Recipes: The secrets to an excellent sandwich

12 July 2023

Carefully considered and seasoned, each layer of the Surfer, a turkey sandwich Matt Cahn serves at his Middle Child in the heart of Philadelphia, locks into place. The melty Swiss cheese, the spiced blueberry chutney, the vinaigrette-dressed arugula and the housemade deli turkey sit atop a thick smear of Duke’s mayonnaise inside a toasted ciabatta roll. The sandwich has nary a dry bit, and the precision of flavors is illuminating.

Anything that good takes refining. The idea began with a smoked turkey and Brie panini smeared with blueberry jam from a sandwich shop in Maine, where Cahn spent summers with an old girlfriend. He slowly fine-tuned his own version for surfing trips over the years, even making his own jam from wild blueberries he picked from the backyard.

The relationship didn’t last, but the memories of that time live on as one of the most popular items at Middle Child, the bustling modern sandwich shop he opened in 2017. It’s not always easy to serve something that makes customers return, but dozens of people — old, young and hungry — line up every day to order the blueberry-slicked sandwich.

Well-constructed creations like Cahn’s embrace an often-overlooked component of sandwich-making: restraint. Put another way, the sought-after sandwiches of today focus any maximalism on finesse and flavor. Of course, thoughtful, well-made sandwiches are nothing new: In New York alone, Court Street Grocers and the shuttered No. 7 Sub and Saltie come to mind. But now they’re especially stellar — and easy to come by.

In the roast pork hoagie at Palm City in San Francisco, fried provolone crisps provide crunch among the otherwise soft, meaty textures. A blanket of arugula replaces iceberg lettuce in their take on the Italian hoagie, their most popular sandwich. And for a vegetarian option, a growing genre of sandwiches, a spice blend with tingling Sichuan peppercorns adds intrigue to roasted cauliflower, avocado and pickled vegetables.

In 2020, Dennis Cantwell and Monica Wong did not plan to open Palm City as a hoagie deli. But when the pandemic curbed their initial vision of a mom-and-pop restaurant with “small bites and fun wines,” they had to pivot. With the help of a friend, chef and Philadelphia native Melissa McGrath, the couple scrapped their plans, partnered with a local bakery and started slinging sandwiches.

What was intended to be a temporary arrangement took off at a time when to-go food was a necessity of quarantine life. “There was something sentimental about a little taste of somewhere else,” said Cantwell, reflecting on why Philadelphia hoagies were such a success in San Francisco. “They made people happy.”

Sandwiches, they learned, are good business. Cantwell and Wong are looking into opening a second location.

At this crop of new sandwich shops, be careful not to mistake curation for limitedness. Precision is often a sign of good eats to come.

Shawnda Moye, center, the owner of the Bake Shop & Cafe in Cleveland, with her team at the shop on June 20, 2023. “A little taste of home everywhere” is Moye’s motto. (Amber Ford/The New York Times)

At the Bake Shop & Cafe in Cleveland, which opened in 2021, the bread options are as calibrated as the fillings. Care for a curry chicken sandwich or a turkey club? You can enjoy either on a croissant, baguette or pain de mie. Housemade naan, a customer favorite, can envelop grilled vegetables, if you’d like. But the best option might be the biscuit.

A brisket, egg and cheese biscuit at the Bake Shop & Cafe in Cleveland, June 20, 2023. In a few days, the Roaming Biscuit, a pop-up started in 2019, will get its own storefront, which means fans can get the coveted brisket biscuit whenever they want. (Amber Ford/The New York Times)

After quitting her job in Tallahassee, Florida, Shawnda Moye moved back home to Ohio and found it difficult to find a good breakfast sandwich, let alone real Southern biscuits. She joked about her “walk of shame” out of a McDonald’s or a Burger King, biscuit sandwich in hand.

Bread options at the Bake Shop & Cafe in Cleveland, June 20, 2023. At the Bake Shop & Cafe, the bread options reach beyond your standard deli white, rye and roll offerings. (Amber Ford/The New York Times)

To fill the gap, she started the Roaming Biscuit in 2019, a pop-up with a focus on breakfast sandwiches. Her success led her to open the Bake Shop & Cafe in Cleveland’s Tyler Village, where she sells the Roaming Biscuit lineup.

Restraint is especially important in a biscuit sandwich. Too much of anything, and the biscuit disintegrates. The scrambled egg should be light and fluffy, the cheese melted enough to bind, and the bacon sturdy, for structure — thick-cut, and not “the skinny stuff,” Moye said.

Her most popular biscuit sandwich is a special: smoked brisket, egg and cheese. Customers “get upset when we don’t have it,” she said. A mustard sauce amps up the intrigue. That’s how a guest star becomes a series regular. (Starting Sunday, the sandwich becomes a permanent menu item at the Roaming Biscuit’s new location in the Hingetown neighborhood.)

If there’s one lesson to glean from these sandwich shops, it’s that you should refine your own sandwiches at home, too. That often means pulling back, omitting ingredients to make room for the unexpected.

Take, for example, a tuna salad sandwich. You could load up a can of tuna with the usual cavalcade of ingredients (onion, citrus, herbs), but relying on a smaller set of more potent additions can really make it shimmer.

