David Leite recounts the circumstance and memories that conspired to help him create a magnificently rich croque monsieur casserole.
The croque monsieur. My first real one (real in the sense of in France, in Paris to be specific) was at a little wedge of a bistro in the ninth arrondissement about 30 years ago. The pulse of new love, years of near fat-free dieting, and the swirl of Parisian life held hands and duped the neurons in the pleasure center of my brain to elevate this humble sandwich–this particular humble sandwich–to the perfect example of a bistro bite. The UR-bistro bite. The one against which all other bites are measured.
Because memories (particularly misty watercolor memories, to quote another diva) can die faster than a horny teen in a horror flick, I’ve never attempted the sandwich at home. Let the majesty of that croque monsieur, which probably was merely passable, live on.
☞ BAKE THE RECIPE: CROQUE MONSIEUR CASSEROLE
One afternoon recently, I was bored. Lockdown can do that to a guy. So I decided to clean out the kitchen. If you know me at all, you know how uncharacteristic that is of me. I’m deathly allergic to manual labor. I suddenly can’t breathe, my eyes swell shut, and I swoon with vertigo. Luckily, my unlawfully-wedded spouse¹, The One, can’t stand a dirty kitchen. So when I claim to have come down with a case of the vapors and crawl my way upstairs to lie down, he cleans up. Just in time for me to dirty it again.
But I digress.
While cleaning out the bread box, looking for odd bits to give the murder of five crows that we call the Poe Family, in a ravenless homage of Mr. Edgar Allan, I stumbled upon a big bag of croissants from Costco. The One is mad about buying in bulk–even though there are just two of us. Step into our basement, and you’ll think we’re survivalists: The walls are lined with shelves of gargantuan jars, cans, and packages of mayonnaise, salsa, pasta, rice, tomatoes, kosher salt, and cake and brownie mixes. Our chest freezer is filled to the rim with what has to be more than 100 pounds of all types of meat and fish. Put it this way, we didn’t need to shop for the pandemic; we were ready for Armageddon.
But I digress once more.
I don’t know what made me think of croque monsieur when I looked at the croissants, but that’s how my mind works. I checked the fridge, and, as to be expected, there was a gallon of milk and a gigantic hunk of cheese. All that was missing was ham. I knew if I told The One, he’d lift his finger in a self-satisfied gesture that told me to wait, and would return an hour later with half a hog. I decided to go to a normal-size deli in a normal-size supermarket for a modest pound of ham.
Looking at the bag of croissants, I knew one or two croque monsieurs wouldn’t put a dent in it. So I wondered, Pourquoi pas faire une casserole? We had the ingredients, we had the 9-by-13-inch casserole dish, and we definitely had the appetites.
So I set about making seven ham-and-cheese sandwiches, the foundation of any self-respecting croque monsieur. While I was making them, it dawned on me that if the croque monsieur is the little black dress of bistro fare, then croissants are the string of pearls it’s been missing all these years.
From there, it wasn’t a stretch to consider turning this into an overnight croque monsieur casserole. You know the ones, the kind you let rest in the fridge and then whip out, slide into the oven, and smile as everyone gawps, thinking you’re a culinary genius? I like looking like a culinary genius, even if it’s the furthest thing from the truth.
But then came the dilemma: Is this best served as breakfast with some fresh fruit? Lunch with a salad and a nicely acidic dressing? Or dinner with, perhaps, some roasted asparagus? Who the hell was I kidding? If it turned out half as good as I expected, I’d eat it any time of day.
The next morning, I whipped up a béchamel sauce. (Yes, I actually can whip up a béchamel sauce half asleep–it’s the one thing I remember from the cooking course I once took.) I slathered it on top and let Loki, our Viking oven, do the rest.
What came out was a thing a beauty. The casseroles’ edges were wildly crispy with bits of caramelized cheese, the center soft and custardy, and the whole thing cheesy through and through. And the taste? Just like a classic croque monsieur, but richer.
Did it kill the memory of that sandwich in that bistro with The One almost three decades ago? Pshaw. It was too damn good to do that. What it did do, though, was nudge The One and me to reminisce about those long-ago days when we were young, thin, and beautiful (and, in his case, avec hair). And that’s not too shabby for a humble casserole.
¹ The One refuses to marry me (yeah, I know), so after 28 years, I consider us “unlawfully wedded.”
Originally published April 3, 2021