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.
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.