I think almost everyone loves a good cheese toast, or ‘grilled cheese’, or ‘toastie’, or however you may call it. Warm, crunchy, buttered and toasted bread with melted cheese and ham (or even a slice of tomato, if you want to keep it vegetarian) is one of the easiest and most comforting snacks, breakfasts, or meals (alongside a bowl of hot tomato soup). My version here is a slightly extravagant version of a regular cheese toast, or French ‘croque madame’ (a ‘croque monsieur’ with an egg on top), with cheesy Mornay sauce and some fresh black truffle shaved on top… because why not?
Leave it up to the French to make bread and bread-based foods taste even more delicious. A ‘croque monsieur’ (meaning something along the lines of ‘crunchy mister’), as they call a hot sandwich with cheese and ham, is a dish that originated in French cafés as light lunch or quick snack around the beginning of last century. I suppose it must’ve been quite popular, as one of its earliest mentions in literature – though ever so briefly – famously appears in the second volume of Marcel Proust’s novel A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, or In Search of Lost Time (1913-1927). In this second volume, the protagonist casually mentions the bready delight in one of his long descriptions:
Well, as we came out of the concert, and, on our way back to the hotel, had stopped for a moment on the ‘front,’ my grandmother and I, for a few words with Mme. De Villeparisis who told us that she had ordered some croque monsieurs and a dish of creamed eggs for us at the hotel, I saw, a long way away, coming in our direction, the Princesse de Luxembourg, half leaning upon a parasol in such a way as to impart to her tall and wonderful form that slight inclination, to make it trace that arabesque dear to the women who had been beautiful under the Empire, and knew how, with drooping shoulders, arched backs, concave hips and bent limbs, to make their bodies float as gently as a silken scarf about the rigidity of the invisible stem which might be supposed to have been passed diagonally through them.In Search of Lost Time, Within a Budding Grove (1919) , p.409
Even if the sandwich is mentioned only briefly in the novel, we can still gather that the setting of this particular luncheon is a fancier type of surroundings than that of a regular French café. I suppose, the common snack-like croque monsieur became popular amongst the upper classes as well at some point, which might explain the slightly more extravagant variations we find of the sandwich today (but I am not a historian, so don’t hold me accountable for that thought). Whilst a croque monsieur in essence is a regular ham and cheese toast, usually made with Gruyère, Emmental, or Comté, you can often find it topped with Béchamel sauce or Mornay (béchamel with cheese) as well. Top that with a sunny-side up, or poached egg and you’ve got yourself a croque madame.
For my post today, I did all of that – thick slices of ham, lots of Gruyère, Mornay sauce, an egg, PLUS some shaved fresh black truffle. What can I say? I guess I just really love elaborate breakfasts. Of course, the croque madame is perfectly fine without black truffle, but the addition of that black pungent nugget is nice for those special occasions such as Valentine’s day, Easter, Christmas, or your birthday, don’t you agree?
C. K. Scott Moncrieff, translator. In Search of Lost Time Vol.2: Within a Budding Grove. By Marcel Proust. New York: Modern Library, 2003.
Croque Madame with Black Truffle and Mornay Sauce
- For the cheesy béchamel / Mornay:
- 20g butter
- 15g all-purpose flour
- 125ml full fat milk
- 50g grated Gruyère, or Emmental
- Pinch of salt
- Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
- For the sandwiches:
- 4 slices sourdough bread, or brioche
- 25g butter, room temperature
- 100g grated Gruyère, or Emmental
- 4 slices of good quality boiled, or smoked ham
- 2 eggs
- Fresh black truffle (however much you want to put, really)
- Make the Mornay sauce: in a saucepan over medium-low heat, melt the butter and add the flour once the butter is melted. Stir to combine and continue cooking for a minute to cook the flour. Slowly add in the milk whilst stirring to get rid of lumps. Cook and whisk until the sauce is smooth and starts to thicken. Once the sauce has thickened, remove from heat and stir in the 50g of grated cheese, a pinch of salt and a pinch of freshly grated nutmeg. Set aside and allow to cool slightly.
- Preheat your oven to 180 degrees Celsius.
- Spread butter on all sides of the slices of bread and toast lightly in the oven until slightly golden.
- To make the croque madames, remove lightly toasted bread from the oven and pile the grated cheese (reserve two tablespoons to go over the top) and two slices of ham on half of the toasted slices. Finely grate a little black truffle over the cheese and ham, but keep enough to shave some over the sandwich in the end.
- Spread a heaped tablespoon of Mornay sauce on the other half of the slices of bread on the side that will be on the inside of the sandwich. Close the sandwiches with the slice of bread, sauce side down and push down lightly.
- Generously spread the rest of the Mornay sauce over the tops of the croques and sprinkle over the reserved tablespoons of cheese.
- Return the croques to the oven and bake until the cheese in the middle has melted. If you like (and can) shortly turn on the grill, or broiler in the end to lightly brown the cheese sauce.
- While your croques are in the oven, fry two sunny-side-up eggs in a little butter (I think you know how).
- Once the cheese in the croques has melted and the Mornay has browned slightly, remove from oven and top the sandwiches with the fried eggs. Finally, shave over some extra black truffle and serve immediately.