The Cuban sandwich (called merely 'sandwich' in Cuba), also known as a Cubano or Media Noche ('midnight'), is a marvellous piece of ethnic culinary engineering. They are most commonly available in (wait for it ...) Cuba - or perhaps, just as often, in parts of Florida, USA. The sizzle is in the grilling.
Try one with a Mojito (rum, lime, mint, sugar, and soda water) for the perfect experience.
The ingredients at their most basic are Cuban bread (called merely 'bread' in Cuba), pork, ham (yes, they do come from the same animal), pickles, cheese and one or more condiments. They are tasty and toasted, served in many Florida restaurants and bars, but with the best examples served either in Cuba or at Miami street-corner snack bars called loncherias.
You may follow as much of these ingredient variations as you find convenient, but pay particularly close attention to the preparation and cooking options. The sandwiches are sometimes sold cold, but the hot, grilled Cubano is the hands-down favourite. Many who take home the cold, ungrilled sandwich are just unprepared to grill them properly.
The fact that both meats originate from the pig suggests that, once slaughtered, families would rush to use up one entire animal before it could spoil. Leftovers from roasts and hams were probably combined in these ways to add variety to the meal offerings.
With any ethnic dish - which, of course, means any recipe - there are many possible variations on the theme they present. Recipes called 'authentic' are often authentic only to a locale or even, at times, a family. Rarely are they actually a nationally or ethnically agreed standard that cannot be violated. Still, a few basic rules can provide a set of standards for a dish that can then be adhered to strictly, or violated grotesquely, at the chef's discretion.
One last caveat - most of the ingredients of the Cubano were first brought to Cuba by the Spaniards in the 1500s. It took the Cubans 400 years to perfect their sandwich, and it is worthwhile to remember that many Cuban recipes changed abruptly with the American embargo of Cuba since the 1950s.
Here, then, are the basics for the delectable dish known as the Cuban sandwich. Understand that this recipe calls for special equipment, but substitutes can be improvised. Improvisational choices can be found at the end of the entry.
The Cuban bread is sometimes replaced with French or Italian loaves of bread. It is, like those other baked delights, long, slender, and hard-crusted. Some sandwich recipes call it a sourdough bread and some a water bread. Historical references suggest that the bread is made with a bit of lard, differentiating it from European versions.
The water bread toasts better, so don't settle for anything less. Also, eat it soon (the day it is baked), as the lard causes it to dry out quickly. Historically, when bread was not readily available, a crispy flat bread made from cassava or yuca flour (called casabe) was substituted.
Breads are often made 'crustier' by the addition of a pan of water or ice in the baking oven.
To make two loaves of an acceptable bread (without lard):
- In a large bowl dissolve 2 1/4 teaspoons of active dry yeast in 8 fluid ounces of warm water or potato water1 (45°C or 110°F).
- Add one tablespoon of white sugar and one of salt; mix well.
- Stir in seven cups of flour and knead dough for seven minutes.
- Add an eighth cup of flour, place dough in a greased bowl (turning once to cover the other side) and let proof (rise) until doubled.
- Form dough into two long loaves on a lightly floured board.
- Sprinkle one tablespoon of cornmeal on greased baking sheet; place loaves on top.
- Slash the top down the centre with a sharp knife. Cover and let rise until almost doubled.
- Brush top of loaves with about two tablespoons of cold water.
- Sprinkle with one tablespoon of sesame seeds (optional) and place in a cold oven.
- Turn oven to 200°C (400°F), and bake for 45 minutes, or until nicely browned.
- Brush twice during baking time with cold water.
Or, better still, with lard (again, two loaves):
- Dissolve 1/4 yeast cake in 1/4 of water at about 45°C or 110°F.
- Put one tablespoon of butter, one tablespoon of lard, two tablespoons of sugar, and two and-a-half teaspoons of salt in a large bowl, and pour on 2 cups of boiling water.
- When the temperature has dropped to about 45°C or 110°F, add dissolved yeast cake and five cups of flour.
- Stir until thoroughly mixed and add a last cup of flour.
- Mix, and turn onto a floured surface, and knead until mixture is smooth and elastic.
- Return to bowl, cover with a clean cloth and cover.
- Let proof (rise) over night at about 65°F to 70°F.
- The next day, cut through, turning over dough several times.
- Dough may be proofed again until it is convenient to shape it into loaves.
- Toss on slightly-floured surface, knead, and shape into long loaves and place on baking sheets.
- Cover, let rise again to double its bulk, and bake in 400°F hot oven for about 40 minutes. (Beef dripping may be substituted for lard. butter will work, but won't be as white as with lard.)
Additional recipes claiming to be Cuban bread can be found on the Internet. One such is the 'James Beard's Cuban Bread' which includes the cornmeal but skips the lard. The key is to try recipes that sound good to you, and not worry too much about precision (as this is a lost cause).
Cuban recipes abound for roasting pork. Roast pork can be cooked with garlic or marinated in Mojo. I provide one typically delicious recipe here for consideration. Adjust seasonings to taste, if this doesn't sound absolutely fantastic!
