Monte Cristo Sandwich

The sandwich that is the oddest in my book is the Monte Cristo sandwich. It is a class of sandwich, with several regional variations. Generally speaking, the pieces of bread are sweet French toast and the sandwich filling is savory.

The sandwich filling may be ham and cheese or turkey ham and cheese, much as in a club sandwich. Some parts of the United States grill a “closed” sandwich, whereas other places serve it open-faced with Swiss (or other) cheese melted on top. The bread is always French toast. Some recipes call for a more savory approach (Thousand Island dressing on plain egg toast, with fries on the side), and others lean toward the standard American breakfast French toast with powdered sugar, maple syrup, and fresh fruit salad as garnish.

The thing is, French toast isn’t actually that unusual as a sandwich exterior. Several recipes call for two pieces of bread dipped in egg and fried. I think it’s the combination of ingredients and the name that make this sandwich stand out.

The name of the sandwich is, obviously, a nod to Le Comte De Monte-Cristo, the Alexandre Dumas adventure novel, published in 1844. The Count of Monte Cristo’s protagonist, Edmond Dantes, who had been wrongfully accused and imprisoned and subsequently escaped from jail, flees to the island of Monte Cristo and finds the legendary treasure of the Spada family. With the riches, he can fund his revenge on those who wronged him. His revenge is formidable and the results shocking. The book is a classic.

Alexandre Dumas, painted by Olivier Pichat

Alexandre Dumas, painted by Olivier Pichat

The history of the sandwich is more difficult to unearth than the Spada family treasure. Many references assume that the first incarnation of the Count of Monte Cristo sandwich was in Disneyland, in Anaheim, California (where it was served at the Blue Bayou in New Orleans Square and in the Adventureland Tahitian Terrace restaurants). The earliest Disneyland menu it is found on is from 1966.

The first cookbook to publish a recipe was the Brown Derby Cookbook.[1] Its recipe:

     Take three slices of white bread. Butter the first and cover with lean baked ham and chicken. Butter the middle slice on both sides, place on meat, and cover with thinly sliced Swiss cheese. Butter the third slice and place, butter down, over cheese. Trim crusts; cut sandwich in two; secure with toothpicks; dip in light egg batter; fry in butter on all sides until golden brown. Remove toothpicks and serve with currant jelly, strawberry jam, or cranberry sauce.

The Brown Derby did not claim to have invented the sandwich. In Southern California, it was served in many cafés, from some at swanky golf courses to the famous Cantor’s Deli in Hollywood[2].

However, all these citations are predated by the Monte Cristo Hotel in Everett, Washington. The sandwich was a house special in its cafe.

Monte Cristo Hotel, Everett Washington

 

The first written citation on the sandwich was in a weekly Los Angeles Times column by Chef A. L. Wyman[3] in 1924. His recipe:

     Cover six slices of sandwich bread with a slice of American full cream cheese, cover the cheese with slices of boiled ham, cover with slices of bread, tie with white string, dip in beaten egg and fry a nice brown on both sides in hot butter. Place on hot plates, remove the string and serve.

It is notable that his recipe called for cream cheese, not the Swiss cheese or Emmentaler (a type of Swiss cheese) that is fairly standard among all the recipes.

The Monte Cristo has many minor variations. The most common: The bread is made into French toast first and then grilled (using 3 pieces of bread in a “Dagwood” layering[4]); a sandwich (usually with 2 pieces of bread) assembled and dipped in an egg/flour thickened batter; meat variations such as ham, turkey, and chicken; a sandwich served with jam, jelly, fruit, or maple syrup and dusted with confectioner’s sugar (and sometimes whipped cream); and a savory version (Cumberland-head style) served with Thousand Island dressing and garnished with pickles, relish, or French fries.

