The Great Crust Contradiction
Given that a chewy crust is the main distinguishing feature of expensive, artisinal breads, it’s sort of ironic that when people want to make sandwiches “elegant,” they often cut the crusts off entirely. And it’s even more ironic that many of those crust-less sandwiches are filled with some combination of cheese and/or mayonnaise, the hallmark ingredients of un-refined midwestern, church-social, Jell-O and macaroni “salad” cuisine. Especially given the Wonderbread-style bread, the ingredients on their own say something like “trailer park,” but turn them into little crustless triangles filled with cool, tangy spreads and you conjure images of dainty tea parties and women in be-ribboned hats. They’re perfectly-suited to the kinds of events where you plan on sipping mint juleps while you watch horses with names like “Make Music For Me” and “Devil May Care” dash around a track in the most potentially-lucrative two minutes of their racing careers.
These two sandwich spread recipes contain both cheese and mayonnaise, but I promise you that despite the low esteem that many people hold the primary ingredients in, they will generally consider these sandwiches classy and delicious. I know I’m posting them too late for this year’s Derby (I made them for a Derby party and it’s difficult to explain how something turned out or post any pictures of it before you’ve actually made it), but they’re also perfect for any other spring or summertime event. And pimento cheese is also a great appetizer or burger topping. I’ll post the recipe for the sourdough-risen, soft, white sandwich bread I used sometime later this week, but if you’re not up for making your own bread, store-bought loaves will seem just as fancy when you remove their crusts. And if you’d rather not waste the crusts, they’re perfect for making homemade croutons.
Cheese and Mayonnaise Sandwich #1: No, Not that Benedict
Benedictines are essentially a variation on the classic cucumber sandwich in which the cucumber is shredded and drained and then combined with the cream cheese and mayonnaise to make a spread. They’re usually flavored with onion and tinted a pastel green with food coloring. The main difference between the many different Benedictine recipes out there seems to be how the onion flavor is added. The simplest way is just to add onion powder. Yumsugar uses scallions. Saveur’s recipe calls for grating an onion and squeezing the juice into the cream cheese mixture and then discarding the onion flesh. Other recipes, including Paula Deen’s, include the grated onion in the mixture—as much as an entire onion or as little as 2 tablespoons (all of them call for just one 8 oz. package of cream cheese so it’s not a question of scale).
I have no real fidelity to “authenticity” (a term that’s usually meaningless anyway), but I decided to try to find out whether there was an “original” recipe out there somewhere and how it incorporated the onion. The sandwich shares its name with monastic orders that follow the teachings of Benedict of Nursia and the herbal liqueur originally produced at the Benedictine Abbey in the Normandy region of France, but apparently isn’t related. Nor does it bear any relation to the classic brunch dish composed of a split English muffin topped with ham, poached eggs, and hollandaise sauce, which is apparently named after either Lemuel Benedict, a 19th C. Wall Street broker, Commodore E.C. Benedict, an early 20th C. banker and yachtsman, or Mr. And Mrs. LeGrand Benedict, who were regulars at Delmonico’s (my money’s on Lemuel—I expect I’ll have the occasion to look into it more another time).
The sandwiches have a much more recent and less contested namesake—one Miss Jennie Carter Benedict, who studied at the Boston School of Cooking with Fannie Farmer and then worked as a caterer and restaurateur in Louisville from 1893-1925. She’s been credited with shaping the tastes of the Kentucky elite and the emerging middle-class. She catered weddings and other special events for many of Louisville’s most prominent families, whose tastes were broadly influential. And given her Boston School training, which emphasized the kind of cooking that came to be seen as “American” in that period (inspired by British/New England traditions, distinguished on the one hand from the French food associated with aristocrats and on the other from the foodways of recent immigrants), she and her eponymous restaurant were among the pioneers of a new kind of middle-class entertaining and dining. Benedict’s and the kinds of food popularized by “Miss Jennie,” as she was known, were seen as genteel and respectable, but not aristocratic. Benedict’s was part of the emerging middle-ground between the pubs and cafeterias that catered to the (mostly male) working class and fancy restaurants that catered only to the wealthy. Miss Jennie’s food was a newly “respectable” version of recognizable, “American” ingredients and techniques within reach for families who couldn’t afford the kinds of ingredients or brigade of servants required to prepare elaborate French meals.
