I’ve been thinking about the things I loved eating as a kid a lot lately. My son was born earlier this year, and, with his first holiday season coming up, I am excited to start passing down our families’ special food traditions.
One of the things I look forward to eating around Thanksgiving is not a Thanksgiving dish at all, but the sandwiches I construct with the leftovers. While I’ll throw just about any Thanksgiving leftover on a sandwich (including stuffing—bread on bread!), my favorite is quite simple. Turkey, cranberry sauce, and cream cheese on a leftover roll: a version of one of my favorite sandwiches growing up, the Elena Ruz.
The Elena Ruz is a Cuban sandwich originating in late-1920s or early-1930s Havana. It first appeared on the menu of the El Carmelo restaurant after a socialite named Elena Ruz Valdés-Fauli ordered the unique combination of turkey, cream cheese, and strawberry jam on medianoche bread, lightly toasted in a plancha, frequently. Like other classic Cuban sandwiches, it was brought to Miami by Cuban exiles and continues to be found on the menus of Cuban American restaurants.
My mom, who spent most of her childhood in Puerto Rico after leaving Cuba, was more accustomed to congrí than mashed potatoes at Thanksgiving. She says she looked forward to the holiday mostly because leftover turkey meant Elena Ruz sandwiches. Years later, she packed this for me often for school lunch, usually on whatever bread we had, but I had no idea it was a classic Cuban sandwich. I just thought it was a wild combo and started calling it the “silly sandwich.” The name stuck in my family, and to this day my mom switches back and forth between the official and unofficial names.
Maybe because it’s a bit silly, the sandwich is kid-friendly. A soft and easy combination of sweet-salty-tart, it also has a nostalgic feel, like a toasty peanut butter and jelly. While I normally gravitate toward sandwiches with a variety of textures and contrasting flavors, I’ll always come back to this one. My son is a little young to get the full effect, but one day, he’ll get it in his lunchbox in the days following Thanksgiving, too.
The Elena Ruz / Silly Sandwich
Medianoche, challah, or brioche rolls, split
Cream cheese (softened, for easy spreading)
Strawberry jam (or cranberry sauce)
Spread the jam or cranberry sauce on one side of the roll and the cream cheese on the other. Layer sliced turkey, to your taste, in between.
You can stop here for a perfectly delicious sandwich. Proceed if you’re feeling extra Cuban.
Add a bit of butter to a skillet or griddle on medium-low heat. Once melted, add the sandwich and lightly press down with a spatula. This kind of bread burns easily, so flip the sandwich and repeat once it’s lightly toasted on one side.
Slice on a diagonal and eat warm!
Cecilia Peterson is the digital projects archivist in the Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections. She loves sandwiches of all kinds but has a soft spot for the classics.