Monte Cristo Sandwich

1 egg

6 tablespoons milk

2 tablespoons flour

3 slices bread

2 teaspoons butter

3 tablespoons grated Parmesan or other hard cheese

¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg

1 (2 ounce) slice Swiss cheese

2 (1 ounce) slices roasted turkey

2 (1 ounce) slices boiled ham

confectioners’ sugar, for garnish

jam, for garnish

Whisk egg, milk, and flour together to make thick batter. Heat skillet on medium heat to melt small amount of butter. Dip bread into batter until coated, and put into frying pan; sprinkle with grated cheese and nutmeg. Cook until golden brown on both sides. Put Swiss cheese between 2 pieces of battered bread. Grill until cheese has melted enough to join the 2 pieces together. Remove from pan. On plate assemble sandwich. Place ham and turkey on top of grilled cheese pieces, and put last piece of battered bread on top. Dust with confectioners’ sugar, and serve with side dish of jam.
[1] Doubleday & Company: Garden City, NY, 1949 (p. 183). The Brown Derby was a chain of restaurants in Los Angeles, California. The first and most famous was opened in a building shaped like a hat. The restaurants were iconic during the Golden Age of Hollywood. The first restaurant opened in 1926.

[2] The original Cantor’s—a Jersey City, New Jersey, delicatessen—opened in 1924 and moved to Hollywood in the 1940s.

[3] The regular column was called Practical Recipes: Helps for Epicures and All Who Appreciate Good Cooking. The Monte Cristo sandwich recipe was published May 24, 1924.

[4] Dagwood Bumstead was a character in artist Chic Young’s long-running comic strip Blondie. Dagwood was famous for creating insanely tall, multilayered sandwiches topped with an olive on a toothpick. This name has become a food term to describe any sandwich with more than two pieces of bread.

Mayonnaise

hellman's fixed

1. Hellman’s Delivery Truck, circa 1930’s 2. BEST FOODS Real Mayonnaise Jar, 1939 3. Mr. Richard Hellmann, 1920’s 4. HELLMANN’S Real Mayonnaise Jar, 1939 5.) Richard Hellmann’s staff and original delicatessen, 1912 6. BEST FOODS delivery vehicle 1920’s

When most of us think of mayonnaise, we think of Best Foods, or Hellmann’s (depending which side of the country you are on). Few people actually TRY to make mayonnaise, because it has the reputation of being difficult to make.  Mayonnaise is a popular sauce for pairing with a wide variety of foods, was used in many ways, and had abundant variations. Much of this variety has been lost because of the ease of opening a jar. We have become so imprinted on the Hellman/Best Foods standard flavor that we overlook the delight to be found in fresh, homemade mayo.

I suspect that the commercial mayonnaise makers were responsible for the unreasonable claims that it is finicky and difficult to make. There are still pervasive myths. Among the most outlandish: Mayonnaise cannot be made by a menstruating woman. (It will fail to emulsify.) Also, mayonnaise cannot be made on a warm summer’s day, during a thunderstorm or a rainstorm, or when the barometer is showing a winter storm approaching. Some recipes insist that all the ingredients must be very cold, whereas others caution that they should be at room temperature. The mystique that surrounds creating the emulsion known as mayonnaise is certainly interesting. It makes you wonder: If it is so difficult to make, how is it that factories are able to consistently churn out truckloads of mayonnaise every day. (Do they ban menstruating women? Shut down during thunderstorms and fluctuating barometric pressure?)

The truth is: Mayonnaise is not difficult to make. If the idea was mastered in the 1500s, without refrigeration, by cooks during war campaigns — mayonnaise just cannot be that difficult.

The thing about making mayonnaise is that it, like most other cooking, is anything but an exact science. The most important ingredient (aside from good eggs and bland oil) is patience. A homemade product will, predictably, not turn out exactly the same every time. That is the nature of homemade, and the variations are part of the charm. The thing to remember about homemade mayonnaise is that it has a quality that cannot be mass-produced. It is an affordable luxury.

The science behind it is simple. Mayonnaise is an emulsion, which is a mix of two immiscible ingredients. Immiscible means incapable of mixing without a third substance called an emulsifier. In the case of mayonnaise, it is oil with a few drops of lemon juice or vinegar, which is mixed SLOWLY into egg yolks’ (lecithin in the eggs acts as an emulsifier).  A pinch of mustard powder or squeeze of prepared mustard (called for in most recipes) is an additional emulsifier.  The acid (lemon juice or vinegar) strengthens and lengthens the yolk’s proteins.

