A cheese sauce enriched with cream cheese and plenty of herbs boosts a croque-monsieur. (Michael Tercha / Chicago Tribune)

A cheese sauce enriched with cream cheese and plenty of herbs boosts a croque-monsieur. (Michael Tercha / Chicago Tribune)

Grilled cheese reaches pinnacle in white-sauce-slathered croque monsieur

  • Wednesday, November 9, 2016 10:28am
  • Life

By Jeanmarie Brownson, Chicago Tribune

As the days grow shorter, my cooking leans toward comfort. Be forewarned, I like my comfort food with a bit of flair and plenty of warm cheese. Freshly shredded, it improves any macaroni and cheese. Vegetable and bean soups come into their own with a garnish of grated hard cheese. Even hot dogs taste better stuffed with cheese wrapped in bacon and grilled. A grilled cheese sandwich, made with hearty bread and sweet butter always satisfies.

A cheesy, Monte Cristo sandwich, relished on my first trip to Manhattan many years ago, proves the culprit for this cheesy penchant. Layered, buttered and battered, then sprinkled with sugar, this was not my mother’s grilled cheese. Later, a Parisian anniversary trip yielded my first croque-monsieur, the griddled French Gruyere cheese and ham snack that started a sandwich revolution.

I’ve been playing around with the combination of bread and cheese ever since, from weekday quesadillas to a friend’s inspired meatless version of the classic Reuben. My favorite rendition of croque-monsieur involves a smear of a cheesy white sauce, aka bechamel, enriched with cream cheese and riddled with fresh herbs. Local soft cheeses, diminutive pretzel loaves and whole grain mustards never fail to inspire sandwiches perfectly suited to casual dinners with friends.

The keys to success prove few: Freshly shredded or sliced cheese, good bread, sweet butter, a heavy nonstick griddle. If you have a panini press, great. Or, flip the waffle iron plates to the smooth side. A hot oven will help keep sandwiches crisp.

Gruyere’s nutty flavor and melting qualities make it the ideal cheese for melting goodness. Likewise French Comte. Among domestic cheeses, fontina or Muenster have mild flavors and textures that turn pleasingly gooey when heated.

For the bread, I prefer to purchase unsliced, whole-grain loaves at my local farmers market or bakery. Then, a serrated knife makes quick work of cutting ½-inch thick slices. I also enjoy croque-monsieurs on torpedo-shaped pretzel rolls and soft Mexican teleras. Ciabatta rolls work, too, albeit they are a bit chewy. Sliced brioche bread tastes great and crisps beautifully.

A croque-monsieur includes ham — Black Forest or Westphalian hams have rich, smoky flavor and add a toothsome, meaty texture to any grilled cheese sandwich. Other options include sliced deli ham or ham-off-the-bone. I like Trader Joe’s sliced oven-roasted rosemary ham in combination with this herbaceous white sauce.

Chunks of smoked salmon, turkey or chicken can stand in for the ham. Or, make it a vegetarian treat, and use grilled sliced eggplant (or more cheese!). Sliced tomatoes taste great in the sandwich but tend to make everything more moist and more difficult to cook. If using, slice the tomatoes thinly and pat them dry.

Serve hot cheesy sandwiches with sides that counter the richness, such as sharp pickles and/or a green salad tossed with balsamic vinaigrette. Then consider yourself comforted.

Herby Croque-Monsieur

Cheesy white sauce:

1½ tablespoons each: butter, flour

¾ cup skim or whole milk

¼ cup reduced-fat cream cheese, softened

2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh chives or green onion tops

1/8 teaspoon each, finely chopped or dried: rosemary, thyme

1/8 teaspoon each: salt, freshly ground pepper


12 ounces Gruyere, Comte, fontina or Muenster cheese (rind removed)

8 slices, each about ½-inch thick, hearty whole grain bread

12 ounces thinly sliced, ham

3 tablespoons butter, melted

Whole grain mustard

Small or sliced pickles

For the white sauce, put butter and flour into a small saucepan. Set over medium heat; stir until smooth and melted. Gradually whisk in milk until smooth. Cook, stirring constantly, until thickened, about 2 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in cream cheese, chives, herbs, salt and pepper. Let cool.

