As I sat in an outdoor café on Rue Cler in Paris sipping on a cup of cocoa, my eyes couldn’t help but stare at the lunch at the next table. It looked like a grilled cheese sandwich with a fried egg on top, but somehow exotic. I was dying to dig in.

I wanted to feel the crunch between my teeth, the softness of the egg on my tongue and savour the flavours in my mouth. I wanted to know what the ingredients were and how it was all put together so seductively. It’s called a Croque Madame.

Not to be confused with Croque Monsieur that is simply a cheese sandwich covered with Bachamel sauce, a Croque Madame is a ham and cheese sandwich covered with Bachamel sauce and topped with a fried egg.

The name comes from the French word “croquer”, to crunch and it originated in Paris cafes as a quick snack. The next day, my own Croque Madame was served to me for lunch.

The bread was on the thin side by North American standards (which is the way I like it). The thin bread meant it was not the dominant flavour in the sandwich but served as support for the other ingredients. It seemed to be toasted in sweet butter and used to layer slices of succulent ham and melted cheese. Traditionally Emmenthal or Gruyere is used. Next it’s slathered with a cheesy Bachamel sauce and broiled until the Bachamel begins to bubble and some of the ends become brown and crispy. Just before it is served, it’s topped with a perfectly fried egg with a semi-runny yolk – oh yum!

It was sublime! Now that I’m back in Canada I tried to make a Croque Madame. I bought all the ingredients and made a cheesy Bachamel sauce. I invited friends over and set to work. I made the grilled ham and cheese sandwich, spooned thick Bachamel sauce overtop and put it under the broiler until the sauce bubbled and began to brown around the edges. While that was cooking, I fried a few eggs on medium-low heat inside a covered skillet. I carefully slid the egg on top of each sandwich and served them warm.

They looked irresistibly delicious but… the flavour was awful! It was an assault of salt – aughh! I went back to the store that I bought the Black Forest ham and discovered the ham had a whopping 48% salt content. Holy cow – 48%!!!! This means it has 48% of our daily salt intake. I had to change the sandwich.

So I looked around for a lower sodium lunch meat and found a low-fat, turkey lunchmeat at 15% salt content. I made the Croque Madame again and this time result was much, much nicer. It was still a tiny bit salty, but it was tolerable. It’s not the first time I’ve returned from Europe and tried to duplicate a recipe only to find out that North American ingredients are noticibly different.

Last time while in Paris I made Julia Childs recipe for Boeuf Bourgogne. In Paris, it was lusciously divine. When I attempted to duplicate it back home, the results were disastrous – beef that boiled instead of seared and flour that didn’t absorb or thicken enough.

If you travel you will undoubtedly notice the difference in dishes, flavours and culinary customs. For me, it makes travelling so exciting. Perhaps it’s unreasonable think I can duplicate dishes when I return home; for home is far from the exotic places I lust for.

Croque Madame

1 tbsp. unsalted butter
1 tbsp. flour
1 cups milk
12 oz. Gruyère, grated
½ cup finely grated Parmesan cheese
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste Freshly grated nutmeg, to taste
12 ¾”-thick slices pain de mie or Pullman bread, toasted
6 tbsp. Dijon mustard
12 thin slices baked ham
2 tbsp. canola oil
6 eggs

Heat butter in a 2-qt. saucepan over medium-high heat. Add flour and cook, whisking, until smooth, about 1 minute. Whisk in milk, and bring to a boil; reduce heat to medium-low and let simmer until slightly reduced and thickened, 6–8 minutes. Add ½ cup grated Gruyère and the Parmesan, and whisk until smooth. Season with salt, pepper, and nutmeg.

Heat broiler to high. Place 6 slices bread on a parchment paper-lined baking sheet, and spread 1 tbsp. mustard over each. Top with 2 slices ham and remaining Gruyère. Broil until cheese begins to melt, 1–2 minutes. Top with remaining bread slices, then pour a generous amount of béchamel on top of each sandwich. Broil until cheese sauce is bubbling and evenly browned, about 3–4 minutes.

Meanwhile, heat oil in a 12″ nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add eggs, season with salt and pepper, and cook until whites are cooked but yolks are still runny, about 3 minutes. Place an egg on top of each sandwich, and serve hot.

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