The Elusive Cuban Sandwich

By Lee Lowry

When the call went out for a new series of Junior League of Tampa cookbook blog entries, I perused the list of recipes that had been selected, looking for a good match for my family and me. One immediately stuck out: deceptively simple, yet, in our family, legendary. The Cuban sandwich. 

Until recently, every time I saw the Cuban sandwich featured in a cookbook or food magazine, the original creation was credited to Miami. That always struck me as wrong and bugged me a little. My adopted home of Tampa was the home of the first Cuban sandwich, wasn’t it? Recently, vindication! Both Bon Appetit and Food Network Magazine acknowledged that the first Cuban sandwich in America was indeed assembled and eaten here in Tampa. Our multi-ethnic city, with recently transplanted Cubans and Italians, put together a terrific mix of tastes from both traditions that is now a staple of sandwich shops and restaurants in our area.

The Cuban sandwich has an almost mythic reputation in my husband’s family. His grandfather had strong opinions about his Cuban. To him, it was a real Cuban if it had only the basics, meat and Swiss cheese, pickle and mustard and butter, never tomato and lettuce as it is sometimes made. It should also always be pressed and crunchy on the outside. Growing up in the Tampa Bay area, my husband absorbed all these rules and then added some of his own, mostly regarding the bread. To him, the best Cubans must always be on authentic Cuban bread, with extra points if some of the palmetto frond was still stuck to the top of the loaf. The sandwich must be moist inside, but the outside should be crackly and almost abrasive. So you can see with all these high expectations that I took on this recipe with a good deal of respectful trepidation.

The fact that the recipe came from our beloved and revered The Gasparilla Cookbook gave me some early confidence. The ladies who created this book knew their food, and knew their town. The recipe is credited as being from the Silver Ring Cafe in Ybor City. Unfortunately, it looks like the Silver Ring is now closed, after more than fifty years of operation, having opened just a few years before The Gasparilla Cookbook was first printed. From all the reviews I’ve seen, the Cafe knew their sandwich.

First thing was the ingredients. I wasn’t ambitious enough to roast my own pork, so I was pleased to see the great looking Boar’s Head pork at my neighborhood Publix deli. Nice domestic Swiss and baked ham, check. Then salami. Genoa or hard? The recipe doesn’t specify, so I went with hard salami. (According to my brief Internet research, the salami is what makes the difference between our Tampa Cuban and the Miami Cuban sandwich.). I had mustard and butter already, of course, and I decided to get refrigerated pickles to enhance the crunch.

Now, I am very loyal to Publix and I love their bakery, but in this case, I was bringing out the big guns. I drove over to La Segunda Central to get the real thing. Their Cuban bread is three feet long and baked with the recipe brought over from Cuba by the original owners. The bakery has been in operation since 1915 and is still owned by the same family. I was not disappointed. Sure enough, there was the palmetto leaf, still on top, and the crusty, yeasty smell filled my car all the way home (as did the sweet scent of the guava and cheese pastry I couldn’t resist adding to my purchase).

Once I had all the ingredients, it was very simple to assemble the sandwiches. Softened butter on one side, mustard on the other, then the drained pickle slices, then the cheese and cold cuts. The recipe suggests that you might warm the sandwiches in the oven to enhance the flavors. But I wanted to give pressing them a try, since this is definitely my favorite way, and as I mentioned, the ONLY way as far as my family is concerned. I don’t own a panini press so had to improvise. A Dutch oven balanced on top of a crepe pan wrapped in aluminum foil was an odd but effective substitute. A little more butter in a medium hot frying pan, pressed with the weight of the cast iron oven on each side for a few minutes, and soon I had a crunchy outside and a gooey, warm inside, just right. And the pickiest taste tester of all, my husband? He said this sandwich was tied with his all-time favorite Cuban sandwich. High praise!

I will most certainly make this recipe again. Its ease of preparation and great taste payoff makes it a great blast from the past that still pleases today.

Cuban Sandwich

1 ½ loaves Cuban bread

Mustard and butter

¾ pound baked ham, thinly sliced

½ pound barbecued or roast pork

¼ pound thinly sliced Swiss cheese

¼ pound Italian salami, thinly sliced

Lengthwise slices of dill pickle

Cut Cuban bread in 6 pieces 8 inches long. Split lengthwise and spread mustard on 1 piece, and butter on the other. Divide ham, pork, Swiss cheese, salami and pickle among the 6 sandwiches, arranging in layers on the bread. Wrap each sandwich in a paper napkin and secure with a toothpick. Flavor is improved by warming in the oven before serving. Serves 6.




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