For the sandwiches, use the large holes on a 4-sided box grater to shred the cheese. Lay the 8 slices of bread out on a work surface. Spread one side of each with about 1 tablespoon of the sauce. Top 4 of the slices each with a quarter of the shredded cheese. Top each with a quarter of the ham slices. Place a dressed slice of bread on top to make a sandwich. Smear the tops of the sandwiches with a little melted butter. Flip the whole sandwich and spread with more melted butter. Sandwiches can be assembled an hour or so in advance; cover tightly with plastic wrap.

Heat the oven to 200 degrees, and place a baking sheet in the oven. Heat a panini press or a large nonstick griddle over medium heat until hot. If not using a panini press, also heat a cast-iron skillet over medium until hot. (You’ll use the hot bottom to press the sandwich.)

Spray the hot cooking surface, and add the sandwiches, working in batches as needed to accommodate your equipment. If using the griddle, set the heated skillet on top of the sandwiches to compact them a bit. Cook until cheese is melty and bread is nicely golden and crisp, 5 to 6 minutes. Turn sandwiches so they cook evenly; if not using a panini press, flip them to crisp the other side. Transfer the sandwiches to the baking sheet in the hot oven until ready to serve.

To serve, cut the sandwiches in half. Put onto heated serving plates. Accompany with a small dish of whole grain mustard and the pickles.

Makes four servings.

Talk to us

More in Life

The Black Tones are one of three headliners of this year's Fisherman's Village Music Festival broadcast on YouTube and at www.thefishermansvillage.com. Catch the band's performance on Oct. 31. (Kendall Lawren Rock)
Fisherman’s Village festival returns as streaming video series

Long delayed by the pandemic, the spotlight for local music is being broadcast in four episodes this week.

The five telltale signs of a ‘hortaholic’

It may be an addiction, but it’s the good kind that enriches your life.

This silver-plated serving piece is called a box but it doesn't look like one. It held English biscuits, but if the sides opened, the cookies inside would fall down. Each of the shell-shaped bowls had a hinged, pierced flap that kept the heat and the biscuits in place when the sides were opened and became flat bowls to serve the cookies. The flaps are often missing when the biscuit box is sold.-
These British ‘biscuit boxes’ are cookie jars by any other name

And fancy silver ones can sell for as much as $256 at antiques auctions.

Pandemic psychology and fear of contagion or psychological fears of disease or virus infections with 3D illustration elements.
Pandemic pains: Sleepless nights, hair loss and cracked teeth

Chronic stress from the months-long COVID-19 pandemic is a common thread among many of these conditions.

An expert’s top 3 tips to effectively train for virtual races

When COVID-19 struck, many races were canceled to limit crowds. Virtual races are becoming a popular alternative.

Vitis vinifera ‘Purpurea’
Great Plant Pick: Vitis vinifera “Purpurea”

It’s a common wine grape, but in the Puget Sound region, it’s grown for its beauty — the fruit won’t ripen in our climate.

Beer-brined BBQ chicken with mustard and miso mayonnaise sauce. (Sam Folan)
Feel like a chef in your own kitchen with ‘Home Cookery Year’

The cookbook is divided by seasons and includes midweek suppers, recipes on a budget and payday cooking.

Curried beef stew is a warm, hearty dish when the weather turns cool. (Gretchen McKay/Post-Gazette/TNS)
Chase away the chill with this Dutch oven curried beef stew

It gets an Asian kick from curry powder and fresh ginger, and umami from a few splashes of fish and soy sauces.

Eric Tingstad and Nancy Rumbel, who won a Grammy Award for Best New Age Album in 2003, will perform Christmas carols Nov. 28 at Tim Noah Thumbnail Theater in Snohomish. (Tingstad and Rumbel)
All about music: Schedule of concerts around Snohomish County

The listings include Historic Everett Theatre, Edmonds Center for the Arts and Thumbnail Theater shows.

Most Read