Croaked Madame

When my brother went off to the south of France for his year abroad, one of the first things he planned to do was take a little side trip to Monaco to visit Princess Grace.

He had no prior introduction to either Her Serene Highness nor her family, but I am almost certain he considered that, since he and she were half Irish and both of their fathers were from Philadelphia, he was a shoe-in for a dinner invite.

Sadly, the houses of Grimaldi and Procopio never got to mingle.

On the 13th of September, 1982, Princess Grace suffered a stroke while driving her youngest daughter home from their family retreat at Roc Agel. The car veered off the road, down a mountainside, and into a florist’s garden.

Princess Stephanie survived the crash, but my brother’s plan to meet her mother did not. When Princess Grace died on September 14, Douglas cancelled his plans.

He never went to Monaco.

Her death, however, became his hobby. He began collecting Princess Grace memorabilia and sending it home to us in boxes– magazine and news articles about the accident, postcards with her image on them, a record of her reciting the story of L’Oiseau Du Nord et L’Oiseau Du Soleil. He was, to put it mildly, obsessed.

One of those boxes included a memorable (to me) letter in which he took enough time out of his deep mourning to mention the cafe sandwich in which he took much solace: the croque madame. “It’s a ham and cheese sandwich, but with an egg on top that looks like a woman’s breast.” He thought it was genius.

Not being particularly interested in women’s breasts or egg sandwiches, I opted instead to try my had at making eggless croques messieurs (I am uncertain if this is the correct plural of croque monsieur but I’m going with it). They came out tasty, but uninspiring– a grilled-up ham and cheese sandwich, but made with something harder to find and more expensive than American cheese: Gruyère.

From thousands of miles away, I tried to share in both my brother’s love of ham-and-cheese sandwiches and his deep sense of loss over an Oscar-winning actress, but my interest eventually waned. I moved onto other, more important things like The Go Go’s and Sun In.

Not long after, my brother traded in his grief over Princess Grace for a much more attainable celebrity-stalking obsession: Pope John Paul II. He blew off the tiny Principality of Monaco for the even tinier sovereign state of The Vatican. I think he believed the less square acreage he had to cover in any country, the better the chance of meeting its head of state.

Like everything else in life, Monsieur Croque and his perky-breasted wife were abandoned and forgotten.

It had been years since I had given any thought to the croque madame, but when my friend Rebecca recently ordered a croque monsieur, I became amused by the fact that I was instantly reminded of Princess Grace. It was like some edible free-association game. She and the sandwich are inextricably linked in my mind. When I think “Grace Kelly”, I think of Hitchcock and High Society. When I think “Princess Grace of Monaco”, I think “ham and cheese sandwich with an egg on top.” Same woman, different associations. It’s really rather maddening.

But I don’t think I would have it any other way.

Croque Madame

The key to a decent croque madame (or monsieur, for that matter) is the Mornay sauce. If you are not up on your sauces and think that, since this sauce carries a French name, it must be difficult to make, you are very wrong. And possibly a francophobe.

If I just said “the sauce you make for macaroni and cheese” it would still, essentially, be the same thing. Since Princess Grace straddled both the English and French-speaking worlds, you may call it what you like. As long as you make it at least once in your life, I do not care what you call it.

Makes one sandwich

Ingredients:

2 slices of bread (preferably pain de mie) I used brioche, which worked beautifully, by the way. If you have access to neither, use a good quality white loaf. And you must cut off the crusts. Must.
2 slices of ham, cut into the same exact shape as the bread slices. We are going for neatness since we are eating this in honor of a dead princess.
1 egg gently cooked in 2 tablespoons of butter until the white has set and the yolk is runny.
Enough grated Gruyère cheese to cover the ham.
2 tablespoons of butter in which to griddle and brown the bread.
As much Mornay sauce as you dare. At least enough to spread on both sides of the bread and top the egg.