 

It is egg, and oil, with a little acid added (any kind of vinegar, lemon, or lime), plus a dash of salt. Mustard does help the emulsion hold together, so it is a good addition. Everything else is a suggestion. Keep this in mind when you read the following recipes. You can experiment with different kinds of mustards (grain, brown, dry powdered, prepared yellow) for different flavors. You can use different oils or oil mixtures. You can add various spices or other ingredients. The worst thing is to try to duplicate Hellman’s/Best Foods in flavor, texture, and color. It is nearly (if not completely) impossible to obtain the white color of commercially made mayonnaise. Yours will always be a richer, more interesting yellow. The flavor will be broader and the texture richer and creamier. The final product will often be thick. Add a tablespoon or more of cold water (or cream) to thin it.

The natural variation of homemade mayonnaise is due to the ingredients, the temperament of the cook, and the eggs. Eggs are not just eggs. They vary in seasonal quality—a spring egg is “wetter” than a late summer egg. A stored egg or an older refrigerated egg is thicker and dryer than a newly laid egg. An egg from a chicken fed on natural grasses is vastly different from an egg from a chicken raised on commercial pellets. A pastured chicken egg is different from a battery cage chicken egg. A freshly laid egg is different to work with than a commercial store-bought egg. Eggs from different strains of chickens probably have some minute differences, and eggs from different species have some very different characteristics. (A duck egg yolk and white are thicker than those of a chicken egg. A goose egg yolk is creamier than either a duck’s or a chicken’s.)

A freshly laid chicken egg is the easiest to work with for mayonnaise. But, unless you have chickens, this won’t be an option. Duck eggs make a very thick and rich mayonnaise, although you might need to add milk, cream, or water to thin it. Goose eggs make delicious mayonnaise, although some people find that it is too intensely egg-flavored.

A little about oil: Olive oil is the standard go-to for mayonnaise, but many olive oils are too flavorful and any undesirable traits, such as bitterness or an overbearing acid flavor, will be accentuated in the mayonnaise. In most cases, this detracts from or clashes with the flavors in the meal. It is better to find a neutral olive oil (such as a Spanish one) or use another type of bland, neutral oil such as safflower or sunflower oil. You can even try melted unsalted butter, it makes a very interesting mayonnaise, which is quite rich, and very unique.

(What causes me the most challenges is one of my own human foibles: impatience. Do not attempt to make mayonnaise if you are in a hurry. Mayonnaise cannot be rushed.)

Making an emulsion takes patience! By its very nature, an emulsion is something that does not want to blend. You have to coax the egg into accepting the oil and dribble the oil in slowly. I use an eyedropper and try not to add more than a few drops at a time. (I have never tried “pour in a thin stream” without awful results). I dribble the oil, drop by drop, at the start, and then move up to teaspoonfuls. I also give the yolk ample time to “rest.”  Stopping for a moment is handy. Stop and take a breath. This tip is good to remember if you begin to see the emulsification stalling and the mayonnaise just beginning to “break” (forming big, ugly curds that will not go back together again). You can settle the mixture down by pausing, adding a few drops of cold water, and just waiting a moment before continuing.

If you want a good workout, use a wire whisk and a large bowl that will allow the yolk to spread out into a very thin layer. It will give you a clear view of what is going on, and if any breaking starts, you can stop it quickly. (A deep, narrow bowl does not afford as much control.)

I’ve read that you can use a hand whisk, a rotary hand mixer, an electric hand mixer, a stick blender, an upright blender, or a food processor. However, I have used only a whisk or an electric hand mixer. It took me about three tries (one afternoon) before I managed to find a technique that worked for me. I have tried since then to use a blender and a food processor but always return to what I find easiest: the hand mixer and a big bowl with a flat bottom. But there is no one right way. Experiment, and find what works for you.

Expect a few mishaps before you get your technique down. The most common error, from my experience, is rushing it and adding the oil too fast. The point is to keep the egg yolk (or yolks) in motion while you add the oil, a drop at a time.

