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Dinner Rush! Croque Madames

“I don’t like sandwiches for dinner,” he said. The clang of my dropped fork echoed my shock around the room. “What are you talking about, you don’t like sandwiches for dinner?! Everyone likes sandwiches for dinner!” Assuming the food-pushing spirit animal of an elderly family member, I had in an instant become that nagging, cantankerous aunt from My Big Fat Greek Wedding (you know, the one who insisted on making lamb).

Apparently, over the course of the time we’ve been together, my husband has suffered his way through all of the dinner sandwiches I’ve prepared, too bashful (or perhaps appreciative of the mealtime effort) to share his true feelings. Nine years of unannounced moderate dissatisfaction, too inconsequential to ever bring up for any real reason. (Side note: Burgers and Reubens don’t apply to this rule. Riddle me that one.)

Bound and determined to harmoniously unite one of my favorite food categories with his evening caloric consumption, I dug deep. Real deep. All the way back to France, y’all. Who — tell me, who — could possibly resist the feminine wiles of the croque madame?

It’s a quick, hearty and very impressive meal that is doing everything right. Crispy bread, creamy bechamel, hearty ham & cheese. Then, just because it can, the lily is gilded with a perfect over easy fried egg. You know, the one that shakes bulbously with the plate’s movements and then cascades its way down the sides of your edible griddled perfection? (I know, all of that was a lot. Take your time and collect yourself.)

My goblet of confidence running over, I boastfully presented a dinner plate that surely could convince any doubter of the sandwich’s ultimate mealtime ubiquity.

“I don’t like runny egg yolks,” he said.

Croque Madames

Yield: 4 servings
Prep Time: 5 minutes
Active Time: 15 minutes
Total Time: 20 minutes

For the sauce:
2 teaspoons butter
2 teaspoons flour
1/2 cup milk
1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/4 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or pecorino
Salt and ground black pepper, to taste

For the assembly:
8 slices rye bread
3 tablespoons butter, softened, divided
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
8 slices smoked or Black Forest ham
3/4 cup shredded Gruyere cheese
4 large eggs
Salt and ground black pepper, to taste
Chopped fresh parsley, to garnish (optional)

Preheat a broiler and place an oven rack about 6 inches from it.

To make the sauce, place a small pot over medium heat with the butter. Sprinkle the flour over the melted butter and cook for 1 minute. Whisk the milk and mustard into the pot and bring the liquid up to a bubble, stirring often (the sauce will thicken as it heats up). Cook the bubbling sauce for 1 minute, stirring often. Remove the pot from the heat and stir in the nutmeg and cheese. Season with salt and pepper. Reserve.

To assemble the sandwiches, place a large saute pan over medium heat. Slather one side of each piece of bread with softened butter (this will take about 2 tablespoons total). Flip four of the slices butter-side down and divide the Dijon mustard between them. Top each slice of bread with two slices of ham and a bit of cheese. Cap each sandwich with the remaining slices of bread, butter-side out.

Cook the sandwiches in the saute pan until they’re golden brown and the cheese is beginning to melt, 3 to 4 minutes per side.

Transfer the sandwiches to a baking sheet and cover each of them with a ladleful of the prepared sauce. Broil the sandwiches until the sauce is puffed and deep golden brown, about 1 minute (keep an eye on them, as this will happen quickly).

While the sandwiches are broiling, return the large saute pan to medium heat with the remaining 1 tablespoon of butter. Crack the eggs into the pan, season them with salt and pepper, and fry them to your liking (over easy is recommended).

Top each broiled sandwich with a fried egg and pinch of parsley (if using). Serve warm.

NOTE: I personally keep my butter in the refrigerator and rarely have softened butter on hand at a moment’s notice. If you’re like me, speed up the griddling part of this dinner by spreading mayonnaise instead of butter on the outside of the bread and then putting it on the stove. You’ll get the same crispy golden brown outside without the wait.

Patrick W. Decker’s life revolves around food. Always has, probably always will. As a graduate of The Culinary Institute of America and past member of the culinary teams for Food Network stars Rachael Ray, Sandra Lee, Marc Forgione and Bobby Deen, he now works as a food stylist and producer in NYC by day and a food writer and recipe developer at his home in New York’s Hudson Valley by night. You can see what he’s up to by following him on Instagram at @patrickwdecker or visiting his website at patrickwdecker.com.

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