Despite the fact that she and her restaurant were so famous for their dyed-green cucumber sandwich spread that people referred to it by her name, she didn’t include a recipe for it in The Blue Ribbon Cook Book she wrote, first published in 1904. The omission was so glaring that when the University Press of Kentucky decided to re-issue the cookbook in 2008, they added one provided by Louisville-area cookbook writer Ronni Lundy. Like Saveur’s recipe, it calls for onion juice. But unlike any of the other recipes I’ve seen, it also jettisons the cucumber pulp. You grate and drain the cucumber, but reserve and add just the juice to the spread.
I want a little more than cream cheese in my sandwiches—I actually prefer entire slices of unpeeled cucumber when I’m not trying to be Derby-appropriate. Also, while I have no personal any objection to food coloring, I was afraid other people might (I wouldn’t have any qualms about their response to truffle oil or “natural” flavoring, but consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds, right?). Since my favorite thing about classic sliced-cucumber sandwiches is the dill, which Benedictine recipes usually don’t have, I tried to give it a little more green coloring with a puree of fresh dill and a little of the cucumber water.
All of which is to say, the recipe, as with most things I post, is a set of general guidelines at best. I don’t think you can make a bad sandwich with cream cheese and mayonnaise and cucumber and onion.
Cheese and Mayonnaise Sandwich #2: A Better New-Bacon Contender
One of Subway’s current commercials claims that pepperoni is the new bacon. I don’t actually think anything’s going to replace bacon as America’s favorite icon of dreaded/desired food, but if it ever caught on big time, pimento cheese might have a better shot than another cured meat. Recipes almost invariably mention something about how fattening and diet-busting and artery-clogging and waistline-expanding it is.
It’s the kind of dish that should come with its own treadmill—The Amateur Gourmet
And even people who aren’t afraid of fat often cringe at the idea—Ari Weinzweig of Zingerman’s, who’s an ardent defender of things like butter and bacon, made the mistake of dissing pimento cheese at the Southern Foodways Alliance because he thought it was a processed, “flavorless” food (as if lack of flavor is really the problem with processed food). He’s since made up for it by putting pimento cheese all over the Roadhouse menu, where you can get it as an appetizer or in a mac & cheese dish and sometimes on a burger. They also sell it at the deli and online ($20 for 12 oz!).
So, the reason I think it could give bacon a run for its money is that not only does it have the same OMG Fat transgressiveness, it’s also got OMG Americans-and-their-awful-cheese-and-mayo-food transgressiveness. Like bacon, it’s great on its own but can also be used to enhance a wide variety of dishes, including the all-important burger. And if anyone wrinkles their nose about the ingredients, you can gesture to how authentically Southern it is and imply that if they don’t like it, they’re racist or something. (If that’s not “exotic” enough for you, you can gesture to the virtually identical dish called Cheese Pimiento that’s popular in the Philippines or one of the similar family of dishes in Europe that go by the names Liptauer (Austria), Liptau (Germany), Körözött (Hungary), and Šmirkás (Slovakia)).
It kind of reminds me of a culinary version the Kelly Clarkson song, “Since U Been Gone,” which even indie-music fans and hipsters were abnormally devoted to despite its mass-culture taint—or perhaps because of it. Pimento cheese would be the perfect new obsession for foodies looking to prove they’re not snobs who hate America.
I decided to make my own mayonnaise, which I had tried doing it by hand before, but the emulsion didn’t hold. This time I used an immersion blender, the way Herve This recommends. Instead of having to add the oil droplet-by-droplet and then in a thin stream while trying to whisk madly, you just put the yolks and vinegar in a 2-cup measure, stand the stick blender in the cup and then pour the oil on top so it’s a separate layer.
