Discover more from Anne Byrn: Between the Layers
The Intimate Art of Making a Sandwich - No. 205
Recipes and rules for making beautiful sandwiches when life isn’t a tea party.
ALL MY LIFE I’VE SLICED OFF CRUST from sandwiches for the people I love dearly.
Sandwiches are intimate foods you make for someone no matter how many times you repeat them. Scrambling an egg and wrapping it up in buttered toast for breakfast when he’s overslept on exam day. Laying thin strips of turkey with a whisper of mayo on Pepperidge Farm white when she’s going through chemo.
Peanut butter and strawberry jam on wheat, no crust, cut into squares you can pull swiftly from a sack without your hands leaving the wheel.
I guess you could count the sloppy Sunday bacon and tomato sandwiches in the summertime, too. No telling how many hours I had put into growing those Bradleys and Cherokee Purples, scarfed down in seconds on soft white by family wolves at the kitchen table.
Maybe not the circular cucumber sandwiches with dill I stamped out with perfection for that herb society tea. That was more duty than love. But the pimento cheese finger sandwiches I cut the crust off for his mother? That was love.
When food and life intersect
These past two weeks in Nashville have been tragic. The school shooting leaving six dead ignited a plea for gun reform by students, teachers, parents, and grassroots organizations. When three state legislators were not recognized to speak in support for gun reform in our state Capitol, they raised their voices.
Two of the Tennessee Three, as they were quickly named, were expelled from the statehouse because they didn’t follow decorum. As of this newsletter’s writing, Nashville’s Metro Council voted unanimously to send one of them, lawmaker Justin Jones, back to the legislature. The hearing for the second, Justin Pearson, is set for Wednesday in Memphis.
While a discussion of decorum might be saved for another day, I will say that I have been in situations as a woman when I have not been heard. My words have been drowned out by men around me. And my natural reaction is to breathe more slowly and speak louder and with authority. If I had been a legislator and my constituents were peacefully protesting in the rain because they want no more schoolchildren and teachers gunned down and believe Tennessee’s gun laws are too lax, I would have done no differently than the Tennessee Three.
I know from your comments that many of you are weary of my writing about school shootings and assault rifle bans instead of recipes. But when it’s your town, and I hope that it never is, you might understand.
As of this writing, a shooting has taken place at the Old National Bank in downtown Louisville, our neighbor to the north. From early reports, five are dead and more wounded. A federal law enforcement source told CNN the gun used was an AR-15 style rifle. Kentucky is a permitless carry state, meaning gun owners over 21 are legally allowed to carry concealed guns in public without a license.
What is it about a sandwich that feels intimate?
Sandwiches filled lunchboxes but they were also what we took to families after someone they loved had died.
I’m talking about those light and earnest sandwiches of chicken salad, pimento cheese, smoked salmon, egg salad, turkey and cranberry, cucumber and cream cheese, tomato and mayo. However you cut them—circles, squares, triangles, or rectangles—they stacked well, packed well, and presented well. Depending on where you are from, they might be called tea sandwiches.
When you make a sandwich for someone close to you, you know their choice of bread without asking - and toasted or not. You know if they are a crust person. Sweet pickles or sour. Mustard or mayo.
You know if they like cheese or tomato. And if the tomatoes should be peeled first. These aren’t questions you ask a stranger unless you work at a deli, but they are answers you learn by listening and observing.
Maybe it wasn’t so much the sandwich I made for my son as it was I knew how it felt to go into an exam hungry and didn’t want him to experience that. I knew what it was like to drive through unknown places before GPS and be afraid to stop and get something to eat.
I didn’t know what chemo felt like, but I had read it messed with your desire to eat. If I could make that sandwich for my mom more delectable, then would she eat it?
Sandwich rules…yes, there are rules.
So many sandwiches seem weighty. The photos of piled meat we see on TV and on social media feeds, that’s primal feeding. I’m talking about reasonable sandwiches you can make at home. In New Orleans where tea sandwiches are taken seriously, and in England, here are some good rules for making them:
Rule #1: According to Claridge’s hotel in London, the first rule of making memorable sandwiches is a sharp serrated knife. You’ll need a knife with teeth that aren’t too large or they will tear the bread. And the bread itself needs to be both soft but also have enough texture to it to cut into shapes. It’s not about the bread, and yet, it is about the bread. Homemade challah is amazing on tea sandwiches.
