Victorian cucumber sandwiches

#1

Years ago, on the old Chowhound, I posed a question like this: I am a teacher and in a few days will teach Oscar Wilde’s play “The Importance of Being Earnest,” which has a scene revolving importantly around cucumber sandwiches. (One character’s insatiable eating of them is a plot point in the play.) Last time teaching, I made some for the students. But I frankly found them just so-so. I wonder how much better might they be?

I want the sandwiches to be perfect simplicity, so no cream cheese or goat cheese or julienned sweet peppers, etc. For purposes of our coursework, it’s important that they not be “filling.”

From my research in history: I will use only butter for fat–I think I’ll get a cultured European butter–and I’ll use thin-sliced Pepperidge Farm sandwich bread (slices about 3/8"/.5 centimeter thick). I’ve heard it’s worth taking thinly sliced English cucumber (get my mandoline) and salting them between layers of paper towel. Because the course is 9:30 a.m., I’d kind of like to do this stage the night before, but I worry that might make the cukes soggy in fridge overnight. I wonder how thick the thinly slices of cucumber should be layered? Something makes me think a bit of white pepper might be worthy here, too.

Is that the real deal? Ideas or cautions.

3 Likes

Fiction with food on the side
(Jimmy ) #2

No advice for you. Just think this is a very creative way to leave a lasting impression with your students.

4 Likes

(Miss_belle) #3

I would butter both slices of Pepperidge Farm bread( good choice) and sandwich together. Cover with Saran Wrap and a slightly damp towel. Refrigerate of course. Slice the cucumbers thinly and salt lightly letting drain overnight. Pat dry and mix with white pepper. Layer between buttered bread. Trim crusts and quarter. They’ll either like them or they won’t.:blush:

2 Likes

(Robin Joy) #4

A Brit here. Don’t overthink cucumber sandwiches is my advice. Buttered thin sliced plain brown or white bread is good (fancy seeded or wholegrain types of bread less so), and the only filling you need is the sliced cucumber (don’t bother with the pre-salting, but a little white pepper would be fine). Cut each sandwich into 4 triangles. Crusts were probably sliced off in Lady Bracknell’s world, but most people would not bother today.

You found them so-so because that’s what they are, to be honest. Never meant to be anything more than an innocuous dainty to nibble with a cup of tea. These days they’re not really a feature of many Brits’ normal diet, and are mainly to be seen on swanky hotel “High Tea” menus.

3 Likes

#5

I always thought that one of the things that was meant to be funny about Algernon’s obsession is that cucumber sandwiches are so wan and unsatisfying.

4 Likes

#6

Is exactly why I could see a trend coming for these sandwiches.

2 Likes

#7

Yep. They should do them with rice bread and vegan butter. A low-calorie treat for people who feel like avocado toast is just TOO fattening.

3 Likes

#8

Have you ever tried the small Asian cucumbers? They are much more crunchy than the normal ones.

I think one of the problem with the sandwich is the bread prepared overnight. I always find this unsatisfying with an overnight in the fridge. Avoid storing in a fridge if possible. For sure, a freshly prepared sandwich is always the best. Don’t forget the black pepper.

I wonder the cucumbers in Oscar Wilde’s days, were they different from the ones we have now? I ate some garden cultivated ones, the taste were pronounced and thicker skin. I don’t think they should be sliced with mandoline, it’s too modern.

4 Likes

#9

Thanks for all the replies so far!

@ratgirlagogo’s note I’ll single out because it goes to the teaching purpose: “I always thought that one of the things that was meant to be funny about Algernon’s obsession is that cucumber sandwiches are so wan and unsatisfying.”

For those interested: In typical Wilde fashion, multiple implications are here: the sandwiches, precisely because they are not filling and lacking in protein, are fare for the idle wealthy rather than the coal miner or farm hand; also Algernon’s voraciousness points to Wilde’s interest in sensual gratifications (refined or not) in all his works; in addition, the sandwiches were to be held for an upcoming visitor expecting cucumber sandwiches, but Algernon glibly eats them all before the visitor arrives and so he has his butler lie to her that there were no cucumbers in the market, a point which goes to Wilde’s cheekiness and interest in lying as a virtue.

5 Likes

#10

I believe the the Key to Cucumber Sandwiches is the Quality of the Ingredients. With such a simple Dish it makes all the differance. I would also skip the salting with English Cucumbers since they are almost never bitter.

0 Likes

#11

I sought out some “Lightly Salted Creamy British Butter,” a UK Coombe Castle thing made in their Devon Cream line (I guess it’s some conglomerate). I look forward to trying it. Costs a pretty penny. I do think I’ll skip the pre-salting.

1 Like

#12

Also after slicing them pat dry with a Towel, you do not need to be super meticulous but removing a bit of the surface Moisture helps them hold together.

0 Likes

(ChristinaM) #13

I agree with @naf that small cucumbers (I would go with Persian) would be best here.

0 Likes

#14

I think you could slice all the cucumbers the night before and assemble sandwiches morning of, just use salted butter and english or persian cucumbers and no need to salt them. I always think of cucumber sandwiches as crust-less, but maybe the book description will dictate that.
Oh, and be sure to leave the butter room temp so it’s soft to spread.

2 Likes

#15

What’s the difference between the English cucumber and the American one?

0 Likes

#16

In USA markets, in any case, there are generally two main offerings: regular cucumbers have greater girth, more seedy middle, and less length than “English Cucumbers,” which are preferable if you want to minimize the presence of seeds and the surrounding membranes and moisture. For some reason, my main supermarket generally sells English cucumbers shrink-wrapped in plastic.

There are other types of cucumbers at the better stores–types especially for pickling, baby gherkins, etc.

2 Likes

#17

Yes, what BadaBing said-
Also the “regular” cucumbers often have a thick skin with lots of wax on them whereas the english cucumbers have a very thin skin and are wrapped in plastic to protect them, so no wax usually.
However, for me in nyc english cucumbers are easily 2-3xs more expensive as well.

4 Likes

#18

I’m no cucumber sandwich expert - but my favorite are assembled right before being eaten because I like the butter at least room temp and the cucumber still cool. My least favorite ones have cold butter. So if you were doing them ahead I’d just make sure they are out long enough ahead to let the butter come back up in temp.

2 Likes

#19

“English” Cucumbers also lack the bitterness that is sometimes found in the typical american Variety. Around her in Season there are many kinds available. Here is a link that explains some of them https://www.thespruceeats.com/cucumber-varieties-4069657

1 Like

#20

The only ones I buy. The larger variety are just too watery

0 Likes