When Life Gives You Béchamel
Truth be told, I never really liked béchamel. They always exist in overly creamy pasta dishes, or a gloopy mess on some soggy puff box. I almost always go for the lighter, olive oil based pastas, and associate white sauce with low quality, inauthentic eateries. (Proof: this Pizza Hut pie) But croque madame, the glorified ham and cheese sandwich that can only be invented by the French, is one exception I'll make.
Béchamel may sound fancy, but I'm sure most of you have had it at least once before. It's the key ingredient in classic Bolognese lasagna, Greek moussaka, and even the ubiquitous mac and cheese. Also known as white sauce, béchamel is one of the mother sauces in classic French cooking. It is essentially a flour and butter roux thinned out with milk, then flavoured with white pepper and nutmeg.
It is thick and creamy, but tastes lighter than you would think. Plus, it is incredibly easy to make. For an extra kick of flavour, you can simmer the milk with herbs like bay leaf and thyme, or aromatics like shallots and onion. Make sure to strain them out before you use it to thin out the roux. For the more adventurous, you can also mix in curry powder, cheese, paprika or chili pepper.
Croque is a very personal thing, and should be modified to suit your taste. However, it is one of those dishes that allows all the ingredients to shine, so please, splurge a little. Now let's break it down:
- Bread: The most common croque is made with pain de mie, a sweet and soft bread enriched with butter and sugar. Since there is added butter, I tend to go with leaner breads that has a delicate tight crumb, like a good quality sandwich loaf. Leave crusty and chewy peasant loaves for your breakfast toasts.
- Béchamel: Croque is commonly filled with Mornay, which is basically bechamel with cheese. I prefer layering the cheese separately, so you get a little bit of that chewy cheese crust on the edges. I also like mine with a hint of white pepper and nutmeg.
- Ham: A classic French jambon blanc is a flaky ham usually sliced thinly. For the health conscious, choose a low sodium option at your trusty deli. I used this uncured slow cooked ham from Applegate.
- Cheese: Gruyère is definitely my choice here. The firm, pale yellow cheese has a sweet nutty flavour and melts beautifully to achieve that gooiness so essential for this sandwich. You can also experiment with emmental, jarlsberg or raclette. I used a gruyere-cheddar mélange from Trader Joe's and it worked wonderfully.
- Butter: I highly recommend investing in a good quality salted butter, like this one from Vermont Creamery or this one from Trader Joe's
This recipe is really just a guideline. Please feel free to adjust the amount of ingredients or types of seasonings.
40g or 3 tablespoon salted butter, plus more if necessary
¾ tablespoons all-purpose flour
½ cup whole milk
80g grated Gruyère, plus more if desired
pinch of nutmeg
¼ teaspoon ground white pepper
4 slices sandwich bread, ¼" thick
4 thin slices good-quality ham
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
salt and pepper, to taste
- Preheat the oven to 375℉ or grill setting. Line a baking tray with foil and set aside.
- Make béchamel. Melt ¾ tablespoon of the butter in a saucepan, and stir the flour with a spatula to make a smooth paste, making sure there are no lumps. Let it cook for a minute, then gradually whisk in the milk, a little at a time, until fully incorporated. Allow the sauce to simmer for a few minutes, until silky and thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. Stir in nutmeg and white pepper, season with salt and pepper to taste. Be mindful that there is salt in both the butter and cheese.
- Toast the bread until lightly golden and crisp, then liberally spread butter on both sides. Lay two pieces of bread on the lined baking tray, and spread the top with mustard, then layer on the ham, followed by a slather of béchamel and cheese.
- Top with another piece of bread, pushing down to squish everything together.
- Finish with another layer of béchamel and cheese, and grill for about 5 minutes. Remove from the oven when the top is golden and bubbling, and the filling becomes a volcano of melting cheese.
- Meanwhile, place a small frying pan with plenty of olive oil on high heat. Crack an egg into it and tilt the pan towards you to pool oil at base. Using a soup spoon, baste the egg whites by spooning over the hot oil with a soup spoon. Once the top turns opaque, the sides are rippling crisp, and the egg yolk still molten, gently slide the egg onto your croque.
- Serve immediately.