Croque Monsieur

29 October 2012

"A hot sandwich, made of 2 slices of buttered bread with the crusts removed, filled with thin slices of Gruyère cheese and a slice of lean ham"

I remember being astonished the first time I had supermarket bread in France, while on an exchange. Until then, I'd only seen baguettes, or the painfully crusty breakfast rolls we'd be given in cheap hotels. But here, in a family that religiously bought a fresh baguette every morning, was a pre-sliced loaf of pappy, rather dry, and ridiculously sweet white bread with only the merest hint of a crust. They would wrap slices around squares of dark chocolate as a snack, coming home from school.

Pain de mie is the distant ancestor of this bread-shaped candyfloss. It's cooked in an enclosed tin, which prevents a crust from forming on top, and restricts the rise, leaving the crumb evenly soft and fluffy throughout ('mie' refers to the crumb). That even, dense texture makes it particularly good for toasting, and thus the essential base for that stalwart of French roadside cafés, the Croque Monsieur.

It's easy enough to make your own pain de mie, if you have the time, but if it seems like too much fuss for a TV dinner, then a good-quality white sandwich loaf with the crusts cut off will do just fine.

The recipe I follow for the bread here is from Richard Bertinet's excellent Dough. As with all his recipes, the dough is wet and sticky until it's well worked, but it will come together in the end. Once proved and shaped, it's placed into small loaf tins, with a lid on top to constrain it.

You can get special lidded pans, called Pullman pans, for this kind of bread, but I just placed a greased baking sheet face down on top of the tin, and a couple of oven dishes on top to weigh it down. 500g loaf tins are ridiculously small though for bread that isn't being allowed to rise out of the tin, so next time I make this, I'd bake this amount as one loaf in a larger tin and adjust the cooking time.

Once the bread is out of the way, the croque is very simple - buttered, toasted bread, with ham, Gruyère, and sweet béchamel layered up, and served sizzling from the grill. Cut the bread fairly thickly - the toast should crunch from the grill, but you want to the bread to stay fluffy inside. I wouldn't suggest trying to use especially good-quality cheese here; it's not meant to be sophisticated, and in any case the taste should be sweetly savoury rather than sharply cheesy, the way Welsh rarebit can be.

And that is what’s so great about this sandwich: the sharp, savoury taste of browned cheese is tempered by the sweet, aromatic béchamel, which soaks slightly into the spongy bread beneath. Each bite has the crackle of fresh toast, but quickly gives way to the moist comforts of the béchamel-soaked bread, which has all the pleasing stodge of a bread pudding. It’s so much more than a cheese toastie, but at the same time it’s still delightfully junky, and perhaps a little transgressive.

Most people would probably suggest you serve crisp, bitter leaves on the side, or something equally cleansing and virtuous. We ate it, as befits its junk food status, off our laps, in front of the next episode of Castle. And then we followed it with a bowlful of Queen of puddings, for good measure. Be very sad that Larousse doesn't think to mention Queen of puddings.

Pain de mie

Ingredients (makes 2 small loaves)
500g strong white bread flour
300ml lukewarm water
50g whole milk
10g salt
10g unsalted butter, plus extra for greasing
One 7g sachet easy-blend dried yeast, or 20g fresh yeast

Preheat the oven to 250°C.

Using your fingertips, rub the butter into the flour, as when making pastry. If using fresh yeast, rub into the flour in the same way.

Make a well in the flour, and add the remaining ingredients into it. Mix until it comes together into a sticky dough, then knead well, until the dough is elastic and glossy, but still slightly sticky.

Lightly grease a large mixing bowl and put the dough in. Stretch cling film over the bowl, or cover with a clean damp tea towel. Leave to prove in a warm place for around 1 hour, until doubled in size.

Take out the dough and knead lightly to knock back. Divide into two, and shape into loaves.

Place in two lightly greased 500g loaf tins, and leave to prove for another hour. When the dough rises to near the top of the tins, lay a greased baking sheet face down over the top, with a weight on top.

Place in the oven, complete with 'lid' and weights, and reduce the temperature to 220°C. Bake for 20 mins covered, then another 5 uncovered, before removing to cool on a wire rack.

Croque Monsieur

Ingredients (serves 2)
200ml milk
A bay leaf
A large knob of butter
1 tablespoon plain flour
A little nutmeg
100g Gruyère, grated
4 thick slices pain de mie or other crustless white bread
2 slices of cooked ham
A little Dijon mustard

First, make the béchamel sauce. Put the milk and bay leaf in a small pan over a moderate heat until the milk comes to the boil. Remove from the heat and set aside. Remove the bay leaf just before using.

In a small pan, melt the butter, then stir in the flour and cook for a few minutes to make a roux. Gradually add the milk, stirring continuously until you have a smooth sauce.

Simmer gently for a few minutes to thicken, then stir in a large handful of the grated Gruyère.

Grate in the nutmeg, to taste, and add a little salt - remembering that you'll be adding salty cheese and ham later.

Once the cheese is melted and the bèchamel is seasoned to your liking, remove from the heat and set aside.

Lightly butter both sides of each slice of pain de mie, then toast both sides under a hot grill.

Lay a slice of ham with a thin smear of mustard and a handful of grated cheese on two slices of the pain de mie, and place the remaining slices on top. Press down to ensure that the top slice is horizontal.

Spoon the béchamel over the top, making sure it goes right to the edges of the bread, then sprinkle the remaining cheese on top.

Return to the grill, until the cheese is bubbling and lightly browned.

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