I’m surprised I’m writing this at all, dear reader. I’ve been staring at a blank screen, or in this case my notes app on my phone screen because my laptop suddenly and catastrophically broke, for days. You would have thought lockdown would be the perfect opportunity to bake up a storm, share those tempting treats on good old Nigella and maybe share some anecdotes about my lockdown experience but… Yeah… It’s one of those cases where if you need something done ask a busy person to do it. And, these days, I’m not busy.
Needless to say, at some point in the future (assuming coronavirus finally learns it has outstayed it’s welcome) I’ll look back on these four weeks of lockdown in New Zealand and think, what did I achieve when I had all that spare time?
I’ll tell you what I’ve achieved. A big fat nothing.
At least I can now say, ‘Je ne parle pas français’ without stumbling over the alliteration but fluency, or merely conversational French, is a little way off.
The days just drift by aimlessly, and the seven of us are swept along in the current, as morning becomes afternoon which becomes night then repeat. The jokes are abundant on social media, ‘Out of 1 to 10 what stage of lockdown are you?!’ The pictures range from a woman looking perfectly normal, to Britney Spears smashing a car. If my housemates and I were on a spectrum we would have reached the aimless stage of lockdown – I’d like to think that’s stage 5. It’s now perfectly acceptable to lie slumped on the sofa gazing into space, threaten to shave your head, interrupt a tense card game to check on your Sims, and make up coronavirus-related lyrics to Disney songs. Insanity hasn’t quite hit. There’s still time.
We still sit and read for hours, and watch films, eat pasta, play round after round of cards, take naps, play rowdy and raucous games of beer pong and, on many occasions, listen to the nightly guttural moans of a horny deer in the mountains. Often conversation flows but there’s also endless silences as we’re each absorbed into a world outside of these four walls, on our phones, in a book, or in a game. The virtual, make-believe world is so captivating. Meanwhile, in the less-important reality, there are four bananas blackening in the fruit bowl which each of us have threatened to make into banana bread but no one seems to be able to muster the energy to do so, so the bananas are still there.
That said, all of us have discovered our inner domestic goddesses while in lockdown. There have been the gooiest flapjacks made by a doubtful and wary Tony who added an extra 50g butter to the already buttery recipe. There’s been a lemon cheesecake, so fresh and tangy, a vicious brownie competition, apple and plum crumble and custard, Swedish chocolate cake, crêpes, cookies by the trayful, and Gaylord’s chocolate cake with chocolate ganache. A bowl of leftover ganache sat in the fridge for the rest of the week, spoonfuls somehow finding their way into cups of hot chocolate and quickly microwaved mug cakes.
When Gaylord and I set off on our adventure BC (before coronavirus) we were anticipating nights of pasta and butter, Pot Noodle, and cooked chicken from the hot food cabinet in the supermarket (a new low for this food snob and a Frenchman). Instead, in this luxurious prison, we’re tucking into steak with butter sauce, and bars of Whittaker’s chocolate – New Zealand’s secret weapon – not to mention all those baked goodies. So, all in all, lockdown brings a big benefit, although not to our waistlines.
So the reason I finally came here today was because we ate Croque Madames for lunch. At the Beach House, the beach-side cafe where I worked in Wellington, we sold Croques by the spadeful; an oozy, bubbly Croque drove people crazy I tell you! Sharp melted cheddar, creamy bechamel, salty ham, all sandwiched between two crusty slabs of bread. Another layer of bechamel is slathered on top, adorned with yet another slice of cheese, morphing into a cheesy double-decker, which crisps and colours golden brown in the oven. As they baked, Gaylord fried eggs in butter then slid them on top like a hat, except these were orange and ready to burst.
It’s nice to return to the real world when there are Croque Madames to be had.
‘Croquer’ is the French word for ‘to crunch’ and therefore they use it for any crispy, buttery toasties. A Croque Madame is this messy, greasy, bechamel-coated toastie, with an egg. It’s counterpart, the Croque Monsieur, is the same but without an egg.
You can use whichever bread you prefer, although I do insist it is soft and white so it absorbs the grease like a sponge. Gaylord specifically required sliced bread for the Croques and who am I to argue when the dish and chef are both French? Maybe he knows something I don’t…
I also think a Croque’s moreishness is only heightened by Dijon mustard. Spread a little on the bread before building the sandwich and I promise the cheese and ham will do a little dance in your mouth. Obviously, if you truly hate mustard then the choice is yours.
4 pieces of white bread
1 tbsp plain flour
1 tbsp butter + extra for spreading
Slices of Cheddar or Gruyère cheese
Slices of ham
Dijon mustard (optional)
- Preheat the oven to 190C/375F. In a medium-sized saucepan, melt the tbsp butter and tip in the flour. Mix together with a wooden spoon to make a roux, cook for 2 minutes stirring constantly, then remove from the heat. Slowly add milk, stirring to combine after every big splash. Add enough milk to make a thick sauce – when you lift your spoon big dollops should fall into the pan. Return the pan to the heat and gradually bring to the boil. Stir the sauce for about three minutes until thickened, make sure it doesn’t burn on the bottom, and remove from the heat.
- Butter two pieces of bread and turn them over. Spread with a little bechamel, top with slices of ham and cheese then spread the remaining two pieces of bread with a little bit of Dijon if using. Perch this piece on top, Dijon-side down (obviously).
- Spread the remaining bechamel thickly over the top slice and finish with a slice of cheese. Heat a frying pan and, once it’s nice and hot, pop in the sandwiches to sear the buttery bottoms. Lift them gently with a spatula to check when they are golden. At that point put them on a tray and slide into the hot oven. Bake for 15-20 minutes until the bechamel is golden and crispy.
- Meanwhile, fry the eggs in sizzling melted butter and season with salt and pepper. When the Croques are ready slip the eggs on top. Serve them and devour.