Cuba is most often associated to antique cars, cigars, baseball, and well… communism. Aside from famous names like Fidel Castro and Tony “Scarface” Montana, Cuba brought us an amazing sandwich that is aptly named… wait for it… the Cuban sandwich. Of course, that doesn’t even scratch the surface on what Cuba itself has to offer, and Scarface isn’t even a real person (or was he?). The sandwich itself is said to have been very popular with Cubans who worked and vacationed in Florida, and that it was a marriage between popular Cuban flavors and Floridian styles… so this sandwich truly captures the Spanglish style!
You may be thinking, “Why all this talk about Cuba? I thought you were Puerto Ricans!”… and we are! In Puerto Rico, there is a certain solidarity with Cuba. We are people of similar history, with similar stories but different conclusions. I’d get into a ton of detail, but this isn’t a political post. The point is we share very many things, and one of them is the Cuban sandwich.
From the 1950’s to the 1980’s, many people were exiled from Cuba and established in Florida, New Jersey, and Puerto Rico, and with them, they brought the Cuban Sandwich! We used our bread (which is already somewhat similar to Cuban bread) and their fillings… it was a match made in heaven! Pretty much every bakery on the island sells Cuban Sandwiches, as well as the awesome variation called Medianoche (or “Midnight Sandwich”) which simply uses a different bread and is smaller overall.
I remember going to the panaderías every morning with my mom and splitting a Medianoche and a Malta India with her. When I got older (and a newer, better bakery opened close to my house), I graduated to a Cuban Sandwich (still with my malta, mind you) and I could have never been happier. Don’t get me wrong, I still love Medianoches but the Cuban is more “adult-sized”, and I just love our bread beyond belief.
The traditional Cuban sandwich consists of five key components:
- A good Cuban bread.
- Extremely tender roasted pork shoulder, called pernil.
- Deli ham.
- Dill pickles.
- Swiss Cheese
- Yellow mustard.
- Butter for toasting.
Now, in a traditional sense, this is the ideal combination… but I don’t necessarily stick to the traditional when I make these. I like my sandwiches with a little bit of pizzazz and even more flavor, so I took the sandwich that I grew up with, and I slapped some awesome flavor make-up on it. Hence, this is the Spanglish Cuban Sandwich.
First, in North Carolina, there is nowhere to get Cuban or Puerto Rican bread! So, unless you are somewhere you can get your hands on either of these breads, you can settle for Italian or French loaves. In our house, we make our own Puerto Rican bread, but not everyone has the time (or devotion) for that.
Also, deli ham is just plain boring! Yes, it is readily accessible to everyone, and the intended star of the dish is the pernil, but I want all the flavors to be elevated! So, given my having worked in a deli for years, I can make some pretty specific recommendations for a more flavorful ham, and I tend to stick to smoked hams as a matter of preference. So, head over to your local deli and pick up some Black Forest or Applewood-smoked ham. You know what? While you’re there, pick up a good Emmental or Jarlsberg Swiss and thicker-cut dill pickles. Emmental and Jarlsberg Swiss have a mild flavor but it is very savory and both go very well with the rest of the ingredients. Also, I go with a thicker pickle on my Cuban sandwich because it provides a good snap-like bite while biting into it.
Now, I’ve met some people that are finicky about Cuban sandwiches. Some people don’t care much for pickles, and that’s not to say I love them, but I feel a Cuban sandwich without pickles is naked. Some people hate mustard… but again, without it, to me it doesn’t feel like a Cuban sandwich!
So, it’s all about experimentation. Find a less tangy pickle, or a spicier mustard, but make a Cuban sandwich with the components you like the most, and just eat and be happy! Personally? I’d choose a thick-cut garlicky pickle and a spicy dijon mustard, but as we say in Puerto Rico, “pa’ los gustos, los colores”, which means everyone is going to have preferences, and there is always something out there you can find that satisfies those preferences.¡Vamo’ a cocinar!
First, I am very specific about the order the ingredients go in, and this is how it would be, bottom to top:
This means that when the sandwich is constructed, the mustard is at the bottom of the sandwich, and the swiss is at the top. This is done very purposefully.
The mustard and pickle play very well together to offset their tangy-spiciness. The ham tones down the spiciness to elevate the pork, which works with the savoriness of the Swiss cheese to create an amalgam of flavors that is just perfectly well-balanced. Some suggestions:
- Make sure the pickle covers at least as much as the mustard. In my experience, bites with one and not the other just don’t feel right!
- Don’t stack thick pickles! If you’re using a thicker pickle, make sure you lay them out flat. Any overlaps will give huge mouthfuls of pickle and throw the flavors off balance.
- If going with thicker slices of ham and/or cheese, don’t add too much. This sandwich is still about the pork being the star.
After this beauty is constructed, butter the outside of the bread and throw it on a sandwich press and flatten till there’s no tomorrow! Don’t have a sandwich press? A panini press would do the job too… but a pan on the stove should do, but it won’t be as flat, and likely not as crispy.
The butter helps the outside of the bread crisp up beautifully and adds some more flavor to the bread itself.
After it’s crisped up, cut it in half… admire it, resist the urge to incite a revolution, and enjoy the sandwich!
- Cuban or Puerto Rican bread (in a pinch, French or Italian loaf will do), cut to hoagie size.
- 2-3 thin slices of Swiss cheese (I prefer Emmental or Jarlsberg cheeses)
- ~ 1/4 lb Pernil, pulled or sliced thin to stack.
- 4-5 thin slices of Deli ham (I prefer a flavorful ham such as Black Forest or Applewood-smoked)
- Dill Pickles (I prefer thick cut garlicky pickles, so I only use one slice per sandwich)
- 2 Tbsp. mustard (I prefer a Spicy Dijon Mustard)
- 1 Tbsp. butter, softened (for toasting)
- Cut open the bread
- Fill the bread with the ingredients (Stack in this order: mustard, pickle, ham, pork, swiss)
- Apply butter to the outside of the bread
- Press sandwich in a panini press or on stovetop until toasted and crispy.