As you pulse the blender, keeping it flush against the bottom of the measuring cup, the oil gets gradually incorporated and you can actually see the emulsion bloom up from the bottom of the measure. It takes less than 2 minutes and is supposedly foolproof—it certainly worked like a charm for me. However, despite everyone else’s protestations to the contrary, I don’t actually think it’s that much better than Hellman’s/Best Foods. As with all homemade things, it does give you the chance to adjust the saltiness and acidity level and flavor as desired, but I think the real reason people bother is bragging rights.
Recipe: Benedictine Sandwich Spread (adapted from YumSugar and Saveur)
fills 30-40 slices of bread, or about 2 standard home-made loaves—depending on how thin you slice the bread and how thick you spread the filling
- 1 English-style cucumber
- 16 oz. cream cheese, softened
- 4 T. mayonnaise
- 1/2 t. Tabasco or other hot sauce
- 1 small-to-medium white or yellow onion
- 4 green onions
- 4 T. fresh dill (optional)
- salt and pepper to taste
1. Peel the cucumber, slice it lengthwise and scoop out the seeds with a small spoon. Grate it either by hand or in a food processor, toss with a pinch of salt and drain well in a fine mesh sieve or cheesecloth-lined or paper-towel lined colander, pressing to remove as much excess liquid as possible.
2. Place the cream cheese, mayonnaise, and Tabasco in a bowl and stir until smooth and creamy. Add the drained cucumber.
3. Grate the onion either by hand or in a food processor, toss with a pinch of salt, and wrap in cheese cloth or paper towel, and drain into the cream cheese mixture.
4. Finely chop the green onions and the dill if using and add them to the mixture.
5. Taste for seasoning and add salt and pepper as desired.
Recipe: Pimento Cheese (adapted from the Los Angeles Times and Amateur Gourmet)
fills 30-40 slices of bread or about 1 1/2-2 loaves of homemade bread, again depending on how thin you slice the bread and how thick you spread the filling
For the mayonnaise:
- 2 egg yolks
- 1 T. white wine vinegar
- large pinch kosher salt
- large pinch ground white pepper
- 1 t. mustard powder
- 1 c. canola oil (or any other neutral-flavored oil)
- 1 T. lemon juice
- 1/2 c. olive oil
For the pimento cheese:
- 10 oz. sharp cheddar (I used a mix of white and orange, which several recipes recommended; some people use Velveeta, some use part Monterey Jack)
- 1 4 oz. jar of pimentos (some people substitute roasted bell peppers)
- 1 t. cayenne pepper (less if desired)
- 1/2 t. ground black pepper
- 3/4 cup mayonnaise
- salt to taste
1. Separate the yolks into a 2-cup measure, or the beaker that came with the immersion blender. Add the vinegar, salt and pepper, and mustard powder. Place the blender in the measure or beaker, flush against the bottom. Gently pour the oil in so it sits on top of the other ingredients.
2. Pulse until most of the mixture is emulsified (less than 1 minute). Then, begin to rotate the blender a little so one edge is always touching the bottom but it can grab a little more of the oil. Once most of the mixture is emulsified, plunge the blender a half a dozen or so times until the mixture is creamy throughout.
3. Transfer to a bowl and whisk in the lemon juice and olive oil—you should not use olive oil for the first part or the emulsification won’t hold and the blending will release bitter-tasting compounds.
4. Let sit at room temperature for 4-8 hrs, which is the temperature at which acid is most effective at killing bacteria (per Alton Brown). Then refrigerate for up to a week.
5. Drain and mince the pimentos and grate the cheese (I used a food processor for both).
5. Combine all the pimento cheese ingredients. Taste for seasoning and adjust if necessary. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours before serving to allow the cheese to break down a little and the flavors to meld.