Basic Simple Mayo Recipe:

Mayonnaise

3 egg yolks
1 tablespoon wine vinegar or lemon juice
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon prepared mustard
1½ cups olive oil, salad oil, or mixture

2 tablespoons boiling water

Beat egg yolks with salt, mustard, and vinegar or lemon juice. Add oil, a drop at a time, and keep beating. Dribble oil in, in short bursts, beating constantly to make sure egg mixture absorbs oil smoothly. Dribble, and then stop and beat. Dribble, stop, and beat. When 1/3 cup oil is mixed in, the chance of the whole sauce’s breaking is lessened, so you can add oil in larger amounts (such as a teaspoon at a time). Continue until all oil has been used. The end result will be very thick and creamy. Thin with a little boiling water or a mixture of hot water and more vinegar or lemon juice if mixture is too thick. Add seasoning after mayonnaise has been chilled, covered, for an hour. (If not covered, it may develop an unsightly “skin” on top.)

If you are at all fearful of the dreaded “salmonella” (which I will cover on a different post, and best avoided by buying the freshest eggs, from the most natural source you can find — like a farmer’s market with the actual chicken wrangler right there selling them, or, naturally, from chickens wandering your backyard) then here is a “cooked” mayo recipe:

Cooked Mayo

2 egg yolks

2 tablespoons lemon juice

2 tablespoons water

1 teaspoon dry mustard

dash pepper

1 cup very light olive oil

In double boiler, over simmering water, stir egg yolks, lemon juice, water, mustard, and pepper until blended. Continue stirring constantly. Using a glass cooking thermometer, get temperature to 140 degrees and maintain that temperature for 3½ minutes. Remove from heat (take pan off hot water), and let sit for several minutes to cool. Pour into blender, cover, and blend at high speed. Add oil, drop by drop, slowly. Keep adding more oil while blender is going, until all oil is absorbed. Yolk will become very thick and smooth. Occasionally turn off blender to scrape down sides with rubber spatula. Remove mayonnaise from blender, and placed in covered container. Keep refrigerated.

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The Spanish Fried Egg

Spanish Fried Egg

I am always looking for new ways to fry an egg. I came upon this recipe in my travels, and have found it to be very interesting. it’s like a poached egg, in oil!   The egg white get crackly, and the egg yolk thickens. It is perfect to top a steak, or as a change from the drab morning egg.  Nothing could be further from the “perfect way to cook an egg” that Chef Ferdinand Point promoted.  (He insisted the ONLY way to cook an egg was slowly, in ample amounts of butter.)  The texture is unique.  The Spanish fry everything in a rather bland olive oil (lacking in overall “olive” flavor). This may be cooked in a good quality cooking oil, in melted lard, or as the Spanish do, in olive oil.

Heat a generous amount of oil in a heavy pan (cast iron works well) until it is nearly smoking. Then reduce the heat to medium-high, and break an egg into the hot oil. Cook eggs one at a time (several eggs will instantly migrate together and coagulate into one big shaggy mess). Tilt the pan away from you, and spoon the oil over the egg or, alternatively, roll the egg gently with a spoon to cook all sides evenly. Cook until the white is opaque but the interior is still runny. The total cooking time is less than a minute, closer to 45 seconds, for a still-runny yolk and up to 2 minutes for a firm yolk. Use a slotted spoon to lift the egg out of the oil, and let the excess oil drip off. The technique and resulting egg texture are more like those of a poached egg, but with a decidedly fried, almost crispy, exterior.

Country Life, continued

Honor boxes are great.  In the summer I visit a small little honor farm that has fantastic, fresh vegetables. The farm has been in existence since the 1920’s, by one family. I find it quaint. The quality is great — although, you have to expect a few earwigs, and the occasional baby slug, in the mix. The leaves might not be perfect (a few holes chewed through by some errant bug). But, what a bargain. I can’t eat $20 of vegetables in a week.  Cabbage, kale, collard greens, lettuces, squash, corn, beans, carrots, potatoes — come through from early summer to early autumn. vege honor farmvege honor farm 2

I place my money under a chunk of wood, and serve myself.  It’s absolutely why I love living out of the city.  There are a lot of honor boxes and little farm stands. There are even a few “pick it yourself” farms.  You go out into the field, and select the foods, and load up a basket.  Can’t get any fresher than that!

There is an honor honey shack, where I buy a glass quart jar of the amber gold, and a dairy farm that has a regular old refrigerator — full of fresh milk — sitting on a covered deck. (You put the money on the door shelf.)

There are cutting flower farms, too.

It is pleasant to take a drive, through the back roads, and frequenting these places.