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The cucumber sandwich is a traditionally British food that was made of thinly sliced cucumbers between two thin, lightly buttered slices of bread with crusts removed. British served the cucumber sandwich at low tea, also known as afternoon tea, between three and five o’clock. This was to provide nourishment and a break during the long stretch between the noon meal and the evening meal, which was served around 8 pm. The height of popularity of the cucumber sandwich served at tea was during the Victorian and Edwardian eras, when tea was a daily affair. Today, cucumber sandwiches are popular refreshments to serve at teas and gatherings and frequently consist of more ingredients and different variations.
Although the cucumber sandwich originated in England, it spread first to other countries with a British presence or influence, like India and the United States, and appears in variations around the world. Interestingly, the cucumber is believed to have been first cultivated in India, where cucumber sandwiches are still served as a light snack at gatherings and on airplane flights. In the US, cucumber sandwiches may be served either with butter, mayonnaise, or cream cheese. Around 1900 in Louisville, Kentucky, caterer and restaurant owner Jennie Benedict developed a cream cheese and cucumber–based spread that was popular as a dip for vegetables or used in sandwiches. Benedictine spread became a staple of Kentucky cooking and is still frequently seen at Kentucky Derby gatherings.
As cucumber sandwiches are light and simple, they tend to be less filling than other types of sandwiches. At low tea, they are served with scones and a dessert cake to prevent overindulgence in the richer fare. Their lighter characteristics continue to make them popular at brunches and as a light snack, especially in the summer.
The high water content of cucumbers makes a thin layer of butter, mayonnaise, or cream cheese on the bread a necessity to prevent soggy sandwiches. Usually cucumber sandwiches are prepared immediately prior to being served, but they can be made ahead of time if the cucumbers are allowed to rest on paper towels or if the moisture is squeezed out through cheese cloth. Some preparations call for the cucumber slices to be lightly sprinkled with salt to draw out moisture and allowed to sit on paper towels for 20 to 30 minutes.
Today, many variations on the traditional cucumber sandwich have been developed. It’s common to see recipes that introduce vegetable ingredients like asparagus, watercress, or radishes. Many include fresh herbs like parsley, dill, or peppermint. For a more elegant sandwich, cucumbers can be peeled with a vegetable peeler into shavings, which may be arranged on a buttered slice of bread, cut into shapes with a cookie cutter, and served open faced garnished with a sprig of fresh herbs.