Got leftover ham or turkey? Make a Monte Cristo

Monte Cristo Sandwich. Photo by Scott Suchman for The Washington Post
Monte Cristo Sandwich. Photo by Scott Suchman for The Washington Post

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

The dish first came on my radar as we were preparing for the relaunch of The Washington Post Recipe experience. One question we often ask ourselves as we search through the thousands of our recipes: What's missing? We discovered we had no Monte Cristo recipe to offer.

Now, some might say that's not a bad thing. This sandwich - an over-the-top mash-up of French toast and grilled ham and cheese - has its detractors. I knew I had had one once before, but I couldn't for the life of me remember where or when. (Maybe at Bennigan's when I was in high school?)

As I started to explore recipes, I discovered that 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 in the 1960s as its birthplace, but with little documentation to back that up. Was it named after Alexandre Dumas's "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 lightly 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. When I described its contents to the gang at work, eyebrows were cocked, but after it was photographed in the Food Lab and tasted, it got thumbs up all around.

As I tested it, I realized it was ideal as a post-holiday treat. If you want to try it, 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 rather than sprinkled with confectioners' sugar.

That's a lot of variation, I realize, so if you follow only one recommendation from me, let it be this: Slice the Monte Cristo in half and split it with someone, served beside a crisp, green, lightly dressed salad. This is one rich sandwich.

Monte Cristo Sandwich

2 to 4 servings

Storage: Refrigerate for up to two days; reheat in a 350-degree oven until heated through or in a skillet over medium-low heat.

Total time: 30 mins

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 (about 2 cups)

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

2 large eggs

2 tablespoons milk (any fat content)

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/8 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

1 tablespoon unsalted 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.

Nutrition Per serving (1/2 sandwich), based on 4: 307 calories, 17g carbohydrates, 151mg cholesterol, 16g fat, 3g fiber, 22g protein, 8g saturated fat, 678mg sodium, 5g sugar

From recipes editor Ann Maloney

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