I'VE EATEN EXCELLENT GRILLED HAM-AND-cheese sandwiches in Los Angeles, Tonopah, Nev., Rome, Lisbon--even Helsinki. But I am obsessed with croque monsieur--the Parisian version. This has to be the most common of Parisian cafe foods, something a Michelin-starred chef would toss to the hounds. The name literally means something like "man's gobble," from croquer (to gobble, crunch, gulp). One hundred years ago or so, when the delicacy was invented, "un croque" meant a snack, or just plain old grub, with the proviso that it be eaten quickly.
Today, many visitors to Paris--and plenty of Parisians themselves--mistake this humble grilled ham sandwich, garnished with milk-soaked grated cheese, for a "Welsh rarebit." But as connoisseurs know, a "Welsh" is a fraudulent croque: an open-faced sponge of bread devised (by Welsh publicans) to soak up stale ale and leftover cheddar but having no trace of ham at all.
Whatever you call it, the amazing thing about these sandwiches is how they bedevil purists. You can make them in about 100 different ways--no small achievement, since there are only half a dozen ingredients, and as many steps to follow. You slice bread, you slice ham, you grate Swiss cheese, then mix it with milk (and/or beer), you spread the goop on the top slice of bread and then grill the thing, also adding, if you wish, an egg. With an egg, croque monsieur becomes a female fertility symbol called croque madame.
Many Parisians are as obsessed as I am about croques, though few agree on the order of these steps or the exact ingredients to use. Do you toast and butter the bread before grilling it? Do you soak the grated Swiss in beer or milk, or a bit of both? Can you add a pinch of cayenne pepper or Worchestershire? And the egg--fry it first and then make it "ride horseback," or crack it raw on top and grill it in place?
I've seen Parisians go red-faced arguing over how to make the perfect croque. The biggest bone of contention, so to speak, is the bread. Most croque-masters prefer traditional white bread--pain de mie. Ask politely and the chefs of legendary Left Bank cafes such as La Coupole, the Deux Magots or Cafe Flore will grill you a classic, square white-bread croque, whose pre-buttered (but not pre-toasted) bread slices are topped with melted Swiss moistened in milk. No beer. They look exactly like the ones Picasso or Sartre might have eaten 50 years ago. Other places--the most famous being Au Generale La Fayette--opt for country-style pain de campagne. Still others favor the definitive Parisian sourdough, Poilane bread. You can eat a mean sourdough Croque Auvergnat (with country ham and Cantal cheese) at a corner cafe called Au Rond Point, facing Pere-Lachaise Cemetery, the repository of the remains of Jim Morrison. The Chai de l'Abbaye, near the Rue de Buci and its outdoor market, uses fancy Bayonne ham and goat cheese to make its open-faced Croquant Basque, a tasty travesty of a real monsieur.
Over the decades I have tasted croques served in countless cafes, on all types of bread, with beer or milk, pepper or sauce, with or without eggs, fried or grilled. So which is the best croque in the land? All of the above, and none. The beauty of this supple sandwich is that its multiform simplicity matches all moods. And I've still got several thousand Paris cafes to try before I join Jim Morrison at Pere-Lachaise.
Adapted from "The Paris Cookbook," by Daniel Young
(William Morrow and Co., 1998)
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/3 cup flour
2 1/4 cups milk
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1 pinch of ground nutmeg
2 cups grated Gruyere cheese
1/2 cup light-colored beer
4 slices French country bread (large, round loaf)
4 slices ham
To make Mornay sauce, melt butter in saucepan over low heat. Add flour and whisk briskly for 2 minutes. Still over low heat, add 2 cups milk, continuing to whisk. When sauce comes to a boil, season with salt, pepper and nutmeg. Add 1/2 cup Gruyere to complete Mornay sauce, remove from heat and cool.
Combine remaining 1/4 cup milk and beer in bowl. Add remaining Gruyere to this liquid, soak 2 minutes and drain cheese.
Top each slice of bread liberally with Mornay sauce, then cover with slice of ham and sprinkle soaked Gruyere on top. Cook in toaster oven or under broiler until golden brown.