I have no problem with the cliché that Paris is the city of intertwined couples, art that will move you to tears, and food that you'll never want to stop eating. I happily embrace it. The only problem is that every time I go, I have the time of my life, discover myself anew, and then come home utterly depressed.
Could it be the city's markets filled with local cheeses and chickens with their heads still on? Or the quaint bistro in the 17th arrondissement that serves a casserole-size terrine of pate as an appetizer? Or maybe it’s biting into a croque madame served with a near liquid egg on top.
Sadly, it’s all those things, which is why when I returned last week to my frozen lunches at the office, I had an existential crisis the size of Paul Bocuse's chef's whites.
After moping for several days, I invented my own therapy: the Recreate What You Ate (RWYA) therapy. The premise is simple: 'if you can't order it, make it.'
When I thought about what I had enjoyed the most, my mind raced back to the croque madame we had at Cafe de la Mairie in the sixth arrondissement across from the Saint Sulpice.
The cafe, which is a hangout for writers and publishers and was a favorite haunt of the late French author Georges Perec, served us a croque madame made with a single slice of bread from the French master baker Lionel Poilane and topped with thin slices of smoked ham, Gruyere, and a glistening, barely-cooked egg. When we broke the yolk, the liquid spilled out onto the plate, moistening the toasted bread.
Here it is, at Cafe de la Mairie:
While researching this dish, I tried a version made with two slices of bread and bechamel sauce. The classic butter and milk sauce is essential to provide enough moisture if you're squeamish about semi-cooked yolks, but I loved the simplicity of the Cafe de la Mairie version with the one wet yolk moistening the bread.
Here's my creation (serves two):
2 slices pain de campagne*
2 slices of applewood smoked ham
Enough Gruyere to cover each slice of bread
Butter (about 3-4 tablespoons depending on the size of the bread)
Place the oven rack about 10 inches from broiler. Turn the broiler on high. Butter each slice of bread. Place one slice of ham on each slice of bread. Layer each slice with Gruyere cheese. Broil for about 4 minutes.
Heat a nonstick pan over a medium flame. Coat the pan with about a tablespoon of melted butter. Crack each egg into the pan gently, so the yolk doesn’t break. Cover the pan for one minute. Uncover, and cook for two more minutes. Slide each egg on top of each slice of bread. Season the egg with salt and pepper. Garnish with tomato slices. To make it a full meal, serve with a lightly-dressed green salad.
*Pain de campagne, or "country bread," is typically a large round loaf made from a natural leavening that is similar to American sourdough but not as sour.