This is a grilled ham and cheese sandwich taken to great heights which only the French could have dreamed up. OK, I came up with the Provencal part of the sandwich, the rest I give credit to the French. It was first seen on menus in some Paris brassieres and bistros during the early 1900’s. The name given to it was “Croque Monsieur”. The translation being derived from the French verb croquer (to bite) and a reference by the bartender that the ham came from a gentleman (monsieur) who was the local butcher sitting nearby. It was a toasted sandwich made with Ham and Gruyere or Comte cheese.
With any great story, there is always a leading lady who steps in. She doesn’t appear until the 1960’s. A fried egg was placed on top of the Croque Monsieur. Giving the appearance of a lady’s hat on top of this “gentleman” sandwich inspired the name “Croque Madame”.
The French are renowned for their five “Mother Sauces”, each being a foundation for culinary creativity of future generations throughout the world. Bechamel, Velouté, Espagnole, Hollandaise & Classic Tomato Sauce. In 1903 these sauces were being published by Auguste Escoiffier in Le Guide Culinaire. A few years later our “Mother Grilled Cheese Sandwich” (a.k.a. Croque Monsieur) started making appearances in Paris bistros.
Since then, the variations have been as endless as the lights of Paris. The English invented the Welsh Rarebit sandwich and here in the United States, we came up with the Monte Cristo. Each is a variation of the legendary Croque Monsieur.
It’s a rich dish so the ratio of bread to meat and cheese needs to be right. You need the toasted bread to have a “bite”, not to be too thin and crunchy. And, not too thick and soft. The right amount of cheese to create the “gooey” factor. I chose Comte cheese to keep the “French” thing going. It is made on the other side of the Alps from its Swiss sister, Gruyere. The right amount of ham to get the sweet/smokey flavor. The egg, what’s more delicious than cheese, ham and eggs. Its silky, smooth texture can make one swoon.
And, my addition the “Provencal”, baked tomato slices with garlic and herbs for sweet acidity and pops of herbal delightfulness. I crave a flavorful tomato in the winter when that is basically impossible to find. Baking them encourages the sugars to blossoms, giving you burst of summer memories. You’ll encourage the most flavor out of vine, roma, cocktail, cherry or grape tomatoes. I also added a Mornay Sauce (daughter to the Mother Sauce Bechamel) because I wanted that extra creaminess and it just seemed like a very French thing to do.
Vegetarian? That would be a Croque Mademoiselle. Eliminate the ham. Keep the tomatoes and maybe add some baked zucchini to it as well.