Sometimes the French get it just so right: bread, cheese, ham, all bundled together into the most glorious mouthful.
There are hundreds of versions of this tasty, filling and cheapish snack, and most are good, but this one is the richest of all, stuffed with ham, slathered in mornay sauce and dusted with parmesan, and I think it’s the best I’ve ever had.
1½ Tbsp butter
2 Tbsp (must be level) standard flour
250ml (about 9 fluid ounces) milk
¼ tsp salt, or to taste
¼ cup grated gruyere
Freshly grated nutmeg to taste
Freshly ground white pepper, optional, to taste
8 slices good thick bread
3 Tbsp butter, softened
2 Tbsp creamy Dijonnaise mustard
4 large thin slices good ham
½ cup freshly grated parmesan cheese
1 Make mornay sauce first. Gently melt butter in a small saucepan, take pan off the heat and stir in flour. Stir in the milk a third at a time. Return pan to heat, add salt and stir until sauce comes to the boil. Cook gently for 2 minutes, stirring. Take pan off the heat and beat in gruyere cheese and nutmeg and a little freshly ground white pepper. Taste and add more salt if necessary. Use immediately, or cover pan with a lid.
2 Preheat an oven grill. Put bread slices on a baking sheet. Spread with butter, right to the edges, then with mustard. Grill bread one rack down from the top of the oven until golden. Remove tray from oven and turn slices over. Spread bread with a little mornay sauce and top four bread slices with sliced ham. Add a dollop of mornay sauce and sandwich them together with the other four pieces of bread. Spread the top thickly with mornay sauce, taking it right to the edges and letting it go over the edges a little; any uncovered pieces of bread will quickly blacken. Top with grated parmesan cheese.
3 Grill until bubbling and speckled with golden brown spots. Serve immediately.
This is the most forgiving of cheese sandwiches. If you’re starving, it tastes pretty good no matter how you make it, but if you can choose, buy sliced ham off the bone and use freshly grated parmesan. I like fine textured bread with a good crust. A light sourdough is perfect, or a properly made ‘Vienna’ loaf. Here are a few tips for making the mornay sauce: Add the milk to the roux (butter and flour), a third at a time to prevent lumps forming. I use a smallish wire whisk rather than a wooden spoon because a whisk gets into the corners of the pan in a way a wooden spoon can’t, and so stops lumps forming during cooking. Don’t bubble the sauce after adding the cheese or the cheese will turn stringy. If you need to reheat a cheese sauce, do it over a very gentle heat and stir continually. Once the sauce is cool, transfer to a covered container and store in the fridge until you are ready to use it.
And, what’s this about white pepper? Is it an affectation? Well, maybe, although white peppercorns are distinctly hotter than black. It’s up to you which one you use.
Photography Aaron McLean http://www.aaronmclean.com
Also see Le Croque Madame