Really, when it comes down to it, what could be better than an ooey-gooey-melty sandwich made on exceptional bread, topped with good ham, and covered in fantastic cheese? If you take that, and then throw some béchamel in the mix to up the creaminess factor, I believe you may have found just a piece of French paradise on your plate. What I am referring to here is the croque monsieur sandwich - it's classic, it's delicious, and it makes the American tradition of white bread with a slice of Kraft look plain lazy. And, I honestly believe that once you go croque, you'll never go back...
The recipe below is adapted from Bar Boulud - esteemed chef Daniel Boulud's casual bistro across from Lincoln Center in Manhattan. I have adapted this slightly to suit my needs, and here is what I have done... First, I skipped the second slice of bread on top - usually this sandwich is of full dimension, I prefer to serve it open faced. It's a fork and knife affair anyway, and most of my clients are watching their carbs, so I don't see the need for a second piece of bread (though you could certainly do this if you were using this as a main dish). Secondly, I love to use Beecher's Flagship in this recipe; partly because I like to use local ingredients when I can, and partly because it's just plain delicious and melts just right! Now, on to the good part!
Croque Monsieur (adapted from Daniel Boulud)
For the Béchamel Sauce:
1.5 T unsalted butter
2 T all-purpose flour
1.5 c whole milk
Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
Salt and freshly ground white pepper
For the sandwiches :
4 slices high-quality bread, sliced 1/3- to 1/2-inch thick (a Pullman loaf or similarly fine grained bread)
12 oz thickly sliced good ham (Jambon de Paris if you can, or good quality black forest ham if you can't)
10 oz delicious melty white cheese, coarsely grated (Gruyère is traditional, I happen to enjoy Beecher's Flagship in this situation)
1. For the béchamel: In a small saucepan over low heat, melt butter and whisk in the flour until blended but not colored. Gradually whisk in the milk and cook, stirring constantly, until thickened, about 10 minutes. Season to taste with nutmeg, salt and pepper. Set aside. (May be made up to 24 hours ahead of time and stored, refrigerated, with a layer of plastic wrap placed directly on surface of sauce; gently reheat before serving.)
2. For the sandwiches: Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Line a sheet pan with parchment paper. On a work surface, place bread slices in a single layer and spread each one evenly to the edges with béchamel. Divide ham among four of the slices, trimming it if necessary so it is within 1/4 inch of edges. Top all eight slices with equal amounts of cheese, spreading it evenly to within 1/4 inch of edges.
3. Transfer sandwiches, cheese side up, onto sheet pan. Bake until grated cheese topping is melted and golden brown, 10 to 15 minutes. Serve immediately. If serving as a Madame, top with a fried egg.