What is your favorite bread for making finger sandwiches? I think off the shelf, I vote Pepperidge Farm.
Rule #2: Keep it even, keep it neat, says Claridge’s. Like trimming a hedge. Trim off those crusts! That’s even easier if the bread is frozen. I remember the dazzling tea sandwiches at the Savoy hotel in London as if it was yesterday.
In my mother’s kitchen, Claridge’s rule three was the most important:
Rule #3: Never let the bread dry out. Keep the slices covered at all times. Claridge’s stacks the sandwiches on top of each other as they make them. My mother taught me to cover the made sandwiches with paper towels you wet and then wring out.
Rule #4: No plastic knives or rubber spatulas! You need a proper icing palette knife or spreader to smooth the soft butter or mayo onto the bread. Here is the trick of jazzing up store-bought mayonnaise so it looks homemade: For every 1 cup store-bought mayo, whisk in 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice, and 1/4 teaspoon paprika.
Rule #5: This is what you call the one-third rule: the perfect afternoon tea sandwich should be two-thirds bread and one-third filling.
Spread my sandwich with love and common sense
Attending a service at Fisk University’s historic Memorial Chapel last Friday in Nashville was the least I could do to bring some closure to what’s been happening. The guest speaker was Vice President Kamala Harris. It took over an hour in line to go through security, but to sit in this storied old church next to people whom I had never met, felt intimate.
We can’t fight the gun shows with their easy access to assault rifles being staged on weekends in small American towns. Did you know children 6 to 11 are admitted to shows for $2 and younger ones get in free? Do children really need to attend gun shows? Do they need to live in a house with assault rifles?
Do they need to be trained in classroom safety by a teacher who is frightened for his or her life every day when they walk into school?
We can’t fight ignorance with sandwiches. We need common sense.
But if given the chance to speak eye to eye with those state and U.S. legislators—or your cousin or brother or my governor, people who oppose an assault rifle ban, can’t see the merit in red flag laws, and fear gun reform means giving up their second amendment rights, well, I’d happily show up with a boatload of lovely sandwiches in their favorite flavors. I’d bring pimento cheese, chicken with watercress, and tomato-basil, and all the crusts would be removed and the edges cut perfectly even. I’d talk their ears off, but I’d listen, too, and leave my bullhorn at home.
- xo, Anne
Coming this Thursday!
For paid subscribers, a how-to. How to roast lamb and turn those leftovers into the best springtime lamb stew full of carrots and white beans.
Tea Sandwiches for Friends and Family
The choice of bread is up to you, but at least choose a white and a wheat. Use store-bought mayo of your choice, my jazzed-up mayo (see above), or homemade (below). This recipe makes about five dozen tea sandwiches, perfect for taking to a party or to your state Capitol! Feel free to substitute soft Boursin cheese for the mayonnaise. Feel free to add a razor thin slice of onion to the cucumber sandwich and crumbled bacon to the tomato. Use your favorite seasoning salt instead of the salt and pepper.
Makes 55 to 66 tea sandwiches
Prep: 30 to 35 minutes
36 slices good sandwich bread
1 cup mayonnaise
36 thin slices peeled cucumber
6 tablespoons chopped fresh mint
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
24 thin slices ripe tomato
6 tablespoons chopped fresh basil
1 1/2 cups shredded freshly cooked chicken breast
6 tablespoons watercress, stems removed
Remove the crusts from the bread by holding the slices together and cutting down the sides of the loaf with a serrated knife. Place the slices of bread on a work surface and spread one side with about 1 1/2 teaspoons mayonnaise.
Arrange 6 slices of cucumber on top of a slice of bread. Sprinkle 1 tablespoon mint over the cucumber, and then season it with salt and pepper. Place a second slice of bread, mayonnaise side down on top of the mint, and lightly press down on it. Cut the sandwich into 4 triangles by making 2 corner-to-corner cuts through it. Make 5 more sandwiches with the remaining cucumber and mint and cut them into triangles. You now have 24 cucumber tea sandwiches.
For the tomato sandwiches, arrange 4 slices of tomato on top of a slice of bread. Sprinkle 1 tablespoon of the basil over the tomato and season it with salt and pepper, if desired. Place a slice of bread, mayonnaise-side down, on top of the basil and lightly press down on it. Cut the sandwich into 4 squares or 2 halves. Make 5 more sandwiches with the remaining tomato and basil and cut them into squares or halves.
