Text Susan Jung / Photography Jonathan Wong / Styling Nellie Ming Lee
Ham and cheese make up one of the most popular and delicious sandwich-filling combinations. It is crucial, however, that you select just the right ham and just the right cheese, otherwise one of the ingredients might overwhelm the other.
Croque monsieur or croque madame
For this sandwich, I like to use Poilane bread, although any good, sturdy bread will do - but be sure to choose one that's not too chewy or sliced too thick. My main complaint about poor or inexpensive versions of this sandwich is that the proportions are often wrong, with too-thin slices of ham and cheese. If you're making it at home, of course, you can use as much filling as you like - although too much is almost as bad as too little. I usually count on about 100 grams of ham (I use hand-sliced jambon de Paris) and 50 grams of aged gruyere or comté (although if you're using a milder cheese, you might want to use more).
10 slices bread, preferably a levain (sourdough) type sliced about 6mm thick
About 500 grams jambon de Paris, sliced about 3mm thick
About 250 grams aged gruyere or comté
Grainy mustard, as needed
About 100 grams unsalted butter, or as needed, slightly softened
5-10 eggs (for croque madame)
Cooking oil, as needed
For the bechamel:
30 grams unsalted butter
30 grams plain (all-purpose) flour
Fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
A pinch of freshly ground nutmeg
About 75 grams aged gruyere or comté, grated
Make the bechamel. Heat the milk until simmering, then remove it from the flame. Melt the butter in a saucepan set over a medium-low flame. Add the flour and whisk it until smooth, then stir constantly for about two minutes. Add the milk a ladleful at a time, whisking thoroughly after each addition so the mixture is lump-free. After adding all the milk, whisk in about half a teaspoon of salt, some pepper and a pinch of nutmeg, then stir in the grated cheese. Remove from the heat.
Trim off and discard the rind from the cheese, then slice the cheese as thinly as possible. Spread a very thin layer of mustard on five of the slices of bread. Top each of those slices with half the cheese, trimming it to fit the bread. Add a layer of sliced ham, again trimming it to fit, then top with another layer of cheese. Add the second slice of bread to each sandwich and press firmly. Spread a thin layer of butter over the top slice of bread.
Heat a skillet (preferably cast iron) and set it over a medium flame. Carefully place the sandwiches in the skillet, butter-side down (you might need to cook them in batches, or you can use two skillets). Press on the top of the sandwiches to compress them slightly. Pan-fry the sandwiches until the cheese on the bottom layer is melted and the bottom slice of bread is brown and crusty. Spread a thin layer of butter on the top slice of bread then carefully flip over the sandwiches and press firmly. Spread a layer (about 3mm thick) of the bechamel over the browned side of the sandwich and cover the pan with the lid, to contain the heat. Cook until the second slice of bread is brown and crusty. Place the sandwiches on serving plates and slice them in half. Use a propane or butane torch to lightly brown the bechamel.
To make croque madame, heat oil in a skillet and fry the eggs sunny-side up. Lay one or two eggs over the sandwich (depending on their size) and serve immediately. Makes five sandwiches.
Gougeres with air-dried ham
These are the ultimate cheese puffs, but they're very easy to make. When having guests over, I mix the dough, put it in a piping bag and leave it at room temperature. When the first guests arrive, I pipe out the dough, place it in a preheated oven and, 20 minutes later, I'm serving hot hors d'oeuvres that go beautifully with champagne.
Buy the less expensive end pieces of jamon or prosciutto from shops that specialise in air-dried ham; there's no point in using the hand-sliced stuff. Be sure to cut the ham into very fine dice or it might get stuck in the tip of the piping bag.
120 grams unsalted butter, cut into chunks
130 grams bread flour or plain (all-purpose) flour
5-7 large eggs, plus one for brushing the gougeres
100 grams gruyere, finely grated
80 grams air-dried ham, such as jamon or prosciutto, very finely diced
¼ tsp ground paprika
10 grams finely grated parmesan, plus extra for sprinkling
Put the water and butter into a saucepan and set it over a medium flame. When the butter is melted and the water comes to a full boil, add the flour all at once. Stir immediately with a wooden spoon until the mixture forms a ball that comes away from the sides of the pan. Stir constantly over a low flame for a couple of minutes. Put the mixture in a bowl and stir slowly for about three minutes (use an electric mixer, if you have one). Add five of the eggs one at a time, letting each fully incorporate before adding the next one. Check the consistency of the batter: it should be smooth and glossy, and form a soft peak when you touch it with your fingertip. Whisk the sixth egg and add it in a little at a time; if needed, add the seventh egg (all or part of it) until the right consistency is achieved. Stir in the gruyere, ham and paprika.
Preheat the oven to 220 degrees Celsius.
Scrape the mixture into a piping bag fitted with an 8mm plain tube, then pipe it into 1.5cm circles on a parchment-lined baking tray, leaving about 1.5cm between each one. Brush each one very lightly with beaten egg, then sprinkle with a little parmesan. Place in the oven and reduce the heat to 200 degrees. Bake for 10 minutes then turn the heat to 180 degrees and continue baking until the gougeres are medium brown, fragrant, light, lift from the baking paper without sticking and are firm on the bottom. Cool slightly before serving.