The Count of Monte Cristo?
But everyone raved so passionately about Alexandre Dumas’s gripping plot and deliberate pacing, that I immediately went and bought the novel on my Kindle. At first I was skeptical—the book takes at least a hundred pages to get its hooks into you—but all of a sudden, I found myself gripped by a tale of blood-thirsty revenge. The book tells the story of Edmond Dantès, a happy-go-lucky sailor who is framed by his frenemies—dangerous even in 19th-century France, who knew?—and wrongfully imprisoned. After escaping from jail, he vows to seek revenge—a quest that leads the story into many convoluted twists and turns, including hidden treasure, secret aliases, deserted islands, and more, all lavished with the trappings of bottomless wealth. As I read late into the night, I found myself pondering questions of justice, innocence, vengeance, mercy… and sandwiches. Surely the Monte Cristo sandwich would make an appearance in this literary classic?
Hélas, non. Le Comte de Monte Cristo scarcely eats at all, and he certainly does not indulge in ham-and-cheese sandwiches that are dipped in egg batter, fried in butter, and sprinkled with powdered sugar, strawberry jam, and/or maple syrup. Perhaps you’re wondering, who created this
monstrosity marvel? A quick internet search revealed that the Monte Cristo sandwich became famous in the 1960s when it was served at Disneyland; the name is a tribute to its French croque monsieur roots, and (sadly) has nothing to do with the book.
Nevertheless, after wolfing down Alexandre Dumas’s masterpiece, I needed to chase it with a toasty, melty sandwich. The Monte Cristo seemed too decadent for even this intrepid cook to tackle, however, so I whipped up a couple of café classics: the Croque Monsieur, and his wife, Croque Madame .
In my mind, there are two types of croques. There’s the kind that starts with an oversized slice of country bread, heaps it with sliced ham and grated cheese, and achieves a golden crust in the broiler (see photo of “type A”). The other kind dabs béchamel sauce on square, white, sandwich slices, before topping with ham and cheese, and broiling (see photo “type B”). Both are delicious, but if forced to choose, I might admit a slight preference for type B, with its velvety, nutmeg-scented nappage marrying the elements. “B” stands for béchamel! Or best!
If you’re not careful, however, type B can quickly become soggy, with its sauce and floppy-crumbed bread. There are a few secrets to creating a pleasingly crunchy croque B. Toast the bread before assembling the sandwich. Prepare a thick béchamel. Allow it to cool before spreading. Be sparing.
Another benefit to preparing a small quantity of béchamel is that it’s surprisingly fast to make—one might say it even falls under the category of “easily whipped up.” After that, the sandwich is a snap to assemble, making this an achievable meal to cook (and even photograph) while wrangling a curious toddler.
A word of advice: Make sure you watch your broiling sandwich like a hawk, or you’ll wind up with extra toasty edges :)
The addition of a fried egg is optional, but a gooey, salty bite swirled in a pool of creamy yolk is pretty irresistible. If you’re keen on eating while reading, the eggless Croque monsieur is more easily enjoyed one-handed. Either way, this is a meal fit for a count! (Especially if you use Comté cheese, ba dum bum.)
I think the amounts of sauce and cheese given here are perfect for exactly two sandwiches. For a Croque Madame, add a fried egg to the top of each sandwich.
4 slices sturdy, white sandwich bread (I like Pepperidge Farm)
2 thin slices of ham
2/3 cup grated Comté or Gruyère cheese
1/2 cup béchamel sauce (recipe follows)
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon flour
1/2 cup milk
Pinch of nutmeg
Salt and pepper
Make the béchamel sauce. In a small saucepan, melt the better over medium heat. Add the flour and cook, stirring, for 1-2 minutes. Add the milk and whisk over low heat, until the milk boils and the sauce thickens. Add the nutmeg, salt, and pepper. Taste and adjust seasonings. Allow to cool.
Preheat the broiler. Lightly toast the bread. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil. Spread two slices of bread with a thin layer of béchamel. Add a layer of grated cheese and a slice of ham. Dab lightly with béchamel. Top each sandwich with the second slice of bread. Spread a thin layer of béchamel on the top of the second slice. Add a layer of grated cheese. Place both sandwiches on the baking sheet and broil under golden, about 5 minutes. (The edges will darken very quickly, so it’s a game of chicken between the golden center and rapidly blackening crusts.) Serve immediately with sharp mustard.