Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Samantha's Cucumber Sandwiches

Time consuming, but so worth it!

As much as I enjoy cooking and baking for myself, I do really enjoy trying to cater towards my friends and family's tastes, too. So when my sister said she really wanted to have some cucumber sandwiches, I knew I needed to find a way to make that happen!

Not that it's really too enormous of an undertaking. It's not like she owes me her first born child after throwing these together.

But as it turns out, cucumber sandwiches are a little more fussy and difficult to put together than I naively assumed they would be!

Afternoon tea was supposed to be the solution to the inevitable grumbling in your stomach between lunch and dinner. Teas were a really big deal for both Victorian and Edwardian society, and there's no question that Grandmary would have had quite a few of them with her friends in Mount Bedford. Even Sam and her friends would have had tea parties that more or less mimicked the adult's teas with lots of dainty finger food. They weren't really formal affairs, even if by our modern standards, they were pretty stuffy. It was more an opportunity to get together with friends and gossip over light snacks than throw a giant, really extravagant party, although I'm certain there were over the top teas back in Samantha's time.

While the concept of afternoon or high tea (which is more like a light and/or early dinner than regular afternoon tea is) is something modern people tend to associate fairly heavily with the upper class, the lower and middle class adopted some of the customs themselves in England. In the States, it was definitely more a staple of the upper class than anyone who would be working all day.

One of the most important staples of an afternoon tea is finger sandwiches, which can basically be any small, simple but elegant sandwich. Many of them are variations on having some kind of spread like butter or cream cheese with delicately cut meat or vegetables carefully arranged inside them. These are ideally flavorful without being too overwhelming, and easy enough for your guests to munch on that they're not chewing away, taking huge bites or getting anything stuck in their teeth. A traditional cucumber sandwich fits all of these requirements, and while it's not the most exciting sandwich ever, it's definitely tasty.

You start by preparing your cucumber. One half of a normal sized cucumber will get you about six sandwiches, and your first step after washing the cucumber thoroughly should be peeling the skin off. That way, no dark pieces of skin will be noticeably stuck in your guest's teeth! And we always want to make sure our guests aren't embarrassed that way.

Thin slices are best, and you can definitely do this with a regular knife if you want, but I decided to use a vegetable peeler to make sure my slices were more or less uniformly thick. These should be lightly salted, but otherwise, you don't need to season them with anything if you want them to be truly authentic.

You can also serve them sliced into circles, which was how I first experienced cucumber sandwiches at American Girl Place Chicago! But if you do it this way, you should probably pick the seeds out before putting them on the bread.

Speaking of bread, you're going to want to serve these on thinly sliced white bread. White bread was and historically has been very popular with the upper class until very recently. The whiter the bread, the richer you seemed to be because of how difficult it was to mill white flour. Companies even bleached their flour in an attempt to make it brighter! When that process was industrialized, a wider range of people began to have access to white bread, so like macaroni and cheese and other "rich" meals, it's become something we associate with the lower and middle classes before we think of the extremely wealthy.

Most grocery stores do sell thinly sliced white bread if you don't want to try to man handled a loaf of Wonderbread yourself, and that's exactly what I did. You want your spread to be room temperature to make it easier to it get on the bread evenly. We used cream cheese because that's how my sister likes her sandwiches, but you can use butter instead of cream cheese if you prefer.

Once you've got the spread on, cut off the crusts. This is really messy and hard to do well if you try slicing them off after adding the cucumber!

Remember, these shouldn't be huge sandwiches, so three or four layers of cucumber is really all you need. This was the part that took the longest, mostly because I wanted to make sure each sandwich had mostly even layers of cucumber.

You want these to be small bites for your guests, so cutting them in half not only gives the illusion of having more sandwiches than you really do, but also makes it easier to take a polite bite and not have your cucumber spill out over the sides of the bread.

I decided to cut mine into triangles and stacked them up nice and pretty on a plate before they were devoured. In fifteen minutes.

Now, these might look like an easy sandwich, and they were! But at the same time, I'm once again struck by how much time and effort historical cooks needed to put into their bosses' high teas, because this took me a really long time, and it was only one recipe! I can't imagine being a cook for a family that was planning on serving a larger group with a dozen different recipes, even if I did have a staff of helpers to give me a hand! Considering how fast these got eaten, I feel like I'd be especially overwhelmed and exhausted knowing my hours of hard work would be gone before I could blink... or worse, with plenty of leftovers. What was the turn of the century policy on doggie bags?

At the end of the day, these are tasty, uncomplicated sandwiches which make a fun appetizer, light snack or maybe even a centerpiece to a savory portion of an afternoon tea you're hosting. Even though they took a while to make, they weren't difficult, which makes them pretty worth it from my perspective. As long as I'm not ripping my hair out making a recipe, I'm happy.

Having people enthusiastically devour and compliment what you make doesn't hurt, either.

Quick Sam, we've got hungry people to feed! Better grab a sandwich now before you miss out!


  1. I'm usually a butter and cucumber tea sandwich gal. I will need to try cream cheese next time. I also like the idea of the peels of cucumber. That must give you a nice thin surface that can cover a fair amount of the bread.

  2. I liked it too, I'm terrible at making thin cuts AND uniform cuts, so this suggestion was totally appreciated and went a lot faster, even if our peeler is kind of dangerous and prone to taking skin off too if you're not careful.