DURING THE YEAR of my life that I spent in DC, I didn’t splurge much. I tried to keep meals at five dollars or less, without resorting to the peanut butter and jelly solution. I did a lot of the classic cooking-one-pasta-dish-to-be-dinner-for-the-week technique, I balanced a lot of home-brewed cups of coffee on very crowded metros, and I knew everything that was on sale at Safeway every day. That said, there were a few occasions for loosening the purse strings: the Super Bowl and the world’s greatest seven-layer dip, my roommate’s birthday, and the weekends when M. would visit. Those were the luxurious weekends when I got my fundamentals from Safeway but wandered the wonderland of Whole Foods for everything else. On those weekends, I felt rich.
The very first time M. visited after I moved to DC is the one I remember most, gastronomically speaking. I puttered around the kitchen (as much as one can putter in a tiny apartment kitchen) while M. slept off his red eye flight and created a daunting Saturday brunch with cinnamon blueberry muffins, hash browns, and asparagus and leek frittata, all homemade, with mango blueberry fool for dessert. I couldn’t afford a test run, so I was as careful as I could be and prayed it would all work out. And it did, for the most part. As much effort as I put into it, though, my brain remembers the recipes but my senses don’t remember the taste.
No, it was the one-dish Sunday morning breakfast that my taste buds remember from that weekend. There are some cooks who find a very difficult meal with lots of preparation to taste better than if the same meal was made by another. There are others for whom all that work somehow psychologically detracts from the meal, as though the labor has tired their taste buds. I am neither here nor there. Good food is good food. I live to eat.
And so, when I tell you that the croque madame that I made (and made, and made, and made) was just perfect, I am not telling you this from behind butter-tinted glasses. Yes, I made it, but the making does not enhance the taste. And yes, butter is a key ingredient. You might not want to eat this every day, three times a day, for the rest of your life. (Well, you might want to, but you shouldn’t.) But taking a classic French grilled cheese (croque monsieur) and adding a roux-based cheese sauce and fried egg on top is absolutely brilliant for an occasional and delightful breakfast/brunch/lunch/dinner.
A few words of advice. As the cook, you have the singular benefit of having all the ingredients at your disposal while you create. If you have a recipe whose sauce recipe makes more than you will use, and a crusty loaf whose ends are not sandwich material, seize the day and do what any self-respecting cook would do. Dip crusty bread in wonderful roux-based cheese sauce and nibble while you cook. Consider it the home field advantage.
CROQUE MADAME, adapted from Gourmet
5 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 cups milk
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon pepper
1/8 teaspoon nutmeg
2 cups shredded Gruyere cheese
small loaf freshly-baked artisan bread (recommended: sour batard)
4 teaspoons Dijon mustard
8 slices black forest ham
4 large eggs
Preheat broiler, and lightly oil a shallow baking pan large enough to hold four sandwiches. (This will depend on the size of your loaf.)
Melt 3 tablespoons of butter in a saucepan over moderately low heat. Add flour and whisk constantly for no more than three minutes. Add milk, bring to a boil, still whisking constantly.
Reduce heat, simmer for five minutes while whisking on occasion. Whisk in salt, pepper, nutmeg, and 1/2 cup shredded Gruyere. Stir until cheese is entirely melted. Remove from heat and cover.
Cut eight slices from the loaf approximately 1/2″ thick each. Spread mustard on four of the slices and top mustard-covered slice with two slices of black forest ham.
Spoon roux-based sauce on the remaining four slices of bread. Sprinkle approximately 1/4 cup cheese on top of each sauce-laden piece of bread. Invert mustard-and-ham slices onto sauce-and-cheese slices to form sandwiches.
Melt 1 tablespoon butter in a large skillet on moderately-low heat. Cook sandwiches in skillet, approximately three to four minutes per side, until cheese is melted and bread is golden-brown. Transfer sandwiches to baking pan.
Remove skillet from heat.
Spoon sauce on top of each sandwich. Sprinkle remaining cheese on top of sauce and place in oven inches from broiler for several minutes until sauce is bubbly and top cheese is melted.
Heat remaining tablespoon of butter in skillet over moderate heat and crack eggs into skillet. Season with salt and pepper. Fry until whites are set and yolks are still runny.
Place an egg on each sandwich and serve immediately.