Best Bakery

Exclusive Dish: La Farm’s Croque Madame

Life is good these days at Cary’s venerable La Farm Bakery, which earned top honors from Cary Magazine readers for Best Bakery and Best Coffeehouse, plus Honorable Mentions for Best Breakfast and Best Dessert.

As if that’s not enough, ebullient master baker Lionel Vatinet, who owns the café   with his wife, Missy, recently wrote and published the aptly titled book A Passion for Bread.   

Among the 65 recipes included in the volume is this top-selling French sandwich, Croque Madame, which is made with Vatinet’s signature La Farm bread.

“It’s the height of comfort food,” said Gary Wood, the eatery’s consulting chef. “The dish is prepared to order and is a very satisfying meal.”

Croque Madame Recipe
2 servings

4 3/4-inch-thick slices La Farm bread
4 1/8-inch-thick slices comté or gruyère cheese
2 thin slices French-style boiled ham or other unsmoked ham
1/2 cup Mornay sauce (recipe below)
1/2 cup shredded mozzarella cheese
4 teaspoons clarified butter (recipe below)
4 large eggs, at room temperature
Fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 teaspoons chopped fresh chives, optional

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Line a baking sheet with a silicone liner or parchment paper. Place two slices of bread on lined pan. Place a slice of cheese on each slice of bread; then, place a slice of ham on top of the cheese. Top the ham with the final slice of cheese and cover with the remaining slice of bread.

Spread two tablespoons of Mornay sauce on top of each sandwich, making sure that entire top is completely covered with sauce. Sprinkle equal portions of mozzarella atop each sandwich.
Place in preheated oven and bake until sandwiches are golden brown and bubbling, about 10 minutes.

While sandwiches are baking, heat two teaspoons of clarified butter in each of two small frying pans over medium heat.

Carefully break two eggs into each of two small ramekins (this is to ensure that no contamination on the shell makes its way into the cooking eggs). Carefully tip eggs into each pan. Season with salt and pepper to taste and cook for one minute. Using a flexible spatula, turn eggs and cook to desired degree of doneness. (La Farm prefers an oozy, runny yolk to mix in with the melted cheese.)

Place each hot, bubbling sandwich on a warm luncheon plate. Transfer two eggs to the top of each sandwich, season to taste with salt and pepper, garnish with chopped chives, if using, and serve immediately.

Clarified Butter

Clarified butter is simply butter that has been slowly heated over very low heat until the butterfat and milk solids have separated. The milk-solid proteins are what cause butter to burn when heated so, once separated, the clear butter is poured off and the milk solids discarded. By using clarified butter, higher heat can be used when frying and sautéing. The clarifying process can be done on the stovetop or in a microwave oven. One stick unsalted butter will yield about 1/3 cup clarified butter.

To make clarified butter:

Microwave method: place one stick (1/2 cup or 8 tablespoons) unsalted butter, in its wrapper and at room temperature, in a 1-quart glass measuring cup. Place in the microwave and heat on high until completely melted, about 2 minutes. Discard the wrapper. Cool until the butter separates into three distinct layers, 5 minutes. Proceed to the final step, below.

Stovetop method: Place one stick unsalted butter in a small, heavy-bottomed saucepan over low heat. Cook until completely melted, 2 minutes. Remove from the heat and cool until the butter separates into three distinct layers, 5 minutes. Proceed to the final step.

Final step: Using a small ladle, skim off and discard the foamy milk-fat solids from the top. Carefully pour the clear, bright yellow butter into a clean container. Discard the milky solids that have settled on the bottom. Set the clarified butter aside to cool. Cover and refrigerate up to one month.

Mornay Sauce
Makes 1 generous cup

3/4 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 1/2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 ounces (about 3⁄4 cup) shredded comté or gruyère cheese
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt

Place the heavy cream in a small saucepan over medium heat and bring to a bare simmer. Remove from  heat and cover to keep warm.

Place the butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat. When melted, stir in the flour and cook, stirring constantly, until the flour has been completely incorporated into the butter, about 2 minutes. Do not allow the mixture to brown.

Immediately whisk in the warm cream and bring to a simmer. Add the cheese and season with salt. Cook, stirring constantly, until the cheese has melted and the sauce is thick and smooth.

Remove from the heat and set aside to cool until firm enough to spread easily, about 30 minutes. The sauce may be made up to 3 days in advance and stored, covered and refrigerated, until ready to use.

Adapted from “A Passion for Bread” by Lionel Vatinet. Published in November 2013 by Little, Brown and Company.  

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