The scene: a restaurant in Cambridge, MA, several years ago where the brunch offerings include a Monte Cristo sandwich. My mind is set; I am the first one who closes the menu.
I can never make up my mind between savory and sweet, particularly before noon. Pancakes? Eggs? Waffles? Bagel and lox? I just don't know. Usually I wind up going with savory and subtly persuade a fellow diner to order something sweet: "Waiter, I'll have the red flannel hash and he'll have the tall stack. Thank you." Once in a while I strike gold and find a Monte Cristo and all my troubles and uncertainties are resolved: filled with ham or turkey and cheese, fried à la French toast, served with red currant jelly (though I like to drown mine in maple syrup if it's handy, too). The best of both of flavor worlds.
Back to Cambridge. I place my order, then immediately reach for the waiter's elbow and pull him towards me; my spider sense tells me this is not the Monte Cristo I know and love.
"Excuse me, is this battered and fried?"
"No, it's a ham sandwich with cheese on top, and it gets broiled. And it has an egg on top."
"That sounds more like a croque madame."
"No, it's a Monte Cristo."
"No, it's a croque, but whatever, I'll have it anyway. But let's be clear, it's not a Monte Cristo."
Semantics? Mutton dressed as lamb? I don't know exactly what, but I was right and they were wrong, and so my sandwich is not cheese-topped and broiled with an egg on top. Variations and regional accents exist within the Monte Cristo family, for instance, it is sometimes served open-faced or accompanied by sour cream, however, a croque it never is.
This particular Monte Cristo calls for my preferred combination of ham and cheese for the filling. Please note that whenever there is cheese in a hot sandwich I like to use it as glue. In this instance, the build is as follows: bread, cheese, ham, cheese, bread. Do you see? The cheese makes everything stick together for a neat and compact sandwich.
Butter makes everything better, but it also burns at high heat. This Monte Cristo is dipped in a mixture of eggs and milk and fried, just like French toast. However, the sandwich takes longer to cook, so I fry in vegetable oil. To add flavor, I spread the bread with butter, which, by the way, should be sturdy or stale—no fluffy white slices here, unless you like a soggy sandwich.
As for the accompaniments, I go with warm red currant jelly (some of it is spread inside the sandwich, along with Dijon mustard for a tart-sweet touch) and a dusting of confectioners' sugar.
And the croque? We'll make that some other time and call it what it is.