The Elena Ruz

Would you like to be immortalized in sandwich form?

Read Time: 9 minutes

This week we’re taking a quick trip to Cuba to try a sandwich that was invented by a teenager. That teenager ended up living to 102 years old, so maybe this sandwich is good for you?

Who was Elena Ruz?

During my research—aka googling—for this sandwich, I found an article from the Miami Herald that tells the tale of a sandwich that a woman named Elena Ruz enjoyed in the late 1920s in Cuba. Ruz was around 18 or 19 when she was a frequent patron of a restaurant called El Carmelo in the El Vedado neighborhood of Havana, Cuba and she would order a sandwich prepared in a very specific way. Eventually, the restaurant staff became familiar enough with her sandwich order that they added it to the menu and gave the sandwich her name.

Later in life—after her teenage years—Elena Ruz changed her name to Elena Ruz Valdés-Fauli. I will mostly refer to her as Elena Ruz or Ruz in this blog post to keep things simple.

Ruz fled Cuba after the Cuban revolution—which lasted from 1953 through 1959—and she spent 9 years living in Spain. After that, she and her husband moved to Kendall, Florida, just outside of Miami before finally settling in San Jose, Costa Rica. She claims that she found her namesake sandwich on restaurant menus in each place she lived. Elena Ruz Valdés-Fauli died at the age of 102 in 2011. She left behind a tasty sandwich legacy.

What is an Elena Ruz sandwich?

Compared to other sandwiches I’ve written about an Elena Ruz sandwich is pretty simple. It is made from roasted and sliced turkey, whipped cream cheese, and strawberry jam on a toasted medianoche bread roll. If you’ve never had it, medianoche bread is like challah or brioche, so you could use either of those as a substitute. Some sources say that the bread should be dry toasted before adding the ingredients but most restaurants seem to treat this sandwich like other Cuban or pressed sandwiches and they toast the bread with ingredients inside by pressing the sandwich in a panini press.

Because cream cheese is involved, I tended to toast/press lightly in the creation of my Elena Ruz sandwiches by cooking them in the panini press for about half the amount of time I would have cooked a Cubano. Pressing too hard or cooking the sandwich too long might lead to the cream cheese melting and running out of the sandwich.

Here’s a video shared by what appears to be a small Miami-based coffee company called Abuela Mami Coffee. It’s how an Elena Ruz sandwich is created at Sergio’s Family Restaurant in Miami, Florida. From glancing at Sergio’s current online menu, it first appeared that the Elena Ruz sandwich is no longer sold there but digging a little deeper on the internet I found that it’s still available if you ask, just not on the menu.

The technique for pressing and warming the sandwich in that video isn’t exactly how I do it, but the ideas are similar. They’re also using slices of firm cream cheese instead of whipped cream cheese which I do think makes a pretty big difference in the finished sandwich.

WDJT: What Does Jim Think?

I wanted to try to make and eat the Elena Ruz sandwich for two reasons.

First, I thought it was fun that a person was immortalized by a sandwich. What a life goal! For as long as this sandwich survives on restaurant menus or recipes in cookbooks or online, the memory of Elena Ruz will live on.

Second, I recently read or watched (can’t remember which was first) my sandwich friend, Jim from the Sandwich Tribunal, share his experience with the Elena Ruz sandwich. Jim did not seem to be wowed by the sandwich and I wanted to experience it for myself. Since I am a big fan of turkey and cranberry on a sandwich as well as strawberry jam on savory sandwiches like a Monte Cristo or a sausage biscuit I felt like the Elena Ruz was right up my alley.

I wanted to find out if Jim’s experience would line up with mine.

Is the Elena Ruz disappearing?

According to this New York Times article, the Elana Ruz sandwich (internet archive version of the article) is barely ordered anymore. Cuban restauranteurs in Miami keep the sandwich on the menu because of tradition, but it’s not as popular among Cuban nationals in the US as it once was. Once I learned this, I strongly felt I should make the sandwich and share my experiences with it.

“Respect the form in which the sandwich was created, and if you do a variation,” Ms. Ulacia said in Spanish, “don’t play with the name.”

A quote from the New York Times – Ms. Ulacia is the daughter of Elena Ruz.

1492 Cuban Fusion Cafe

Just like Jim, I wanted to try an Elena Ruz sandwich in the wild, so I went to the only place in Chicago that he could find that served them. I did a little research on this myself and had no more luck than he did in finding other Cuban-focused restaurants that had an Elena Ruz on the menu.

Luckily, 1492 Cuban Fusion Cafe is less than a quarter of a mile from where I live so my wife and I walked over and had a couple of sandwiches.

This was an ok sandwich. It wasn’t great. The turkey seemed less like turkey and more like a thick slice of ham, which wasn’t bad, just a little bit different from what I expected. The cream cheese wasn’t spread around very well, and I felt the sandwich could have used a bit more strawberry jam. I also don’t understand the need for the lettuce, and I haven’t really seen many other Elena Ruz served with lettuce.

