I have recently braided and baked quite a few loaves of challah bread and made many ham and cheese sandwiches to better understand the sandwich known as a Monte Cristo.
What is a Monte Cristo?
To simplify things, a Monte Cristo sandwich is a ham and cheese sandwich where the outside slices of bread have been egg-dipped and pan fried to a crunchy golden brown (more at wikipedia). Often a Monte Cristo will be served with some sort of fruit jam and occasionally the sandwich will be dusted with powdered sugar.
There are examples on menus across the internet of Monte Cristos being prepared on all sorts of types of bread, but since the frying/griddling process is like that of French toast, it seems challah bread is a very popular choice. That’s what I chose to work with.
According to foodtimeline.org, The Monte Cristo appeared on menus as early as the 1940s in California (for 65 cents!), and it showed up in 1966 at the Blue Bayou in California’s Disneyland. Many chain type restaurants have taken the French toast style frying that typical Monte Cristos go through and swapped that for battering and deep frying. I didn’t really want a deep fried sandwich this week, so I opted for the more traditional cooking method.
French-ish sandwich comparison time:
The Monte Cristo most likely got inspiration from the Croque Monsieur and the Croque Monsieur also inspired another sandwich called the Croque Madame. The components of these three sandwiches are somewhat intertwined. Here’s how they differ:
|Monte Cristo||Croque Monsieur||Croque Madame|
|ham (and/or turkey)||✅||✅||✅|
|Swiss or Gruyere cheese||✅||✅||✅|
|egg dipped and fried||✅||❌||❌|
|bechemel sauce on top||❌||✅||✅|
|topped with poached or fried egg||❌||❌||✅|
|powdered sugar on top||✅||❌||❌|
Like I wrote earlier, I picked challah for these sandwiches, and I braided and baked a bunch of loaves. It’s great bread for sandwiching.
Challah is bread made from an enriched dough. What does this mean? It means there are ingredients in the dough like fat, eggs, sugar or dairy that provide flavor, but at the same time these ingredients can slow down yeast activity, leading to slower dough rise and extended fermentation time. These longer rise times can provide extra flavor, but they make the bread a bit harder to manage than just a regular white bread or hamburger bun recipe.
Another example of an enriched bread is brioche. Challah and brioche are similar in ingredients and techniques. They’re both made from an enriched dough, but brioche gets its fat from butter and challah gets fat from oil.
My challah recipe uses a quick starter, made with just flour, water and yeast. The quick starter helps give the yeast a tiny boost and a head start in the proofing department. Without a quick starter, the dough will still rise, but because of the enriched ingredients, rise times would potentially be longer.
For braiding, I went with a four-strand challah loaf. You can go six-strand or three-strand or maybe even 8 or 20-strand if you’re nuts (please send me pictures if you figure out a 20-strand braid).
Here’s a collage of the braiding technique needed for a four-strand challah loaf. The image goes left to right from top left > bottom right.
Starting from the left, take the far-left strand over two strands to the right and then back under one strand to the left. Then you start from the far-right strand, take it over two strands to the left and back under one to the right. Then you go back to the left side, and you start the whole dance all over again.
Continue until you are out of strands and when you are done tuck all the ends together and underneath and there you have a braided loaf that still needs some final rise time.
Once again with conviction
This is overkill unless you’re standing around making braided challah, but here’s the same image again. This time I’ve labeled each of the four strands with colored letters. Shout out to the visual learners reading this!
- A goes over two to the right (between C and D)
- Then A switches back under one to the left with C
- D goes over two to the left (between B and A)
- Then D switches back under one to the right with A
- B goes over two to the right (between D and C)
- Then B switches back under one to the left with D
Below is a fully braided pre-rise loaf and a braiding gif, if you need a more movement based visual aid. If four strands seem a little too awkward for you, you can fall back on the three-strand (like braiding hair), but I’m pretty sure if I can tackle it, you can too.
Challah gets its beautiful color due to the egg and sugar in the dough as well as an egg white wash that you apply prior to proofing and baking. I add a tiny bit of sugar to my egg white glaze which helps with browning and gives the final loaf a more textured crust.
Here’s the challah bread recipe that I’ve been making and testing for the past few weeks. Give it a shot and let me know what you think about it.
