Whether they’re served at a sidewalk cafe or in a narrow cobblestone alley bar, the croque monsieur and croque madame have been on menus throughout France for more than a hundred years. Both sandwiches feature a buttery crunch on the outside and smoky ham, melted cheese and the tangy flavor of Dijon mustard on the inside. The difference is the croque madame adds a fried egg on top. The madame is not necessarily meant for women, but the fried egg may have resembled a woman’s hat when it was first invented.
Essentially, they are grilled ham and cheese sandwiches, perfect pub fair, guy food, a satisfying snack to have with a glass of wine or beer. The classic culinary tome, Larousse Gastronomique, does not mention a topping on the croque monsieur or madame. It refers to this toasty culinary offering as a “€œhot sandwich, made of 2 slices of buttered bread with the crusts removed, filled with thin slices of Gruyere cheese and a slice of lean ham.” And that is exactly what the brief recipe directs.
Yet, most recipes since then, including those by Julia Child and Jacques Pepin, cover the sandwiches with a bechamel sauce and broil it to a golden, bubbly goodness, often adding more cheese on top. Truly, if creating a croque madame, an egg on top of cheese over the sauce really seems like overkill. They may be a heart attack in the making, but egg or no egg, sauce or no sauce, they are the ultimate ham and cheese sandwich. They will spoil you for any other toasted sandwich on the menu.
The bread should have body, a bit on the chewy side and able to hold the butter, sauce and cheese. This is not the time for fluffy, doughy slices. To remove the crusts or not is really your decision. The classic cheese to melt within the bread is a Gruyere with its slightly sweet and creamy flavor. Generous slices of black forest ham really makes the recipe. Dijon mustard is here to offer balance and acidity to the finished product. Some recipes will even stir a small amount into the bechamel sauce.
The cooking techniques vary depending on taste as well. Toasted to a golden brown on both sides in a frying pan with melted butter is found in Larousse. Some recipes toast the bread before assembling the sandwich and a few even leave it open faced with bechamel drizzled over it like a rarebit. Many chefs opt for pan frying, then topping with the bechamel and finishing briefly under a broiler to brown the sauce. Just before serving is when the egg, white firm, but yellow still runny would be added for the croque madam.
Variations on this basic grilled sandwich are many. Included are, sliced tomato for a Provencale, croque bolognese with a meat sauce and the Norwegian with smoked salmon replacing the ham. A favorite, sweeter version sure to please the kids is the Hawaiian with a slice of pineapple.