Wednesday, January 4, 2012

UnRecipe: Pardon Moi, Monsieur

For all the Tastespotting/FoodGawker food porn bloggery perfection, cooking is a constantly evolving experiment. Nothing ever comes out perfect on the first try, there's always push and pull when you want to try something new, even if it's something simple. So, to heck with perfection, I wanted to share a work-in-progress dish I was playing around with: a Croque Monsieur casserole. Oh, and by the way, all those well-intentioned resolutions about eating healthy? Throw 'em out the window -- much like this dish, nobody's perfect.

Resolutions are for suckers! Wasabi's answer to clean, healthy living - Photo by Wasabi Prime
Croque Monsieur Casserole?? You're thinking, What-the-whaaaaat?! And also, Pass the Lipitor, this looks like a widowmaker. This was a large-scale attempt at putting the classic French comfort dish through the Brunch Casserole-ification Machine. Not unlike the cardboard box Transmogrifier that Calvin and Hobbes would use. When I go out to brunch, a Croque Monsieur is like the perfect meal -- slices of ham, sandwiched between slices of cheese and thick bread, grilled to crispness, topped with more cheese and a bechamel sauce, finished off under a broiler to make the melty top all crispy and caramelized. Heaven, right? There are variations of this, you can have the Madame variation with an egg, I've seen different meats used -- it was never a fancy, fussy dish, meant to be made with strict adherence to a recipe. Like a lot of comfort favorites, it was an inexpensive meal meant to use pantry staples and welcome interpretation. And interpret I did!

The many stages of a casserole-in-progress - Photos by Wasabi Prime
All the ingredients for a classic Croque Monsieur are breakfast-friendly and I thought it could translate into a casserole form, almost like a savory bread pudding, topped with a creamy sauce. I got a loaf of bread and sliced it down. I lightly toasted the slices to remove the moisture, but I think if I make this again, I'll leave it soft and spongey. I wanted it to really soak up an egg custard and drying the bread out means it needs a little extra time to drink up the liquid. I layered the slices in a casserole dish, slipping chunks of ham between the slices. When I make this again, I'll use thin slices of ham and maybe some turkey as well. The chunks are great, but I wanted even layering of meat between the slices and the chunk ham wasn't providing that consistently meaty bite.

Instead of Gruyere cheese, which is the typical choice, I had a spicy habanero-spiked white cheddar. For this early attempt, I just used what I had on-hand and I happened to have chunks of ham and a large wedge of spicy aged cheddar. What can I say, our kitchen is weird and I have an unholy love of Costco. The spice was a nice addition, as was the use of aged cheddar, so I think it's fine to let cheese be a bit of a wild card. The shuffled bread, meat, cheese combo was baked for about 15 minutes for the cheese to get melted and the bread to crisp a little, then a bechamel sauce was poured over the whole thing and the broiler got turned on to brown the top of the casserole. When it's served, the big charred center on a large baking dish isn't the prettiest thing in the world, but sliced into large ooey-gooey squares and served up on a plate, it's not so bad. Despite the in-progress status on this, the first attempt was still delicious. I just wanted to further improve on the texture of each bite and make the bread feel more custard-like, soaking up more of the egg and milk mixture before the slices are shuffled between the meat. I'm definitely looking forward to making this again, improvements considered, to give it that perfect Croque Monsieur experience, in an easy large-scale size for sharing over brunch, as I think this has the potential to be a real winner alongside a mimosa.

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