You can buy deli sliced ham for this recipe, but if you want thicker cut slices, baking your own ham is very easy. First, you need to buy a smoked or pre-cooked ham. some of them are already sliced, but I like buying the ones that are not. I’m not sure how easy it is to find a ham like this outside of the holiday months, but around Thanksgiving and Christmas there are tons of hams available at the grocery store.
Once you have a ham, cooking it is a two-fold process. You need to bring the whole thing up to temperature and you also want to add more flavor through the skin/fat and using a glaze, you can add texture and caramelized flavor.
Try this brown sugar and mustard glazed ham recipe. It’s easy and adds complexity to your next ham sandwich.
Slice it thin, but not too thin and now you’re ready for making Monte Cristos.
Building a Monte Cristo
To make a Monte Cristo, you first need to simply put together a ham (and/or turkey) with some cheese between bread. Your choices of condiments between the bread is up to you. I mostly went with just mayonnaise, but a couple of sandwiches I used mayo and mustard. If you hate mayo, leave it out. It’s up to you.
Next you need an egg/milk mixture to dunk the bread in before frying the sandwich. I go with one whole beaten egg, a quarter cup of milk and then a pinch of salt and pepper.
You dunk the sandwich you just made into the egg/milk mixture and fry the sandwich for 2 or 3 minutes per side in a buttered skillet or griddle. The frying process makes the outside of the sandwich a bit crispy and crunchy, adding texture to your already flavorful ham sandwich. Frying the sandwich also has a secondary cheese melt feature that should happen if you cook the sandwich on the proper heat and time.
How to get melty cheese
The key to getting the cheese inside your sandwich to melt is temperature control on your pan or griddle. Cooking low and slow makes a lot of difference, but it’s also time consuming and somewhat difficult to get right without practice.
I cooked a few of these the normal way, but I also tried to other techniques to see if I could get more of an internal cheese melt with less effort.
Melty cheese technique one
There are two easy techniques to get better melty cheese in the middle of your Monte Cristo or grilled cheese sandwiches. The first is open faced griddling. To do this method, you dip one slice of bread into the Monte Cristo egg/milk mixture and then lay it wet side down in melted butter in a medium heat griddle or pan and then build your sandwich. I usually spread on some mayonnaise then add cheese and meat. You want to stop just shy of adding the second piece of bread.
Cover the pan with a lid or piece of aluminum foil and allow the cheese and meat to steam up. This causes the cheese to get a head start on the melting process. Once 2 or 3 minutes have passed, add condiments to your second slice of bread (with any condiments you might want) and then dunk the top in your Monte Cristo egg/milk mixture and add it to the top of your sandwich.
Flip the sandwich and put the lid back on for the second half of cooking. This should allow all your cheese and meat to get nice and warm while the outside browns.
Melty cheese technique two (cheater technique)
Some people might think the second melty cheese maneuver is a bit of a cheater broiling technique because it takes place under the broiler in a toaster or regular oven. Make your sandwich the way you’d like and stop just shy of adding the top slice of bread. Place that untopped sandwich under a broiler and melt the cheese to your liking.
When the cheese is melted, dip the whole bottom bread slice (with meat/cheese on top) into the Monte Cristo egg/milk mixture and place it into an already heated up griddle or pan. Now you can decorate the top slice with any condiments needed, dip that piece into the egg/milk mixture and place it on top to go through the rest of the grilling process.
Whether you use the good old fashioned temperature control, the open-faced griddling technique or a cheat-to-win with a broiler, just do your best to get the cheese melty without over browning the bread.
Monte Cristo sandwich recipe
Here’s a simple recipe for this sandwich. If you don’t want to bake your own ham or bread, you can have this sandwich on the table in just a few minutes and it will give you a whole new experience than just a regular old deli ham and cheese sandwich.
The Monte Cristos
Below are some of the final Monte Cristo sandwiches I’ve enjoyed over the past few weeks. Most of them did not get the powdered sugar treatment but I did enjoy some strawberry preserves with almost all of them. I just find it nice to have some jam-like sweetness, meld with all of the savory meat and cheese flavors in this style of sandwich.
Hopefully you enjoyed reading about my Monte Cristo adventure. I enjoyed writing about them and also the eating part. You should try making one! Also, make a ham. It’s the holidays after all.
Check back next week when I either make another not-quite-French sandwich or I showcase a vegetable that you don’t often see in sandwiches. No one knows which sandwich I will write about next. Not even me.