For the chicken sandwiches, spoon the shredded chicken on top of 6 slices of bread, dividing it evenly. Sprinkle 1 tablespoon watercress over the chicken, then top each with one of the remaining 6 slices of bread, mayonnaise-side down. Lightly press down on the sandwich, and then cut into 3 equal rectangular sticks. Repeat with the remaining chicken sandwiches.
If not serving the sandwiches immediately, line a large plastic container with waxed paper and arrange the sandwiches inside. Place a damp paper towel on top of the sandwiches. Cover the container and refrigerate the sandwiches until nearly ready to serve. They will keep for up to 4 hours.
Food Processor Homemade Mayonnaise
For tomato sandwiches, to spoon on top of grilled salmon, spread onto BLT’s and fold into Pimento Cheese, you cannot top homemade mayo. And it’s a personal thing because some of us have grown accustomed to mayonnaise a little sweet because we’ve been raised on the commercial stuff. If that’s the case, add a pinch of sugar. And some folks like to make mayo with olive oil, which I think makes it bitter, but a little olive oil, just to flavor it, is nice. So suit yourself! Neutral oils are those that have no flavor to them.
Makes about 1 cup
Prep: 10 minutes
1 large egg
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon lemon juice or white wine vinegar
Pinch cayenne pepper, if desired
3/4 to 1 cup neutral oil, like avocado, grapeseed, sunflower, or safflower or a mix of half neutral oil and half olive oil
Wash the egg before making mayonnaise because many people believe if any bacteria are on the egg, they are on the shell. Pat dry, then crack and separate, discarding the white.
To the egg yolk, add the mustard, salt, pepper and lemon juice or vinegar, and cayenne if you like, in the container of a food processor and turn the machine on. While it's running, add the oil in a slow, steady drip of a stream. If your processor has a small hole in the pusher in the top, it’s perfect for making mayonnaise. Otherwise, you just need to be careful to dribble in the oil very slowly until it comes together. Some people add a teaspoon of water to the egg yolk to make it more receptive to the oil and help the process.
Once the mayonnaise thickens from just 2 tablespoons of the oil, you can add the oil a bit faster. Stop at 3/4 cup oil if that is the consistency you like or add the full cup. Taste and adjust seasoning if needed.
Julie Osteen’s Pimento Cheese
Years ago, Julie Osteen told me she made pimento cheese that was ‘’a cut above.’’ In South Carolina, they spread it on bread, but also pita chips, Triscuits, Ritz crackers, and also hamburgers. It’s all about ‘’the sauce,’’ the mix of half Duke’s mayo and half soft cream cheese. She flavors it with grated Vidalia onion, diced pickled jalapeno peppers, and a little cayenne. And the peppers are roasted red peppers, that are meatier and have more flavor, instead of pimentos. It is phenomenal! Roasting red peppers is a bit messy, but you can do this by cutting the red bell peppers in half and placing them cut-side down on a baking pan. Run under a broiler until the skin blackens. Then cool the peppers, remove the blackened skin, stem and seeds, and dice the pepper itself. A bell pepper isn't a pimento, but it's still pretty close.
Makes about 4 cups
12 ounces extra-sharp cheddar cheese
4 ounces Vermont sharp cheddar cheese
1/2 cup Duke’s mayonnaise
4 ounces cream cheese, softened
1 tablespoon grated Vidalia onion (see note)
1 tablespoon diced pickled jalapeño pepper, plus additional pickled jalapeño pepper juice
Dash cayenne pepper, if desired
Freshly ground black pepper
1/2 to 3/4 cup chopped roasted red bell pepper
Shred the cheese and set it aside. You should have 3 cups extra-sharp cheddar and 1 cup Vermont cheddar, for about 4 cups of cheese in total.
Place the mayonnaise in a large mixing bowl. Soften the cream cheese in the microwave if needed so that it is easily spreadable. Add it to the mayonnaise and whisk until smooth.
Add the onion, jalapeño pepper, a dash of jalapeño pepper juice, and cayenne and black pepper. Stir to combine. Fold in the roasted red pepper, followed by the grated cheese. Taste for seasoning, and add more mayonnaise or jalapeño pepper juice as needed to make the pimento cheese spreadable. Refrigerate before serving.