Croque Madame: a ham & cheese sandwich.....sort of.
I baked a simple loaf of country white sandwich bread last weekend thinking we would use it for grilled cheese sandwiches sometime this week. It wasn't fancy, braided, or twirled. It was just sandwich bread.
While rifling through the meat and cheese bin of our refigerator the other morning I found butcher paper-wrapped Jambon de Bayonne buried under several individually plastic-wrapped parmigiano reggiano rinds that I had saved to toss into soups for additional salty cheese flavor. I had forgotten about the jambon, a lovely french ham, salted with Adour and Salies-de-Bearn for 2 weeks before being hung and air dried for 10 months, resulting in a slightly sweet, delicately flavored moist meat with very little salty taste.
Jambon. Sandwich bread. Hmm.
I knew somewhere in my Thomas Keller collection I had spotted a recipe for either croque monseiur or croque madame. I lugged Thomas Keller's Bouchon off the designated Thomas Keller section of my cookbook library and flipped through the pages. Indeed, it was croque madame, a french grilled ham and cheese sandwich topped with a fried egg. Simple.
I stopped at my favorite wine and cheese shop after work yesterday and picked up a block of really good gruyere cheese. After gazing at the lovely meats, sausages, pates, fois gras terrines, and duck confits, I spotted one of my favorite morsels, chilled cornichons. Bag them up, thank you very much.
Mise en place. I was set, and as ridiculous as it may appear, it really was simple.
I sliced the bread, placed it on a baking sheet, layered the ham over the bread, topped the ham with shredded gruyere, and set the croque bases aside to rest.
I made a bechamel sauce by sauteeing melted unsalted butter with an equal amount of flour to form a roux before adding heavy cream, a clove-studded onion, salt, and pepper. I swirled in extra cream to loosen the sauce before tossing shredded gruyere into the bechamel to create a mornay sauce. I held it on very low simmer until needed.
I didn't want french fries to accompany the croque madames. Knowing they would be very rich, I wanted something perky that would stand up to the richness, so I stripe-peeled baby red potatoes and tossed them with melted butter, thinly sliced lemon bits, lemon juice, grated horseradish, parsely, salt, and pepper before sliding them into a 350 oven to roast for an hour.
When the potatoes were crisp and caramelized, Michael and I assembled our croque madames. Michael is the fried egg meister here; and with his delicate deft hand, he managed the most drop dead gorgeous sunny side up fried eggs I had ever seen. Perfect.
While he fried the eggs, I broiled the buttered ham and cheese sandwiches until golden, crisp, and thoroughly melted.
I tossed a few tart cornichons onto our plates along with heaping spoonfuls of roasted potatoes and the broiled sandwiches. I carefully slid jiggly-yolked fried eggs atop the sandwiches and ladled the gruyere laden mornay sauce over the egg whites leaving the yolks poking through. The sauce dripped down the open sides of the toasted bread and enveloped the croque madames.
A sprinkling of fresh parsley finished them off.
To say they oozed would be an understatement. Perfectly cooked runny egg yolks topped with gooey cheesy mornay sauce. It was the quintessential food ooze.
The sharp nutty melted gruyere sauce mixed with the uncuous yolks and dripped down the crusty bread through the sweet ham and melted cheese, creating fondue puddles on our plates. The bread remained crisp under the sauce/yolk assault, allowing needed texture and bite, while the slightly salty soft ham and melted cheese simply succumbed to the richness.
The tart briny cornichons provided welcome acidity and chilled crunch.
The horseradish lemon roasted potatoes added spiced tangy sweetness.