Overall, I didn’t like a whole lot of the components of the sandwich, but I didn’t hate it either. The rest of our food at 1492 was good though and this will not be our last visit, I just don’t think I will be ordering the Elena Ruz sandwich from them again.

This was not the prettiest sandwich.

After my experience at 1492 Cuban Fusion Cafe, I’m going to guess that some of the reason the Elena Ruz sandwich is losing its popularity is partly due to how excited people are about Cuban sandwiches—the ones packed with pork, Swiss cheese, and pickles. They look right past the turkey and jam sandwich and head straight to the porky and mustardy one.

Just speaking for myself, my next visit to 1492 Cuban Fusion Cafe will be to order a Cuban or Medianoche sandwich and not an Elena Ruz.

Let’s make our own Elena Ruz. I think we can do a lot better.

Medianoche bread

The Elena Ruz sandwich is built on medianoche bread rolls.

Medianoche is a sandwich from Cuba that is very similar to what we know of as a Cuban or Cubano sandwich in America. Pork, ham, Swiss cheese, mustard, and pickles are all components of both a Cubano and a Medianoche sandwich. The main difference is that a Medianoche sandwich is built on a sweet, eggy, and enriched bread roll that is very similar to challah or brioche.

The bread used in the medianoche sandwich and the Elena Ruz is sometimes called pan suave but it has also taken on the name medianoche which means midnight in Spanish. Maybe one day I’ll write more about the medianoche sandwich, but that day is not today. Today we’re making medianoche bread rolls for an Elena Ruz sandwich.

Half of the batch of shaped medianoche dough.
After 1 hour they should double in size.
Once baked they will be golden brown and delicious looking.

Medianoche starts out like most bread recipes except it has more eggs, yolks, and sugar than most other doughs. Medianoche also uses lard, which is like the bread that is used to make Cubano sandwiches. Using lard in this sort of bread dough doesn’t contribute that much flavor in my experience, it’s probably just the fat that the people who were originally baking this bread had on hand.

I find it very easy to procure lard at my local grocery, but if you can’t find lard, you can substitute a similar amount of vegetable shortening or even butter to make this recipe work.

The egg wash helps the rolls brown and leaves them with a nice shiny exterior.
This recipe makes 8 sandwich-sized medianoche rolls.
A cross-slice shot of the medianoche crumb.
3 hours
Medianoche sandwich rolls

Shiny, eggy, and slightly sweet rolls that are perfect for an Elena Ruz or medianoche sandwich. The rich bread will not overpower the ingredients but it will hold together very well in a panini press situation.

Get Recipe

Roasted turkey

I’m a big fan of buying a boneless and skinless breast of turkey to season and roast in the oven. It’s super easy to cook and it takes between an hour to an hour and a half. Then you will have enough meat for at least four- or five-days’ worth of sandwiches.

I sometimes use my homemade Cajun spice blend to coat a turkey breast and sometimes I just don’t have the time and I will use a store-bought version of Cajun seasoning like Tony Chachere’s Original Creole Seasoning instead. That’s what I did this time. I just oiled the outside of the breast and then sprinkled on a bunch of Tony Chachere’s, tossed the breast in the oven, and waited until it hit somewhere between 155 and 160 F (71 C). Once removed from the oven the breast should rise another 5 to 10 degrees in internal temperature with carryover cooking.

Sometimes I use my deli slicer, but for this sandwich, I went with a bit more of a rustic slice with my sharpest knife.
When you roast your own turkey breast you will end up with smaller width slices because a breast is only so big.

Often the turkey that you buy at the deli counter that is sliced for you in big bread-sized slices will come from multiple turkey breasts that have been deboned and pressed together in a mold to be cooked as one big piece. When you roast a single turkey breast at home, you will get pieces that range from very small at the tip of the breast to almost bread-sized pieces in the very middle and widest part of the breast.

Here’s my roasted turkey recipe. I wouldn’t say that “Cajun seasoned” was a traditional option for seasoning turkey when the Elena Ruz was created, but it tastes really good and works great in this sandwich. You can use much more basic seasonings like salt and ground black pepper if you’d like to be closer to turkey that might be served in 1920s Cuba.

I roasted this turkey breast just yesterday for a different sandwich that my wife and I ate last night.
2 hours and 35 minutes
Oven roasted Cajun turkey

A little spicy and super seasoned moist turkey, ready for slicing. Sandwich turkey is at the next level right here.

Get Recipe

Whipped cream cheese

In that Miami Herald article, Elena Ruz herself says to use whipped cream cheese so that’s what I bought and then I got started.

