taste with salt and pepper. Turn off heat and allow to partially cool; the béchamel will continue to thicken.
2. Combine the grated cheeses; reserve about half the mixture, as well as one third to half of the béchamel, for broiling at the end. Top each of 4 slices of bread with a layer of béchamel, a layer of grated cheese and 1 or 2 slices of ham, depending on thickness, followed by the top piece of bread. Transfer the sandwiches to the refrigerator to chill, uncovered, for 1 to 2 hours.
3. Preheat the broiler and place a rack directly under the heating element. Heat a large, nonstick skillet or griddle over medium until hot. Lightly butter the pan. When butter has melted, cook the sandwiches in the butter until well-toasted and crunchy, about 3 minutes per side. Transfer the sandwiches to a baking sheet.
4. Spread equal portions of the remaining béchamel on top of each sandwich and sprinkle with the remaining grated cheese. Broil until the cheese is melted, bubbling and golden-brown, 3 to 5 minutes.
5. Meanwhile, carefully wipe out the pan, melt 1 tablespoon butter and cook the eggs sunny-side up for 2 to 3 minutes or until the whites are just set.
6. Plate the sandwiches and top each with a fried egg. Serves 4.