Sunday, 23 January 2011

Béchamel, Attempt 1 (Successful): Croque Monsieur

And so, I caught the end of the week and have restarted the culinary journey in written form.

For those of you who are reading this and don't know by now, I'm working at Denison University in Granville, Ohio, which itself is anywhere from 20-45 minutes from some part of Columbus. I'm on a meal plan here, but as I'm sure some can attest to, that hasn't stopped me from cooking... entirely. It's certainly slowed me down, but that's where this year's challenge comes in.

As best I can, my aim is to photograph my culinary journey and reflect on what I learned in the process, sharing recipes and such along the way. In contrast to my previous blog and challenge, which set forth benchmarks of basic technique that I thought I had to master within a short period of time, this particular challenge has no time frame and aims at referencing what I've "sensed" before, and without breaking down each technique in checklist form (for example). For ye who may be thinking "what in the world does he mean by 'sensed'?" I mean food I've "heard of, seen on tv before, perhaps made and thought went awry or perfectly," and so on, and so on. Okay, feeble attempt at explaining what I'm trying to do aside, let's begin.

I first had a croque monsieur in Paris, at a place called Le Week-End, which Google Maps is showing me is located all over the city. The one I'm referring to is the one closest to the study abroad site office. Anyway, I remember its utter simplicity and with it simple perfection. The crunch of the toasted bread and the awesome sight of brûléd cheese was never to be forgotten and to forever be enjoyed. I must've been too overjoyed (or hungry) to take a photo of that sandwich, but here's one from Les Deux Magots. As I'm sure my classmates can tell you, my photography of what would become a staple (alongside the best pains au chocolat in all of Paris) of our diet was a bit much by the end of the trip. Nevertheless, here's one of my early attempts at recreating this simple dish. (Study abroad folks, I urge you to blog and take photos... haha, especially for the day you want to reference something in a later blog form such as this.)

So let's flash back to the present... In preparing to recreate this dish yet again, two things immediately stuck out to me: 1) I don't have a toaster oven like I did in Paris and 2) I don't have emmental (one of my staple French cheeses), at least not affordable emmental in central Ohio (though I'm now more determined to find some the next time I go to Columbus). To be honest, I thought I had "forgotten" the recipe and was thrown for a loop when I found countless recipes referencing butter, flour, in the ingredients list. Yup, they're all putting a béchamel sauce atop their already perfect sandwiches.

Naturally, I needed to make said sauce. I had made it once before (à Paris) but I had someone guiding me through the process... and we used it with endives. Alas, knowing how to make a béchamel sauce, much like learning languages, opens up the door to new possibilities.

If you tried to look up béchamel in a translation dictionary, you'd get nothing but b(é/e)chamel. Take a look at an etymological dictionary and you'll find that it refers to Louis de Béchamel, the marquis de Nointel, who had perfected this simple white sauce. Such as custom, the sauce gets to be named after him. If you're unfamiliar with this sauce, take a hop over to Wikipedia (if you haven't already), and you'll see that béchamel is the base for many sauces. This evening, I used a variation of a Mornay sauce on my croque monsieur (the addition of the sauce apparently justifies the croque monsieur version I made as "elaborate"), the variation so-called because I found the gruyère to be too expensive (and so I just used the other traditional Mornay sauce cheese, parmesan).

The béchamel sauce begins with a roux, which is basically equal parts clarified (read: melted) butter and flour. Warm the butter in a sauce pot/pan until it has melted on med-lo heat. Add the flour and whisk until the flour has softened and well incorporated into the butter; by that point, the roux should be light brown in color (about 2 or 3 minutes). To this, slowly add milk to the roux at med-hi heat, being sure to whisk quickly to prevent clumping. Some recipes will call for the milk to have been previously heated, but this will work with colder/room temp milk (so long as you add it slowly and whisk it in; don't raise the temp as high as you would if the milk was heated). Bring this mixture to a boil, and then reduce the heat back down to med-lo. Let this cook (remembering to stir) until the sauce coats the back of a spoon. Typically, this takes about 10 minutes. Once cooked, take the pot off the heat and add sea salt and ground black pepper to taste. Most, if not all, recipes call for freshly grated nutmeg. If you don't have any, the sauce still works.

For the three croque monsieurs I made tonight, I used 1 tbsp butter, 1 tbsp flour, 1 c milk and a pinch each of salt and black pepper for the béchamel. To turn it into its Mornay sauce form, I added 1/2 c grated parmesan. As I was cooking the sauce, I toasted six slices of mini Italian bread on a baking sheet for about 7 minutes total and layered each slice with a light spread of dijon mustard, a slice of Swiss cheese and a slice of ham. I put this back in the oven until the cheese was melted and I could hear it crackling (about 5 min). I sandwiched the slices, adding an additional slice of Swiss in between. I topped this sandwich with my Mornay sauce and only then realised what "BR" stood for on the oven knob. I placed the sandwiches back in the oven, set it to broil, but placed it too close to the broiler. For next time: layer the sandwich, top with Mornay sauce, and bake as a whole, on middle oven rack, at 350°F for 5 minutes, and then set to broil for another 3 minutes so the sauce on top is bubbly and brûléd as expected.

Despite my last-minute culinary and kitchen discoveries, the croque monsieur turned out pretty well. You can find photos to the recipe referenced above, here.

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