And the Oscar goes to ... Croque Monsieur
The Oscars are coming. I tune in to watch the hoopla every year. It never matters that most years I haven't seen the movies that have been nominated for awards.
It's not the actual presentation of each award that attracts me. It's the whole package - the people, the clothes they're wearing, the sparkling jewels, the music - and the food we eat while watching.
During the past year I've actually seen a few movies. One of those movies, "It's Complicated," is not on any list of nominations. But it will be getting some attention. Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin, co-stars in the movie, will co-host the Academy Awards ceremony. And Meryl Streep, who is contending for the award for Best Actress in her role as Julia Child in "Julie & Julia," also stars in "It's Complicated."
She plays French-educated baker/chef Jane, living in sunny-most-days California. She not only successfully runs her own bistro-bakery, but she glides around her cozy, casual to-die-for home kitchen, effortlessly preparing a roast chicken dinner for her ex-husband, an intoxicating chocolate cake and a sexy croque monsieur for her architect/suitor. And the food is beautiful.
So, for these very simple reasons (Alec, Steve and Meryl), I've decided to make Croque Monsieur for Oscar night.
Croque Monsieur (KROHK muhs-YOOR) is a French version of a ham and Swiss cheese sandwich. But it's slightly crunchy. And it's warm. And it's slathered with a cheesy Béchamel sauce that becomes gooey in a very good way after it spends a couple of minutes under the broiler.
There are several variations of Croque Monsieur, depending on which cookbook you are reading. My version is not complicated.
I've used my favorite béchamel (bay-shah-MELL), one of the mother sauces of French cooking and probably the easiest to make. Once the creamy white sauce has been prepared and bread slices have been toasted in the oven, it takes no time at all to assemble the sandwiches. Glaze half the bread slices with Dijon mustard and pile on thin slices of good quality ham. Grated Gruyère, a rich, nutty-flavored cheese that comes from the Gruyère region of Switzerland, goes over the ham. And over the béchamel sauce that is slathered over the top of the sandwich.
Have a fork and knife handy. This warm sandwich, smothered in a blanket of rich, bubbling sauce, is not the kind you can pick up to eat.
On Academy Awards night, I'll whip up some béchamel sauce. With hardly a lift of a finger, I'll have the sandwiches, oozing with melted cheese, placed on plates. I'll gracefully glide to a chair in front of the television. It won't be a bit complicated.
1/4 cup butter
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
2 cups milk
1 small onion, peeled, studded with 3 whole cloves
1 bay leaf
1 sprig fresh thyme or a pinch of dried thyme leaves
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
12 ounces Gruyere cheese, grated
16 slices white bread
8 slices Black Forest or Virginia Baked deli ham (about 8 ounces)
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
In a heavy saucepan, melt butter over low heat. When butter begins to foam, add flour all at once, mixing well with a wire whisk. Cook over low heat for 2 minutes, stirring constantly. Remove pan from heat and set aside.
In another saucepan, heat milk with clove-studded onion, bay leaf and thyme. Just before milk comes to boiling point, slowly pour the milk into the butter-flour mixture, whisking constantly. The onion and thyme can be removed at this time. Place the pot back on a burner turned to low heat. Continue to cook and whisk the mixture until it thickens. Remove from heat and add 1/2 cup of the grated Gruyère and 1/2 cup grated Parmesan.
Place bread slices on baking sheets and bake for 5 minutes. Flip each slice and bake for another 2 minutes, until toasted.
Brush one side of half of the toasted bread slices with mustard. Top with a slice of ham, some grated Gruyère and another piece of toasted bread. Slather top of each sandwich with cheese sauce and sprinkle with more Gruyère. Bake the sandwiches for 5 minutes. Turn on the broiler and broil for 3 to 5 minutes, until the cheese is melted and the top is bubbling and lightly browned. Serve the sandwiches hot. Makes 8 sandwiches.
Tips from the cook
--Make a meatless version of Croque Monsieur by replacing ham with portabella mushrooms.
--The béchamel sauce can be prepared ahead of time and refrigerated. It will still be a nice consistency for spreading over the top of each sandwich.
--I am happy when there is some béchamel remaining in the pot. It can be reheated with a little more milk and tossed up with pasta for another meal.