For the Mornay Sauce:

2 1/2 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 cups of warm whole milk
1/4 teaspoon of salt
Freshly ground pepper to taste (The classic recipe calls for white pepper. I do not believe in white pepper.)
1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon freshly-grated nutmeg (Nutmeg is not optional. Really.)
2 to 3 ounces of grated Gruyère cheese

1. To make the Mornay sauce, melt butter in a saucepan over medium heat. Add the flour and stir constantly until the mixture (roux) is a pale yellow froth. DO NOT BROWN. Slowly add milk and continue whisking until the sauce thickens and comes to a boil (2 to 3 minutes). Reduce heat to low, add salt, nutmeg, and pepper to taste. Let simmer for another 2 to 3 minutes.

Congratulations, you now have a Béchamel sauce.

2. Stir in Gruyère cheese and whisk until thoroughly melted and incorporated into the sauce. This, my good people, is Mornay sauce. Once you’ve finished congratulating yourself, put it aside and place a piece of plastic wrap directly on top of the sauce to prevent a skin from forming. Keep warm. There is enough sauce here for probably 10 sandwiches, by the way. I’m sure you’ll find plenty of uses for it, both culinary and other.

3. In a pan large enough to accommodate your two slices of bread in side-by-side fashion, melt 2 tablespoons of butter over medium heat. Add bread slices and lightly brown their bottoms. Turn bread over and spread enough Mornay sauce to cover each slice. Add your two precision-cut ham slices neatly on one piece of bread, and cover that with a liberal amount of grated cheese. Place pan under the broiler long enough to melt the cheese over the ham. (I had to transfer my bread to a smaller pan in order for it to fit under my broiler, which is why the pan in my photos looks almost Princess clean.)

4. Remove pan from broiler. Place second bread slice over the one laden with ham and cheese to for a true sandwich. Gently place the egg on top of the sandwich, cover it with more Mornay sauce, and return sandwich to the broiler. When the sauce on top bubbles and browns, remove from the broiler.

5. Slide your croque madame onto a piece of your finest china, pop open a beer (but pour it into a glass, please), pop a copy of To Catch a Thief into your dvd player, and fast forward to that scene in which Grace Kelly takes Cary Grant on a wild ride over the same stretch of road where she died 27 years later.

6. Better open another beer.

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11 Responses to Croaked Madame

  1. Tara says:

    Sounds delicious! But I hope you don’t mind my saying that you may want to include the word “flour” in the second sentence of step 1.🙂

    • Michael Procopio says:

      You must think I’m the worst recipe writer in the world. Thanks for that.

      • Tara says:

        Not at all! Unfortunately, I have knack for catching things like that. If it bothers you, I won’t mentioning such things ever again.🙂

      • Michael Procopio says:

        Are you kidding me? Please do. I need all the help I can get. Any extra eyes are more than helpful.

  2. amy says:

    But did he ever meet the Pope?

    • Michael Procopio says:

      If he did, he never let on. I was just reading some of his postcards sent from Rome. Nice to be reminded how deeply funny he was.

  3. julie says:

    “Since we are eating this in honor of a dead princess” and evoking bittersweet memories of using Sun-in… this post has everything. I’m thinking of just making the mornay sauce and eating that while I watch Rear Window.

  4. Uppity Woman says:

    I found you via a link at the blog of our very mutual friend, John W. Smart, whom I adore — and I shall assume you feel the same way.

    Having dispatched of that introduction, I simply must have croque madam right this very moment. And for that, I hate you. I suppose I could prepare one for myself right now and simply tape it to my thigh…

  5. Lucy Lean says:

    Remind me to tell you my Grace Kelly stories – my aunt was head of PR for Monaco at one point and would have to collect HRH from airport in a limo – stop said limo for ice cream and other such delights – and generally do her job to Oscar winning actress who left town to marry into the royal circus family. Xxx ps typo alert before D.L. loses something The key not They key Miss You x

  6. Lana says:

    Ah, the word games and associations:) What a wonderful post! I was going to go to bed grumpy and sullen, but you waived your magic word-wand, and my dreams are surely going to be filled with black and white scenes from the old classics. And thank you for reminding me of another favorite to share with my girls (my oldest wanted to climb all the way down to the rocks under the Golden Gate Bridge to revisit the scene from “The Vertigo”:)

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