Retro Cream Cheese And Olive Sandwich Deserves Its Trendy Comeback

Being an intrepid connoisseur of comestibles, the recent resurgence of the olive and cream cheese sandwich online piqued my curiosity. My West Michigan roots ensure that I am no stranger to the joys of olives on a sandwich, particularly a burger, but I do wonder if they can be the star of the show. Will their sharp, briny bite be tempered by the slightly-sour, yet indulgently rich cream cheese?

To find out, I've gathered some supplies. While it is hard to pin down an "original" or "correct" recipe for this sandwich, the Sandwiches of History YouTube channel features a recipe from 1909, so I'm using that as my guide. I purchased pimiento-stuffed green olives, standard American cream cheese, and some variants — namely Kalamata olives and some tangerine-chili green olives — to see if the sandwich has range. The bread is sourdough with everything bagel seasoning, which might be a nice complement or throw everything off balance.

This sandwich's construction is as simple as it seems: cream cheese and olives between bread. The most time-consuming and skillful element is the olive slicing, but honestly, you can just do a rough dice if you'd like. It feels pedantic to say this, but to assemble, take one slice of bread — or both — and spread softened cream cheese on it. Arrange the olives on top of the cream cheese, add another piece of bread, and there you have it. 

Stuffed green olives are a classic choice

Full disclosure: I love salt, brine, tang, and pronounced flavors, so I went into this sort of knowing it was going to be a slam dunk. At its most basic, the sandwich is a bit more muted than you might expect, very much in line with its tea sandwich roots. It's a more-assertive cousin to the milder cucumber and cream cheese sandwich.

My first go at this sandwich was by the book: I spread on a generous layer of cream cheese, sliced five pimiento-stuffed green olives, and shingled them on top. I'm willing to admit that white bread would probably be more "authentic" for a tea sandwich such as this. Its slightly-sweet flavor and yielding texture would definitely take a back seat to the olives and cream cheese, but I stand by the heartier and more unique everything sourdough.

The sandwich is salty, as expected, but the cream cheese balances the brine assault with just the right amount of creamy richness. Beyond bringing the predominant flavor to the sandwich, the olives also offer a nice textural element. It should be noted that the slices are pretty thick, which makes them a bit more toothsome. There is definitely a pleasant meatiness to their chew, which makes me excited to try other olives.

Rating: 8/10

Kalamata olives add a smoky touch

For olive and cream cheese sandwich variation number two, I'm going Peloponnesian. I've swapped out the green standbys for Kalamata olives, which hail from southern Greece, specifically the town of Kalamata. Once harvested, they are brined in a solution that contains wine vinegar in addition to salt, giving them their characteristic tanginess.

I assembled this sandwich the same way as the first one, and the olives are definitely more muted than I expected them to be. Knowing how pronounced and punchy Kalamatas normally are, I'm a bit shocked to have them fade into the background a bit. Not that it is unpleasant, though, as there is an almost smoky quality that is welcome. The Kalamatas are also juicier, making for an overall more moist sandwich experience. I still think standard green olives are my favorite, but Kalamatas certainly hold their own here and might be enhanced by some links of Merguez sausage hot off the grill.

Rating: 3/10

Tangerine and chili olives bring sweet heat

Time for the real wild card. There is a galaxy of different olives out there, but I chose a fascinating jar of tangerine and chili green olives that are unstuffed. Out of the jar, these things are evocative of sweet pickles. Now, I'm one of those outliers who doesn't mind a sweet pickle here and there; they have their place. What's more, cream cheese pairs quite well with sweet things, so I have high hopes here.

The citrusy sweetness is a great balance to the olive's classic saltiness, though the chili could be more intense — I'm something of a heat seeker. In the sandwich, these olives truly shine through, with the cream cheese serving as a perfect base for the unusual flavor of these olives. I won't go as far as saying that this version is the best, but it is a strong contender. 

Rating: 6/10

The verdict: You need to try this sandwich

If I were hosting a tea, a light luncheon, or some other fete that called for tea sandwiches and dainty appetizers, such as a Kentucky Derby party, cream cheese and olive sandwiches would make a lovely addition to a platter of hors d'oeuvres. For being so simple, they're surprisingly satisfying and definitely would be a conversation starter at any gathering. These sandwiches can even be taken a step further with the addition of another tea sandwich stalwart, mayonnaise, which could be incorporated into the cream cheese along with the chopped olives or on the opposing slice of bread. A touch of garlic powder, a dash of Worcestershire sauce, and sliced scallions would also be welcome additions. 

As it stands for this taste-test, I'm a sucker for classics, so the steadfast green olive takes the top spot for me. There's just something to the beefy bite and commanding, salty flavor that matches luxurious cream cheese so well. If you're whipping up one of these sandwiches, make sure you reach for a plump olive, as smaller olives are slightly more yielding and lack the toothsome quality of their larger counterparts. Taking second place are the tangerine and chili olives, whose surprising sweetness proved a apt counter to the cream cheese. It comes down to salty versus sweet to me, and I have to go with my heart, but with much respect for the sweet olive's unique qualities. Which means, sorry Kalamatas, I love your tart bite, but I'll reserve you for another use.