- Crush six cloves of garlic and one teaspoon of salt together in mortar and pestle, bowl, or food processor.
- Add two tablespoons of fresh (or dried) oregano.
- Add one cup of diced yellow onion (white can be substituted) and the juice of a lemon, a lime, and two oranges.
- Heat half a cup of Spanish olive oil in a sauté pan, add mixture and whisk.
- Pierce a 3lb boneless centre pork loin roast over and over.
- Pour most of the mixture over the sirloin and marinade in the refrigerator for a minimum of two hours.
- Preheat oven to 450°F and roast in a pan, reducing the heat to 350°F, basting occasionally.
- Add the rest of the marinade as it cooks for one and-a-half hours.
The ham is sometimes baked, but often boiled. Some prefer a sweetness content that suggests honey, sugar, or maple-cured. Feel free to use any favourite from leftovers (the probable original source) to and including Polish ham. When sliced hams were not available, jamonada dulce (a sort of chopped sweet ham) was often substituted.
Original cheeses may have been whatever local resources made available or those brought from Spain. It should not be a hard or sharp cheese, but a soft, mild whitish cheese like Swiss or provolone. Even Gouda will do, but that is a bit softer than generally used.
These were probably straight brine-cured, but the Spanish influence could easily be assumed to include either garlic, dill, or both. Feel free to use flat cut pickles as probably the easiest to assemble. You'll never notice the difference.
The most commonly mentioned are mayonnaise, butter, and/or mustard (probably not the yellow, fancy mustard, but use what you like). There is a greenish, pesto-like sauce made with olive oil and herbs that is marvellous. Create your own.
Salami, while sometimes used, is not part of an authentic Cuban Sandwich; nor is bologna, pastrami, etc. Violate this as you like. The El Pilon Cafe, in south Tampa, for example, can sell 400 Cubanos a week. They make their sandwiches with boiled ham, marinated pork, Genoa salami and Swiss cheese. Provolone is sometimes suggested as well. These all have variations considered to be authentic by their sources.Additional layers can be included, if you feel you do not eat enough vegetables: lettuce, tomatoes, onions, bell peppers, hot peppers, or even thin apple slices are among the favourites. Try making one without them first. You'll probably never bother to add them in.
- For each loaf, you will split it in half and apply a condiment of choice to the bottom half (try just butter).
- Add a layer of pickles (any additional layers should also go here).
- Apply 4oz thinly-sliced roast pork and 4oz thinly-sliced ham.
- Add 4oz of sliced cheese.
- Apply any desired condiments to the upper half (perhaps just mustard) and complete the assembly.
The sandwich may look assembled and ready, but this is where the engineering comes in. You will want to butter the outside, or butter the press used for grilling.
This is what separates a Cuban sandwich from a toasted submarine sandwich. The trick is to flatten the sandwich while grilling and toasting the outside. This allows the pork, ham and pickles to be heated in their own steam, and fuses all the flavors together with the cheese. Each loaf is supposed to make four servings, but count on eating two. One traditional slicing method merely cuts the loaf along the end-to-end diagonal, creating two elongated pizza-slice shaped halves.
The most common sin is the application of insufficient pressure in the grilling. A firm, heavy pressure is absolutely required for the best results. The sandwich should be about a quarter of its original height when done. The heat can be as sophisticated or crude as situations allow. All options take about ten minutes, but keep an eye on them.
Grilling options include (alphabetically):
Campfire - take assembled and buttered sandwiches, wrapped in heavy aluminium foil. Make sure you have a couple of large flat rocks to heat in the fire. Place the sandwiches between the hot rocks. Add weight (additional rocks) as necessary.
George Foreman Grill - Basically, this is a grilling press, just add plenty of pressure. Try adding the pressure to the top, rather than the handle, to keep from accidentally breaking handle or hinges.
Griddle - electric or stove-top, but place a heavy iron skillet or bacon press on top. Keep adding weights until the pressure is sufficient. And, be sure to flip it to toast the opposite side!
La Plancha - a traditional sandwich press that heats top and bottom simultaneously.
Oven - heat oven, pan and weights (6-8 firebricks wrapped in aluminum foil work well) to 500°F. Place sandwich on pan and weigh down with bricks.
Panini grill - expensive, but can create a smooth or wavy sandwich depending on the design.
Waffle Iron - a bit off-beat, but in a pinch will be better than not grilling at all.
Properly made and served, you'll find eating the Cubano to be a two-handed enterprise. Pressed and grilled, it will not fall apart easily like a hamburger or BLT; but it will be long, narrow, and moist enough to drip if eaten with one hand. Best to keep a couple of napkins handy in any case.
Be prepared to use elbows, knees and feet to protect your sandwich. Your hands will be very busy, as will your mouth.
Remember that many people rave about these wonderful sandwiches, even when eaten unheated and unpressed. The only thing you won't be is unimpressed.