Saturday, January 03, 2009


The New Year: Croque Monsieur Bake and Cheescake

It can be a bit of an effort to approach the statutory holidays of the new year with the same vigour one has on a workday morning, unless, of course, one is hosting friends and/or family for brunch and mimosas. I did not play host-like roles for any festivities pre or post-New Year's Day, for I knew that I would have too much of a good thing at the home of good friends' the night before (being hosted is always such a treat), and I did. But one must eat after such an evening, and in such a haze, needing sustenance for the day and others to come (festivities are known to continue through January 1), I often turn to eggs or bread, sometimes in combination.

A personal favourite at the start of any weekend or holiday morning is eggs benedict or croque monsieur. The former is more fiddly than the latter, requiring a hollandaise sauce to be made, so the decision to make croque monsieur was a simple one. Croque monsieur is the ultimate in simple Parisian snack food, for it is quite plainly a toasted ham and cheese sandwich (a croque madame is topped with a fried egg). As is particularly true for recipes that need but the fewest ingredients, the better the quality of bread, ham and cheese, the more satisfying the result. Your only choice for cheese is one between emmental and gruyère, both of which melt under the merest heat: emmental (or Swiss cheese, as it is known in New Zealand, Australia and North America) is a hard cheese of cow's milk that is nutty and slightly acidic; gruyère is made from cow's milk and is sweet but slightly salty (overall imparting a somewhat mineral quality to a dish). Both cheeses complement ham's salty notes.

Perhaps she did not have in mind those deservedly inflicted with a hangover, but Nigella Lawson's recipe for Croque Monsieur Bake is ingenious - everything is prepared the night before, so all one has to do is pre-heat an oven before throwing the waiting ingredients into it.

Croque Monsieur Bake
(from Nigella Lawson's Nigella Express)

6 slices light rye bread
75g Dijon mustard
6 slices and 4 tablespoons grated gruyère cheese
6 thin slices of ham
6 eggs
1 teaspoon salt
80ml/3 fl. oz milk

1) Make sandwiches in the traditional manner: spread each slice of bread with mustard, in between each sandwich go the cheese and ham. Cut in half, either straight down or on the diagonal.
2) Press sandwich halves snuggly into a baking dish.
3) In a bowl, whisk together the eggs, salt and milk.
4) Pour liquid over the sandwiches.
5) Cover with clingfilm and keep in the refrigerator overnight.
6) In the morning, preheat your oven to 200 C/400 F.
7) Remove baking dish from the fridge, dispose of the clingfilm, and sprinkle grated cheese over the top (along with a sprinling of Worcestershire sauce, if desired).
8) Bake in the oven for 25 minutes, by which time the egg will have cooked, the bread will have browned, and the cheese will have melted.

This is a great no-fuss way to start any morning, especially one in which stodgy food is a necessity to give one's stomach fortitude after the previous night's/early morning's boozing. Quite rich, there is easily enough to satisfy 4-6.

Later in the day, one might turn one's mind to something slightly sweet. This is not the right moment to go into the grand subject of The Mighty Cheesecake (we have hangovers and are suffering from the inevitable exhaustion that follows the rush to complete business before Christmas, remember?), on which many a book and treatise has been written; however, I will assert my general preference for baked cheesecakes in the style of Central and Eastern Europeans crossed with the Commonwealth and North American enjoyment of a biscuit base. In New Zealand we neither cook nor bake cheesecakes (generally), and often serve them with fruit atop or woven through. I dispense of the fruit, bake the cheesecake and always have a spicy biscuit base.

The following receipe is suitable for a 24cm/9" springform pan. Feel free to use your preferred cookies for the base. I like digestive biscuits, semi-sweet cookies made with wholemeal flour. When in the US, I use graham crackers as they are easier to find when I am not in the mood to make my own digestive biscuits - also, they are the closest approximation to digestive biscuits.


For the base:

250g digestive biscuits, pulverised to fine crumbs
1/2 cup unsalted butter, melted
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon ginger
1/2 teasponn cinnamon

1) Mix all ingredients together.
2) Press evenly into a springform pan, allowing it to come up the sides to form a shell around the cheesecake filling.
3) Place in the refrigerator for 30 minutes.

