A few years ago when Mike and I were back in Boston I tried a French bistro classic for the first time. We had the afternoon to ourselves while we waited for our friends to finish their work days and decided a leisurely lunch at Aquitaine in the South End was the best way to pass the time. That lunch stands out in my memory for the relaxed pace of the day and the deliciousness of the food – beautifully smooth tomato bisque, a bright vinegary salad, and the star: a crisp, buttery Croque Monsieur.
Since then I’ve ordered the CM on other occasions and discovered - somewhat to my disappointment - that what I believed to be the ‘traditional’ style was actually Aquitaine’s own method. Research on the semi-reliable internet tells me that Aquitaine dips their CMs in a little egg and then cooks the sandwiches underneath a hot brick for an crisp exterior and a slightly flattened sandwich. Instead of cheese melted over the top; all the delicious Gruyere and its accompanying ham are contained in the crunchy bread for something more akin to a panini by way of a Monte Cristo sandwich. Photo evidence here.
After some experimenting (blame my need for a really good, crunchy bread for the lateness of this post) I give you my tribute to the flavors and textures I remember from that afternoon when I learned that grilled cheese could be grown-up and elegant.
I love serving this toasty sandwich with an extra schmere of whole grain mustard and a bunch of cool green grapes or a small pile of salad dressed with the same vinaigrette that goes in the spread. Maybe a glass of sauvignon blanc? Instant bistro.
Croque Monsieur a la Aquitaine (serves 4)
4 teaspoons whole grain mustard, like Maille Old Style
4 teaspoons creamy vinaigrette (see recipe below)
1/2 pound gruyere cheese, finely grated
4 thin slices Virginia ham
8 slices country bread, about 1/3" thick
4 tablespoons softened butter
In a small bowl, stir together the whole grain mustard and the creamy vinaigrette (recipe below) until well mixed. Spread one side the bread with a thin layer (about 1/2 teaspoon) of the mustard mixture and the other side with a thin layer of the softened butter.
Arrange the bread on a plate, buttered sides down. Divide half the grated gruyere among four slices of bread and top the cheese with a piece of Virginia ham. Sprinkle the other half of the gruyere over the ham - again, dividing equally among the sandwiches - and top with the remaining slices of bread, mustard-side in.
Meanwhile, heat a large cast iron skillet over medium-high heat. Press the sandwiches down gently to keep the halves together and place in the hot skillet.
Cook 3-4 minutes on each side or until golden brown. Resist the urge to crowd the pan. Repeat the procedure with remaining sandwiches keeping the first batch warm in a 200 degree oven.
Cut in half with a serrated knife and serve hot.
Creamy Vinaigrette (adapted from Ina Garten)
2 tablespoons cider vinegar
2 tablespoons Champagne vinegar
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 large egg yolk
1 cup extra-virgin olive oil
In the bowl of a food processor fitted with a steel blade combine the vinegars, sugar, salt, pepper, and egg yolk and blend for 1 minute. With the motor running, slowly pour the olive oil through the feed tube until the vinaigrette is thickened. Season, to taste. The dressing will last in the refrigerator for 2-3 weeks, so wash out an old jam jar and save it!
Small Kitchen Friendly?
Oui. I used a 4 cup food processor, 10” cast iron skillet, microplane grater, liquid measuring cup and measuring spoons, and a small bowl along with a medium sized cutting board and serrated knife. A metal spatula will make life easy for turning and pressing the sandwiches.
The extra effort to get the bread crunchy and toasted was so worth it. The gruyere is nutty and rich, while the ham adds a little bulk and saltiness – add in the tang of the vinaigrette & mustard mix and you’re in business. This is definitely a “grilled cheese” that I’d serve to guests for a casual lunch and it’s perfect a day when Mike and I need a little spoiling and only fancy sandwiches will do.