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Croque-Madame

This is a heavenly, decadent, big, fork and knife sandwich.

For the last year or so they have been serving a version of it at the Zodiac Room at the Northpark Neimans, qualifying it as the very best mall food I have ever eaten. And, I know the restaurant has a new name but I have boycotted the new name. But, I still love the place.

Lily and I dropped in for lunch on a no-school day recently and, to my sadness, I found that my beloved and naughty Croque Madame had been unceremoniously ripped from my life. New menu. I say naughty because, in case the pictures haven’t tipped you off, it is full of cheese, cheese sauce, ham, and has a big fried egg on top. I don’t know who decided it was a “Madame” because it is a decidedly masculine affair.

It is slightly time consuming for a sandwich but trust me when I say that you will be glad you made the effort. It is one of my favorite meals.

The Bread: I used a loaf I found at my local grocer called English Toasting Bread. I don’t know what that really means other than it was a nice, dense, soft bread. If all else fails, I suppose regular white bread would do. I don’t recommend a grainy wheat bread, but I can’t exactly say why. Go for something white and dense…a few steps up the ladder from your kid’s sandwich bread.

The Ham: I used Black Forest Smoked Ham. The smoky flavor was nice. I think a sweet ham would  not have the same impact. Get the ham out of the refrigerator as you start so that it can come to room temperature.

The Cheese: Gruyere is traditional here, I think. I, however, used an aged white cheddar because….that is what I had in the fridge. It was wonderful. If you deviate, again, choose something white. Swiss would probably work great, too.

Mustard: I chose a whole grain Dijon mustard. Plain Dijon is probably more traditional. But you only want to use a hint of it. It is not so much a condiment here as just an aspect of the flavor profile. And by that I mean that your guest will probably not know there is mustard in it; rather, they will be left wondering what that interesting hint of a flavor is.

The Cheese Sauce: This is simply a basic butter and flour roux with milk stirred in, and shredded white cheddar cheese, salt and pepper added in right at the end. A dash of nutmeg is common, but I chose not to use it.

Servings: 4 sandwiches
8 slices of good quality white bread
4 teaspoons (approximately) Dijon mustard
½ pound smoked ham, thinly sliced (approximately…use the amount that looks right)
¾ cup shredded white aged Cheddar cheese (or Gruyere or Swiss)
5 Tablespoons unsalted butter (divided use)
3 Tablespoons all purpose flour
2 cups milk
Dash of salt and pepper
4 large eggs

To Make the Sauce:

Melt 3 Tablespoons of butter in a saucepan.  Add 3 Tablespoons of flour and mix it in thoroughly with a whisk. Continue to whisk and cook the roux for 3 minutes. Add the milk, whisking constantly and bring the mixture to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for 5 minutes, whisking periodically. Remove the saucepan from the heat and add ½ cup (or more) of shredded aged white cheddar cheese. Add salt and pepper and stir until the cheese is melted and combined. Set aside. This sauce will get a “skin” if left unattended. I didn’t care because I just scooped some up and broiled it anyway. But if you are going for sauce perfection, you can lay a piece of wax paper directly on the surface of the sauce.

For the Sandwiches:

For each sandwich, apply about a teaspoon of mustard on one side of the bread. Pile the ham on top of the mustard. On the other piece of bread, spoon about 1 to 2 Tablespoon of the cheese sauce and spread it evenly. Add about 1 Tablespoon of shredded aged white cheddar cheese on top of the sauce and close the sandwich. Repeat for each of the sandwiches.

Preheat the broiler.

Melt 2 Tablespoons of butter on a non stick griddle pan. Place the sandwiches and cook them until the bottom side is golden brown, and then carefully turn them over and cook them on the other side, as well. Remove the sandwiches to a shallow baking dish. Spoon about ⅓ cup of the sauce on each of the sandwiches. It is fine if it goes over the sides a little. Place the dish under the broiler for approximately 2 minutes, or until the sauce is browned and bubbly. Watch this step closely because it goes from perfect to ruined in about 10 seconds. Turn off the broiler and let the baking dish stay warm by leaving it on a rack in the bottom of the oven. Should you burn the tops (as I did the first time) you can gently scoop off the burnt bit and broil them again for a mere moment.

Meanwhile, clean the griddle pan with a paper towel and melt the remaining 1 Tablespoon of butter. Fry 4 eggs until the whites are cooked and the egg is just sunny side up perfection. Remove the baking dish from the oven and place one sandwich on each plate using a spatula. Then carefully place one egg on top of each sandwich, taking care not to break the yolk. Eat immediately.

You are going to love this.

NOTE: I suspect I’m morally obligated to say that undercooked eggs can be bad for you. But that is the way that they ought to be for this dish. So there. I adapted this sandwich from a recipe that appeared in the March 2007 issue of Gourmet…which I found on Epicurious…the most useful website and iPad apps known to man.

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