COOKING FOR TWO: Got leftover ham or turkey? Make a Monte Cristo

Monte Cristo Sandwich (For The Washington Post/Scott Suchman)
Monte Cristo Sandwich (For The Washington Post/Scott Suchman)

This time of year, I'm always on the lookout for creative ways to use leftovers. If you are, too, consider the Monte Cristo sandwich.

The origin of the sandwich is as murky as its ingredient list. Some claim it is a variation of the French croque-monsieur, but others say certainement pas! Many sources cite California as its birthplace, but with little documentation to back that up. Was it named after Alexandre Dumas' "The Count of Monte Cristo"?

We may never know, but we can cite the Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America's claim that it was first written about in 1923 in an American restaurant industry publication. These days, it's a must-try sandwich at Disneyland and pops up on chain restaurant menus and less often in little cafes and diners.

In some cases, folks take it way, way over the top, making it a triple-decker, adding caramelized onions, and dipping the whole sandwich in pancake or beer batter before deep-frying it. I wasn't prepared to go that far, and I decline to take a stand on what's considered a classic or must-have in a Monte Cristo recipe.

Instead, I'll tell you where I landed after much experimentation. I used two slices of hearty white bread, thinly sliced turkey and ham, and gruyere. I spread one slice of bread with raspberry jam and the other with whole grain mustard. Then, I dipped that whole sandwich in an egg wash and pan-fried it in butter until it was golden brown.

Finally, as is traditional, I sprinkled it with confectioners' sugar, and served a dollop of jam on the side for dipping.

The balance of sweet and savory, creamy and crunchy this created worked well for me.

You can use leftover bread, turkey and/or ham and, in place of the jam, how about a smear of cranberry sauce? (I tried the sandwich with smoked turkey and ham and really liked that flavor as well.) For the cheese, I prefer gruyere, but feel free to swap in Swiss, cheddar or your favorite variety. Some folks like it drizzled with maple syrup or honey instead of sprinkled with confectioners' sugar.

Monte Cristo Sandwich

4 slices hearty white bread, with or without crusts

2 tablespoons raspberry jam, plus more for serving

2 tablespoons spicy, stone-ground mustard

4 ounces shredded gruyere or Swiss cheese

6 ounces thinly sliced Black Forest ham OR roasted turkey breast, or a combination

2 eggs

2 tablespoons milk

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/8 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

1 tablespoon butter, plus more as needed

Confectioners' sugar, for serving (optional)

Place the bread slices on a cutting board. Spread jam over two of the slices. Spread the mustard over the remaining slices.

Divide half the cheese between the mustard-smeared slices and top each with half of the meat. Then, divide the remaining cheese between the two. Top with the jam-covered slices of bread, jam side down, and gently press.

In a shallow dish, whisk together the eggs, milk, vanilla, pepper, cinnamon and nutmeg, and set it near the stove.

In a large skillet over medium-low heat, melt the butter.

Dip each sandwich into the egg mixture, gently pressing down and making sure to coat both sides. Transfer the sandwiches to the hot skillet and fry undisturbed until the cheese starts to melt and the bread turns golden, about 5 minutes. Flip the sandwiches over and repeat on the other side, adjusting the heat as needed.

Transfer the sandwiches to a cutting board and slice them in half diagonally. Transfer the halves to plates, lightly sprinkle with confectioners' sugar, if using, and serve, with jam on the side for dipping.

Makes 2 sandwiches.

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