Acid and crunch can come in the form of delightfully sour, salty pickled pepperoncini and its neon-green brine. Sweet relish can lend balance, and nutty, toasted sesame oil can round things out like the double bass in an orchestra.

Served inside a split buttery croissant that’s just been warmed through in a toaster oven, this pared-down tuna salad will taste like a million ingredients — abundance in restraint.

Turkey Sandwich With Savory Blueberry Jam

Recipe from Matt Kahn

Adapted by Eric Kim

Inspired by summer lunches in Maine, this beautiful turkey sandwich comes from chef Matthew Cahn of Middle Child sandwich shop in Philadelphia. A spiced, savory blueberry jam anchors turkey and cheese on a toasted ciabatta roll. When it comes to this dreamy sandwich, the devil is in the details: Dressing peppery arugula with vinegar, oil and raw grated onion lends yet another layer of flavor that balances the comforting richness of the other ingredients. Store-bought garam masala works in a pinch, but for the full effect, try making your own from whole spices (see Tips).

Yield: 1 to 2 servings

Total time: 1 hour


For the blueberry jam (see Tips):

2 pints blueberries

2 tablespoons golden raisins

2 tablespoons granulated sugar

Fine sea salt or coarse kosher salt

1 lemon

1 teaspoon garam masala (see Tips), plus more to taste

1 cinnamon stick

Pinch of ground cloves

For the sandwich:

1 ciabatta roll, split

2 to 3 slices Gruyère or other Swiss cheese


4 ounces deli turkey slices

Handful of arugula (about 1 cup)

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

1/2 tablespoon red-wine vinegar

1 teaspoon finely grated red onion (optional)

Salt and pepper


1. Prepare the blueberry jam: In a large saucepan or medium pot, combine the blueberries, raisins, sugar and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Zest the lemon directly into the pot. Halve the lemon and squeeze 2 tablespoons juice into the pot. Reserve both lemon halves. Using a fork, mash two-thirds of the blueberries.

2. Bring to a boil over high, then stir in the garam masala, cinnamon stick, cloves and the juiced lemon half. Reduce the heat to low and simmer until thick, stirring occasionally so the bottom doesn’t stick, about 40 minutes. Using tongs, remove and discard the cinnamon stick and lemon half from the water. Cool jam to room temperature. Taste and add more lemon juice, garam masala and salt if desired.

3. Make the sandwich: Heat the oven (or toaster oven) to 450 degrees. Place the ciabatta halves cut sides up on a sheet pan. Place cheese on the top piece of the bread. Bake until the cheese is melted, 3 to 5 minutes.

4. Spread a generous layer of blueberry jam over the cheese. (Refrigerate any leftover jam for up to a week.) Spread a generous layer of mayonnaise on the other half of the bread and top with the turkey.

5. In a bowl, combine the arugula, olive oil, vinegar and onion, if using. Season with salt and pepper. Place on top of the turkey. Close the sandwich and, if you’d like, slice in half before enjoying.


To make Cahn’s garam masala, in a small pan, lightly toast 2 tablespoons coriander seeds, 1 teaspoon cumin seeds, 1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds, 1/2 teaspoon yellow mustard seeds and 1/2 teaspoon black peppercorns until fragrant. Add 1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom. Grind the spices in a spice grinder or using a mortar and pestle.

If you don’t want to make homemade jam but want to try this sandwich, you can stir a spritz of lemon juice, a sprinkle of garam masala and a generous pinch of salt into 2 to 3 tablespoons store-bought blueberry jam.

Pepperoncini Tuna Salad

Pepperoncini tuna salad in New York, June 14, 2023. This recipe calls for celery to be folded in at the end for crunch, but any vegetable would work: thinly sliced cucumbers, iceberg lettuce, watercress, green peas, asparagus, even raw onion. Food styled by Simon Andrews. (David Malosh/The New York Times)

By Eric Kim

This verdant tuna salad looks and tastes classic (but with the saturation levels all the way up). Acid and crunch come in the form of delightfully sour, salty pickled pepperoncini and their neon-green brine. Sweet relish anchors the salad with balance, as does deeply aromatic and nutty toasted sesame oil. Any canned or jarred tuna works; just be sure to drain it very well. This recipe calls for celery to be folded in at the end for crunch, but any vegetable would work: thinly sliced cucumbers, iceberg lettuce, watercress, green peas, asparagus, even raw onion. Eat this on a bed of peppery arugula or stuffed into a split, just-warmed croissant or brioche bun.

Yield: 2 servings

Total time: 10 minutes


2 (5-ounce) cans tuna (preferably stored in oil), very well drained

1/4 cup mild-tasting mayonnaise, such as Hellmann’s

3 tablespoons chopped pepperoncini plus 1 tablespoon brine, plus more of each to taste

1 tablespoon sweet pickle relish

1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil

1/2 garlic clove, finely grated

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 cup thinly sliced celery (from 2 stalks)

Croissants (optional), split, for serving


1. In a medium bowl, combine the tuna, mayonnaise, pepperoncini and its brine, sweet relish, sesame oil and garlic. Season with salt and pepper.

2. Stir vigorously with a fork, breaking up the tuna into fine threads. Fold in the celery, then taste and add more salt, pepper, pepperoncini and pepperoncini brine to your taste. Stuff into croissants for sandwiches, if you’d like.

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