When I tried this sandwich at 1492 Cuban Fusion Cafe I noticed that they did not use whipped cream cheese and it was very different compared to the whipped version that I used in my at-home-versions. I much preferred the whipped texture and that’s what I suggest you add to your Elena Ruz if you can.

You can buy pre-whipped cream cheese and I recommend that, but there are ways to whip regular cream cheese as well.

If you didn’t buy the whipped version of cream cheese, you can whip your own. I have not tried this, but there are several very similar techniques out there for making your own whipped cream cheese. Basically, the concept requires a block of cream cheese and just a tiny bit of milk to thin things out a little bit. The recipe above says you should use a food processor or a stand mixer, but I would imagine that you can probably do it with a hand mixer or just a whisk if you’re ready for a small arm workout.

The whipped texture of Philadelphia cream cheese seemed like the right way to enjoy this sandwich.

Strawberry jam or preserves

From my perusal of the internet, it seems like strawberry jam or preserves is the most commonly found jam used in an Elena Ruz sandwich, but you’ll also find a lot of mentions of guava-flavored jam as well.

I already had some strawberry preserves in my fridge, so this ingredient got checked off the list very easily. The brand I used is Bonne Maman Strawberry Preserves but just use your favorite strawberry jam that your store stocks.

I build my Elena Ruz sandwiches with whipped cream cheese topped with turkey and strawberry jam spread on the other side of the roll. Sandwich together and then panini.

The Elena Ruz pressing process

The flavors in the Elena Ruz sandwich would be enjoyable on plain untoasted white bread, but traditionally it’s on toasted or pressed bread rolls.

An Elena Ruz sandwich before the toasting/panini process.

I chose to coat the outside of my Elena Ruz sandwiches with butter before toasting the sandwich inside a panini machine. If you do not have a panini press you can use two cast iron skillets, using one as the weight on top to press down on the sandwich while the bottom skillet is doing all the work, toasting the sandwich.

I received a Cuisinart “Griddler” panini press machine as a Christmas present from my parents more than 10 years ago and it’s still in fine shape and it’s what I used in all my Elena Ruz sandwiches. I have used the two-skillet method recently to test the cooking process and it works just fine if you don’t want another kitchen appliance.

I don’t think it’s necessarily tradition to panini in butter but why wouldn’t you?
Pressing the sandwich toasts the bread and adds texture and flavor to the exterior of the sandwich.

The Elena Ruz

Here are a few photos of this turkey, strawberry jam, and whipped cream cheese sandwich. It’s one of the more simple sandwiches I have shared recently and I’d suggest trying it if you like sweet and savory combinations of flavors. Scroll past the photos for the full recipe for my Elena Ruz sandwich.

An Elena Ruz sandwich fresh from the panini press.
Just like a Cubano, it’s illegal not to cut an Elena Ruz sandwich on the diagonal.
The medianoche bread is simultaneously soft on the inside and crispy on the outside. The turkey and cream cheese also add to the textural experience of this sandwich.
Protip: if you expect to have leftover turkey next Thanksgiving, buy jam and whipped cream cheese.
Don’t pack the sandwich too full of turkey. This is one of the simpler sandwiches I’ve made for this blog, but it’s easy to mess it up by packing it too full of ingredients.
This is a simple sandwich but it’s super tasty with contrasting flavors and textures.
Don’t tell any of Elena Ruz’s family members but I added bacon to this one just for fun. It didn’t improve the sandwich at all in my experience.
Elena Ruz sandwich view printable page for this recipe

The Elena Ruz is a rich and decadent sandwich made from roasted and sliced turkey, whipped cream cheese, and strawberry jam on a butter-toasted roll. It's both a great sandwich legacy and simple to make.


  • 1 5-to-6-inch long medianoche sandwich roll (Brioche would be a good substitute)
  • 2 to 4 tablespoons whipped cream cheese
  • 3 to 4 ounces sliced roast turkey
  • 2 to 3 tablespoons strawberry jam or preserves (alternately guava jam)
  • 1 to 2 teaspoons butter


Sandwich assembly: slice the medianoche or brioche roll and spread cream cheese on the bottom of the roll.

Add turkey on top of the cream cheese and then spread strawberry jam on the top roll and place that on top of the turkey to close the sandwich. 

Panini process: spread 1 teaspoon of butter on the outside of both the top and bottom sandwich roll and panini for 4 to 5 minutes until the sandwich is pressed and the bread is a little bit toasted. 

If you do not have a panini press, you can use a hot cast iron skillet with another skillet on top of the sandwich, pressing it down. Just like the panini process, add a little butter to the top of the sandwich and to the bottom pan before cooking. This two-pan method will griddle one side and you will have to flip the sandwich, but it will work. Cook about 2 minutes per side and then flip.

Remove the sandwich from the panini process and let rest for 2 to 3 minutes. Slice the sandwich diagonally and serve. 

Check back next week

Next week we might be fusion-ing some cuisine into a handheld form factor.

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