We went to lunch at a local bistro that advertised a “Cuban Sandwich” as their daily special. I’m using those quotation marks sarcastically because, while pork was present, that’s about the only thing those sandwiches had in common with a Cuban sandwich. It was served on a croissant roll. It had no cheese. It had no pickles. It had no ham. It was all fluffy and air-filled.
A delicious sandwich? Yes. A Cuban sandwich? No.
Yes, we created our own. That’s how things are going these days. We get very excited about food, it does not meet our expectations, we make it ourselves. Is this how world-class chefs begin? Because I think we’re on the road to greatness, here.
Pork and bread matter the most so I’ll take a moment to touch on them. Cuban bread is a kind of white bread that’s similar to French or Italian breads that (unlike the European types) includes some fatty solids in the cooking (i.e.: lard). We don’t have Cuban bread in our area. We’re also terrible at making bread thus far. Someday we’ll overcome the bread wall. Today is not that day.
Other than making it extra delicious, lard makes Cuban bread extra squishable, which matters later, when the sandwich is pressed. But you know what? Normal bread squishes pretty well. And, since we don’t have a Cuban bakery nearby, we just went with some Kaiser rolls. They work and they’re easy to find anywhere. We briefly considered bollilos but the shape of a bollilo does not make for easy equal distribution. More on this later.
Lesson: Don’t lament the lack of Cuban bread in your area (too much… you can lament it a little bit). It will still be amazing even with normal bread.
The pork we cook ourselves. It’s easy peasy with a slow cooker. We get a pork shoulder, or tenderloin if we’re feeling fancy, and cook on low with a savory liquid for about 10 hours. I use “savory liquid” loosely, because pork can handle a lot of different flavors. Sometimes it’s vegetable broth, sometimes it’s a mix of herbs, and we have had surprising success with root beer. For the Cuban sandwich we tried to avoid sweet and went with a beef broth.
Here’s a tip about slow cooking any kind of meat. If you leave it on low for a long time, it comes out like butter. It pulls apart by itself. It takes tons of time but zero work.
Other ingredients: swiss cheese, ham, pickles, mustard, butter.
The sandwich press is optional. Really, all you need is a flat-bottomed pan. We just like smushing all our sandwiches. Sandwiches are better hot and smushed. (PB&J hot and smushed? AMAZING.)
Next: the savory ingredients
Mustard goes down first. This is really important because there are a bunch of heavy flavors in a Cuban sandwich. Mustard is a “flavor cutter” and a sort of as-you-eat palette cleanser. It makes all the flavors pop a bit more. Even if you don’t normally eat mustard, you need it on a Cuban. We like it on both sides, and I insist on an even distribution of all ingredients.
Then comes ham. In theory, I could have laid some pieces down flat, but I often have issues with even distribution when I lay deli meats flat on bread. It’s never EVEN, you know? I usually end up having to trim pieces or break off little bits to fill in holes. It’s just so much extra work. To deal with that I roll deli meats and place them in a neat little row. Viola. Even distribution.
Be generous with the ham. It’s a salty-pork flavor kinda’ like mild bacon. A traditional Cubano is half ham, half fally-aparty pork shoulder. I don’t know if you know this, but pork is a pretty big deal in Cuba. Just FYI.
Side note: I like to lay the meats down first because they provide a dry base. I hate soggy bread with the fire of a thousand suns. Even though the Cuban sandwich does not have any plants or tomatoes or anything, it does have pickles. And pickles on (or near) bread = soggy bread. No bueno. Meat first.
Lay pully-aparty pork down on top of the ham. Lookit, when you roll the deli meat up you give the pully-aparty ham a nice, fluffy bed upon which to lay it’s fantastic-ness. Make sure the amount of pully-aparty pork is equal to the deli ham. It should be half and half. Have I mentioned the importance of even distribution?
The crown in the “savory ingredients” step is a little sprinkle of Kosher salt. The amount of salt in my hand in that picture is totally misleading. I like to be super cool like Food Network stars and pour salt into my hand and then pinch and sprinkle. And then toss away a lot of unused salt….
Now: my favorite parts.
Cheese. I love cheese so much it hurts. Lately I’ve been trying to cut back, which means there can be no cheese in the house or I will eat it all. I’m not kidding, guys. I love cheese. Anyways, these half-slices from Sargento were perfect because they allow for… wait for it… even distribution of cheese.
Two layers of cheese.
I want you to note that cheese goes right over pully-aparty meat. This way, when it heats up (that comes later) it melts INTO the nooks and crannies of the meat.
Be still my heart.
Finally, top layer, the pickles. Remember before when I was talking about soggy sandwiches? Here’s a trick, put the pickles on top of the cheese. Then it has nothing to soak into. BRILLIANT.
Hubs and I like the bite of a Kosher pickle. In a Cuban sandwich you can use Kosher pickles in much the same way mustard is used. It’s a spiky flavor that cuts the savory of the pork and cheese in a way that makes you want to cry at the deliciousness of it all. (It also adds some crunch which is always nice.)
You can also go the sweet-sandwich-pickle route. That’s good, too.
Next, place the top half of the bun on the magical creation and just admire for a moment.
You could eat it now, if you wanted. And it would be very tasty.
But it would not be a Cubano.
So, after you’ve admired it for a few moments, and maybe snapped a few photos of the awesomeness, you begin to prep it for pressing. Pressing is the bit that takes this pile of yummmm from a sandwich-with-a-lot-of-pork to an Authentic Cuban Sandwich.
Use hands. Smush.
This is really important if you’re using a press because a press comes down at an angle. And an angle on a really tall sandwich means a lopsided sandwich. I don’t have time to explain geometry but just trust me on this. Smushing is important. Math is not as important.
Side note: if you’re using the “flat-bottomed pan” method to press you don’t HAVE to smush since the pressing angle is exactly perpendicular… but it’s fun to smush so I recommend it anyway.
Softened butter is key to the pressing. After smushing, spread a thin layer of softened butter on top and bottom. This ensures that, when heat is applied, the delicious bread will form a fantastic crusty crust.
And then, my friends: press.
When the crust is a fantastic crusty crust, let the now fully-formed golden Cubano goodness sit for just a moment so the double-layer of creamy Swiss cheese can cool just a smidge.
Then cut in half.
Then cry in joy.