Toast may be trendy in hipster restaurants but the concept is older than sliced bread. Croque monsieur with creamy béchemal sauce has long been a classic French comfort food.
The humble loaf bread has been getting a bad rap over the past decade or so. Once considered the baseline for feeding the hungry, sliced bread has been pushed aside by kale power smoothies, Greek yogurt, bone broth, and countless other food fads that seem to last about as long as a drop of water on a hot stove.
Let’s get one thing straight: I’m not here to tell you what you should and shouldn’t be eating. You’ll need to work that out for yourself.
But it seems bread has crept back in an acceptable form as toast. A couple of years ago, San Francisco hipster restaurants caused a bit of a stir when they started selling thick slices of “artisanal toast” for $3 to $7 as the ultimate comfort food.
When the trend came into focus, it was alternatively derided by critics as a sign of end times in our overly “twee” consumer culture and embraced by restaurant chefs as a “blank canvas” for savory and sweet creativity.
Think of thick, crunchy toast beneath these toppings: fig jam topped with goat cheese and chopped walnuts; two shrimp resting on mashed avocado sprinkled with salt and lime juice; mascarpone with crumbled bacon and chopped grapes.
The possibilities for toast toppings seem endless.
When a friend invited me over for a simple lunch recently and served a French comfort food sandwich I realized that croque monsieur served as a tartine (an open-faced sandwich) straddled the two trends neatly: less bread, but fancy toast.
Croque monsieur, a delicious combination of ham and Gruyère cheese on toasted bread and covered with a béchamel sauce, first appeared on menus in Paris around 1910. Some variations dip the bread in egg before baking it. Often the sandwich is topped with additional cheese on top of the bread to create a melty, cheesy crust. The version that adds a fried egg on top, said to resemble a lady’s hat, is called the croque madame.
Béchamel sauce is a fancy way to say “white sauce,” a medium-thick sauce made from hot milk and flour. It has long been used by home cooks to disguise leftovers but it also serves as the base for creamy comfort foods and soufflés.
To ensure that your béchamel sauce is smooth without lumps, take the extra step of heating the milk in a separate saucepan before adding it to the melted butter and flour.
In minutes, you’ll have a warm, trendy lunch that’s been enjoyed since before the bread slicer was invented in 1928.
Croque monsieur tartine
For the béchamel:
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1-1/4 cups hot milk
Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
Ground nutmeg, to taste
For the tartine:
Four thick slices of country-style bread
8 slices of cooked ham
2/3 cup grated Gruyère cheese
1. Preheat oven to 450 degrees F. Lightly grease a baking sheet with butter and set aside. Grate the cheese.
2. To make the béchamel: Add butter to a heavy-bottomed saucepan and melt over low heat. In a separate small saucepan, heat milk over low heat (do not let it come to a boil).
3. While the milk heats, whisk the flour into the melted butter, stirring constantly, until the mixture smells nutty and fragrant, about 1 minute. Do not let it brown. Slowly add the hot milk to the butter-flour mixture, whisking constantly until the mixture is smooth. Increase the heat to medium, bring to a simmer and season with salt, pepper, and nutmeg. Continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until the sauce is thickened, about 3 minutes more. Remove béchamel from heat.
4. To assemble the tartines: Place the bread slices on the greased baking sheet with two overlapping slices of ham on top. For each sandwich, spread 1 to 2 tablespoons of the béchamel over the ham (more, if desired). Sprinkle grated cheese evenly over the béchamel. Bake until the cheese melts and evenly browns, and the bread is golden and crisp on the bottom, about 12 to 15 minutes.
5. Serve immediately with a simple salad of mixed greens.