First off, a bit of business out of the way. If you are wondering where the garden update I promised is, take a look at the visitor we had a couple of days ago. Just when I was planning to photograph the beginnings of an abundant Spring, this hail beat my lettuce and herbs to near-death, but they are slowly recovering in the tranquil (for now) Spring sunshine. Sorry for the dim light, it was 2 o'clock in the morning:
And now on to the real food talk...
We were so lucky for a while. Sweet Knoxville, TN, landlocked in a mountain valley, managed to contain a tiny, perfect Cuban restaurant that sold the best Cuban sandwiches this side of Miami. But all good things, apparently, must come to an end, and Alex of Alex's Havana Cafe closed up shop and retired, leaving people like me completely bereft.
With my old, evil job I traveled to Miami a few times, and the best sandwiches I had there were on par with Alex's--crispy, tender bread housing a pork, pickle, and cheese concoction that I swear was addictive. So addictive, in fact, that I decided to set out and try to replicate them.
This may be my highest baking achievement yet--making a bread that involved a starter and required a very specific texture and flavor. Dear readers, I succeeded. And Chris might leave me if I don't stop crowing about it. But the bread, the sandwiches, they were perfect. Perfect! The only improvement would have been actually having some leftover pork in there, but the turkey and ham were more than acceptable. Turkey isn't traditional, but it lightens the flavor and calorie content, and you won't notice a difference, I swear.
I am unapologetic about the length of the recipe below, because it is worth every step and kind of fun (if you've never played with starter before). If you don't have ready access to a superb Cuban sandwich in your area, I implore you to give this a try.
Ultimate Cuban Sandwiches
makes 6 loaves
the day before you bake:
for the starter:
.75 tsp active dry yeast
one third cup warm water
one third cup bread flour
Dissolve the yeast in the water and stir in the flour. Cover the bowl and allow the starter to ripen in the refrigerator for 24 hours.
After 24 hours it will be gooey and bubbly and slightly sour smelling. You will only use half of the starter in this recipe--leftover starter will keep for several days in the refrigerator or can be frozen for up to 6 months.
for the dough:
4 tsp active dry yeast
1 Tbsp sugar
1.5 cups warm water
4 Tbsp melted butter
1/2 starter batch
1 Tbsp salt
4-5 cups bread flour
In a warm mixing bowl, dissolve the yeast and sugar in 3 tablespoons warm water. When the mixture is foamy (5 to 10 minutes), stir in the butter, the remaining water and the 1/2 batch of starter. Mix well with a wooden spoon.
Stir in the salt and 4 cups of the flour, using the dough hook attachment on a stand mixer. Mix for 2 minutes on speed 2. Once incorporated, continue kneading for 8-10 minutes, until smooth and elastic. Add the remaining flour as needed, but not too much. The dough should be pliable, but not sticky.
Transfer the dough to a lightly oiled bowl, cover, and let rise in a warm draft free spot until doubled in bulk, about 45 minutes. I recommend going ahead and preheating your oven to 375 degrees, and resting the dough on the stove top.
Punch down the dough. To make the loaves, divide the dough into 6 equal pieces. Roll each to form a 12 inch long log or cylinder. Using the heel of your hand, flatten each log slightly. Divide the cylinders between 2 baking sheets with 4 inches space between, cover, and let rise in a warm place until doubles in bulk, about 1 hour.
If you haven't already, preheat your oven to 375 degrees. In the bottom of your oven, place a small metal bowl or pan filled with hot water. The steam is supposed to help make a nice crust on the loaves, but I don't know if it did much. Bake until the bread is golden brown on top and sounds hollow when thumped on the bottom, about 30 minutes.
Let the loaves cool slightly, transfer the breads onto a wire rack to cool completely.
for the sandwiches:
roast pork (if you have it)
sliced deli ham
sliced deli turkey (optional)
sliced deli Swiss cheese
Several dill pickle slices
Butter, softened to room temperature
Split a Cuban loaf and butter the outside crust. Spread mayonnaise and mustard inside, then layer with thinly sliced ingredients--from top to bottom, I use:
If you have a panini grill, well good for you, use that. Me? I say who needs a panini maker or a sandwich press when you have a small baking sheet and a tea kettle full of water?
Toast on a griddle or grill pan over medium heat until nice and brown and the cheese is slightly melted. Slice the sandwich diagonally and serve with black beans, rice, and fried plantains if you've got them (I couldn't get my hands on any in the 10 minutes I spent at one store). These sandwiches are freaking great.