Making tea sandwiches for a crowd, or even just a few people, can be fiddly work. Sandwiches also need to be made as close to serving time as possible, ideally no more than two hours ahead. Keep them wrapped well in cling film or airtight containers in the fridge until about 20 minutes before you serve. For food safety, don’t leave them out for more than two hours, especially if it’s hot.
Here are three tips I’ve found very useful to make faster, nicer work of the sandwich “course” of an afternoon tea.
I. To make a few 2-layered sandwiches of any shape: butter the end of the whole loaf and then slice as thinly as you can from it. This prevents tearing the bread when you butter, as the loaf has more strength than a thin slice.
- Have ready a quantity of softened butter (unsalted if you use a salty filling) or whatever you want to spread on the bread to go with any other filling.
- Take a whole loaf, sturdy enough to be sliced very thinly, and keep it whole with crusts intact. Using a sharp serrated knife, cut off the end crust and set aside for another day’s bread crumbs.
- Butter the cut end of the loaf, all the way to the edges. Don’t slice first.
- Cut off, as thinly as possible, the ready-buttered slice and set aside to use.
- Do the same with a second slice and continue in this manner, buttering and slicing thinly, until you have enough buttered slices. Don’t worry if your loaf looks more and more uneven as you go along. Just keep slicing thinly, following the contours of your loaf as you slice. Don’t try to compensate by slicing more thickly to make a straight cut. As long as you slice thinly, you can make a good sandwich that flattens out perfectly – even if the loaf itself is uneven. A few little tears can be patted down if you get the slices too thin in places.
- Top your buttered slices with whatever filling you are using, getting it almost all the way to the edges.
- Assemble tops and bottoms, and then trim off all the crusts if cutting into four squares or triangles; or use a cutter to make one or more circles, as many as you can fit.
II. To make a quantity of triple-layers sandwiches
- Get a good, sturdy whole, unsliced loaf (white, brown, whatever you like) and don’t slice it. A flat top is best for this purpose, but not essential. Trim the crusts from the whole loaf: top, bottom, and on both ends and sides, to give you a naked rectangle of crust-free bread, as even all around as you can get it. If your loaf has a domed top, just trim it and use the bits for bread crumbs for another day.
- Place the now-crustless loaf on its side lengthwise. Cut it lengthwise into three “planks” of equal thickness, just as if you were dividing a long thin cake into three equal layers. You can use toothpicks to mark out guidelines if you find it helpful.
- Spread whatever filling you are using on two of the planks, all the way to the edges.
- Assemble the three layers back into a rectangular “cake” with filling on the two inner layers. Check that the fillings are neat along the edges, and trim the sides of the whole assemblage if you need to, to make them nice and clean.
- Then trim the whole rectangle into thin individual sandwiches, as though you were slicing a loaf of bread as usual. Cut them as thin or thick as you want the sandwich to be, making sure it will hold together without falling apart.
- Then cut each of your 3-layered whole slices into two or three smaller “finger sandwiches”.
- And there you have it: one 2-pound loaf of bread will give you about 20-30 little sandwiches.
III. To make several small focaccia-bread sandwiches in one go
This is a method I saw used in a “Focacceria” in Alghero, Sardinia – the local answer to fast food, such as I have never seen it. The women making these sandwiches quickly filled enormous slabs of split and oiled focaccia with roasted aubergines, peppers, all sorts of charcuterie and cheeses, eggs, olives, onions, spinach, slices of luscious tomatoes and every other salad vegetable you can think of. They then they seasoned the fillings generously with salt, pepper and oregano, replaced the top layer of bread, and cut the whole banquet quickly and cleanly into various sizes to cater for small, medium and large appetites. They were gorgeously juicy, beautifully seasoned, and first-class with excellent local ingredients, fresher than I’ve ever seen in a sandwich bar anywhere.
- Have ready some extra virgin olive oil, a pastry brush, and some chopped/snipped herbs and salt and pepper.
- Take a large square or rectangle of fresh Italian focaccia and split it along its middle into a top and bottom layer.
- Dress the inner side of both top and bottom with the olive oil and herbs of your choice.
- Lay your chosen fillings over the bottom layer and season with salt and pepper.
- Put on the top layer of focaccia and cut the whole into squares, fingers, or triangles as you please. Start by cutting the whole in half, and half again, and go from there.