For the filling:

500g/1 lb cream cheese
1 tablespoon flour
1/2 cup sugar
4 eggs, separated
1/2 cup cream
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon salt

1) In a bowl, beat the cream cheese until it is soft.
2) Add flour and sugar, mix well.
3) Add the egg yolks, cream and vanilla extract, mix well.
4) In a separate bowl, combine egg whites and sugar until soft peaks are formed.
5) Fold egg whites into cream cheese mixture.

To complete:

biscuit base, as above,
filling, as above
3/4 cup sour cream
1/2 teaspoon vanilla bean paste (or vanilla extract)

1) Pre-heat oven to 200 C/400 F.
2) Pour filling into biscuit base.
3) Place springform pan into a roasting pan, add hot water, which is to come halfway-up the side of the springform pan (do not get any water into the cheesecake). Creating a bain marie prevents overcooking and keeps the cheesecake from rising and falling too dramatically, creating a smoother, more even-looking cheesecake.
4) Bake for 50 minutes.
5) While the cheesecake is baking, combine sour cream and vanilla extract.
6) Take cheesecake out of oven, spread sour cream mixture over surface of the cheesecake.
7) Bake for a further 10 minutes.

The addition of sour cream to the top (as opposed to folding it into the cream cheese itself) creates a foil to the richness of the cheesecake filling by supplying an overt tangy quality to it. I have a great love of sweet-sour combinations - this addition is also quite popular in the American northeast. I suppose this also acts as a metaphor for the year - to enjoy and accept the fullness and happiness of life, whilst also weathering its tangy, sour moments with as much grace as possible.

Today's results look quite spartan, and this is not without intention. This is a new year, after all. It is best to look forward, with renewed pleasure for life, learned from the previous year's experiences. This is going to be a great year for me, if for no other reason that for the fact that my angelheart Eric is moving to New Zealand.

Happy New Year!

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Yay! An enormously enjoyable post, and then I read the last sentence. Very happy to hear that you and Eric will be residing permanently on same shores.

Now, about those bakes: the Croque casserole is ideal with oozing, comforting elements of both sandwich classics. I'm rather smitten with Gruyère.

Digestive biscuits are now easy to come by in my markets w/out a special trip, an excellent choice for crust. Would that I'd thought to whip up this simple and fine cheesecake myself, but I planned for the party, not the hangover.

Happy New Year, dear Shaun!
SO glad to hear that Eric is joining you in NZ!
As for the recipe - I made croque monsieur for the first time just few weeks ago - and enjoyed it. A casserole sounds like a neat adaptation of the original (and no, I hadn't noticed it in the book)..
PS Happy new year again!!
hellllloooo. you are a very entertaining writer, bravo. eh, but, i think you very much need a banner. yes. a foodie blog banner. i think i should make you one. yep.
How wonderful that you and Eric will be together! You must be so thrilled. We had Nigella's croque bake over the holidays too, it was lovely. Happy New Year!
Fantastic news!
** Thank you for the New Year's wishes. I will try to be a better foodie friend this year **

Susan, lovie ~ Eric will be here very. I cannot wait - it has been much too long. I missed setting out the nutcrackers with him at Christmas time. Of course, these guys always look better with a winter setting, but we will have to allow our growing collection to become accustomed to summer.

Perhaps it is the tie to England or popularity of English food writers that now make digestives easily available in the northeast. I was not so lucky in California, but perhaps that has changed in the two years I have lived away from the state.

Happy New Year to you, hubby and gorgeous cat.

Pille ~ Happy New Year to you and K. It is funny how we may have the same book but are drawn to different recipes. Nigella's
Croque Monsieur Bake
stood out on the first reading. I actually wasn't going to buy the book at all but on a closer reading noticed that there are quite a few good shortcuts. A smart lady, that one.

Mallory Elise ~ Welcome! You do have a lovely banner and gorgeous images. I haven't given any thought to creating a banner. I'm not particularly good at things like that. Thanks for the offer, but I might ask my angelheart Eric to do it...Well, if I feel like having a banner, that is. All the best for the New Year.

Sara, darling ~ Yes, thrilled beyond belief that Eric is moving here. We've got a new home with lots of lovely light, and we are ready to go :-) All the best to you and your man this year (and every year, of course!).

Anthony ~ It is indeed glorious news to share. Thank you for your thoughts. Hope you had a lovely Christmas and New Year's celebration.
Oh my... this cheesecake looks divine... and the croque monsieur looks much more de-lish than the French original.

Having yet another bon voyage dinner tonight... this time with Eric. We will be missing you, but I am so happy that you two are moving into a new phase, finally!

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