Ah, El Cubano. A sandwich I know and love, yet have never attempted to make. My husband Sean and I are extremely snobby about them whenever we order them at restaurants, doling out criticism of even small deviations from what we consider the perfect Cuban sandwich. “Not the right bread.” “Dry pork.” “Too much ham.” “Wrong cheese.” “No mustard?!” You might even call us expertos del Cubano.
The ideal Cuban sandwich should be a delicate balance of savory, tangy and rich flavors. Tender, fatty shards of roasted pork, salty boiled ham slices, oozing nutty Swiss cheese, and a hint of acidity from thinly sliced pickles and yellow mustard, all layered between sliced Cuban bread and flattened in a sandwich press until crisp. Each ingredient is so vital to making the sandwich just right, and the final step of pressing the sandwich keeps everything nicely encased within the bread. Dip it in hot sauce or soupy black beans and you’ve got a little slice of heaven.
Given that lovely picture I’ve just painted, can you see why I haven’t tried to make Cuban sandwiches at home? How could I possibly satisfy the soaring standards of los expertos del Cubano?
Thus, El Cubano became a challenge worthy of the long Memorial Day weekend, so I had enough time to shop for ingredients (particularly the right bread), roast a pork shoulder, and determine how to fashion a homemade sandwich press (two cast iron pots ought to do it).
Cuban bread is fairly hard to come by in Chicago. It’s a slightly sweet yeast bread made with a small amount of shortening or lard, which helps make the bread light and airy. When toasted in a panini press, the interior collapses like a down pillow while the outside crisps up until it’s almost brittle. I’ve discovered that you can get by just fine with decent Italian bread, baguettes, or hoagie rolls (though it’s not quite the same). It’s this toasting-and-pressing step that’s so key to the sandwich. If you don’t have a panini press, use a couple of sheet pans weighted down with a heavy ovenproof skillet or two.
The other step that set these homespun Cuban sandwiches apart was the pulled pork. By slow-roasting fatty pork shoulder on the bone, the meat came out moist and tender–which made a huge difference in the end product.
To me, few things can compete with an authentic Cuban sandwich, preferably eaten on the outdoor patio of a Cuban restaurant while sipping a mojito and swaying to the sweet sounds of Buena Vista Social Club. Still, I am happy to report that though it wasn’t perfect, the homemade version certainly silenced los expertos del Cubano. Or maybe it was just that we’d gained a little respect for the process of making them the right way.
El Cubano (Cuban sandwich)
1 large baguette, Italian bread loaf or 4 hoagie rolls
3 tablespoons mayonnaise
3 tablespoons yellow mustard
1/4 pound Swiss cheese slices
2 whole dill pickles, cut into very thin slices
1/4 pound baked Virginia ham slices
1/4 pound thinly sliced or shredded roasted pork (read my Kitchen Basics entry on roasting pork shoulder)
Butter, if needed (for the panini press)
Method: Split the bread lengthwise and spread the bottom of the loaf with mayo and the top with mustard. Make an even layer of the ham, pickles, cheese and pork. Top with the other piece of bread and press firmly.
If you have a panini press, heat it and butter each side. Place the sandwiches inside, press down and grill until the cheese is melted and the bread is flat and browned, approximately 10 minutes.
If you don’t have one, wrap the sandwiches securely in foil and lay them between 2 baking sheets. Set on the oven rack and weight the top sheet with a heavy ovenproof skillet or two. Bake in a 350°F oven until the bread is toasted and the cheese has melted, 25 to 30 minutes. Take the sandwiches out, remove the foil and slice them in half on a bias. Serve with soupy black beans or your favorite hot sauce for dipping. Makes 4 sandwiches.