Summer is drawing all too rapidly to a close. Here on the coast of Maine, despite the dog days of August, you can already feel autumn in the air. Our notoriously chill ocean water is as warm now as it will ever get, but Labor Day, when the tourists depart, is hard upon us. A few leaves on the swamp maples are already turning deep red, hinting of glories to come in another month or so.
The days grow short and time is running out for my full summer quotient of lobster rolls.
The lobster roll is peculiar to the coast of Maine. I know, I know, lobster-roll claims are made for other places, principally Boston and New York City, even some parts of Long Island, but if you wish to consume this most seductive treat while gazing out at the cluttered Boston skyline or the traffic-raddled streets of the East Village, if you want to suffer the outrage of the Long Island Expressway to get to your lobster roll, you’re welcome to it. For me, however, the lobster roll belongs, always and ever, right here on the summer coast of Maine, with a vista of blue water, deep green islands, dark grey rocks, a few bright sails in the distance and a couple of fishermen’s boats chugging up the reach.
the table top, the cries of seagulls and the lap of waves in your ears, and the fragrance of balsam and salt marsh along with the heady aroma of old bait flooding your nostrils.
As summer wanes, though, and I realize that time is running out, lobster rolls begin to preoccupy me. Most of the best lobster shacks (really the place to get an authentic lobster roll), even shacks connected to better-known restaurants, shut down within ten days of Labor Day. Once, traveling with a photographer, I tried to persuade the folks at Waterman’s Beach, a deservedly famous lobster shack in South Thomaston, to open up for pictures for a national food magazine. It was two days after Labor Day. A chain stretched across the parking lot and the tables, looking out on the Muscle Ridge channel, were turned over, ready to be hauled for winter storage. Wouldn’t the proprietor just pose in the doorway, just fake it, just do something for all that national publicity? Back came the answer, with characteristic Yankee concision: Nope, closed for the season.
So we take our fill of the delicacy in the summer months and dream about them the rest of the year.
Lobster rolls are not something most people in Maine, or elsewhere for that matter, make in their home kitchens, even though it would be darned easy to do. After all, what more do you need than a hot dog roll, some butter, some mayo, and plenty of freshly steamed lobster right off the dock. Somehow, though, lobster rolls belong in a category of things best left to the pros, things like quenelles de brochet, or Peking duck, or Turkish baklava perhaps.
A hot dog roll? Could there possibly be a better example of tasteless, textureless, industrial bread? Every summer, I hear the flatlanders whine, “Isn’t there any place where you can get a lobster roll made with decent bread?” Well, yes and no. Make it with decent bread, sliced from a whole-wheat, dense-textured, crisp-crusted artisanal loaf made with a proper sourdough starter, and what you will have is a lobster salad sandwich. Quite possibly delicious, but a lobster roll it ain’t.
Last week I decided to take up the challenge and actually make a better hot dog roll, starting with an overnight poolish or biga and adding a component of whole-wheat flour. It was not at all easy, and I honestly confess that I don’t think I would do it again. But, having said all that, I offer my thoughts on the experience. I found recipes for hot dog rolls or buns in Jasper White’s remarkable book, Lobster At Home (Scribner, 1998), and on-line on the equally remarkable King Arthur Flour Company web site, kingarthurflour.com. Neither recipe gave me exactly what I wanted but combining the two produced something more than acceptable, something that worked very well as a lobster roll and might be equally good with an actual hot dog or bratwurst tucked inside.
The trick, I found, is not so much in the dough itself as in the way you shape it. I’ll get to that in a minute but first, here’s the recipe I settled on. It begins with a starter dough:
- 1 teaspoon instant yeast
- ½ cup unbleached all-purpose flour
- ½ cup warm water
Combine these ingredients in a large mixing bowl, stirring with a wooden spoon to mix well, but don’t worry if the dough is a bit lumpy. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and set it aside in a cool but not refrigerated space to work overnight.
Next day your starter will have expanded and look puffy and active, with bubbles on its surface. Now you’re ready to make the real thing. The following is, more or less, the list of ingredients I worked out from the King Arthur web site:
- 1 teaspoon instant yeast
- 1 cup whole-wheat flour
- 1 ½ cups unbleached all-purpose flour + more for the board
- ¼ cup nonfat powdered milk
- 2/3 cup instant mashed potatoes
- A big pinch of sea salt
- 2 tablespoons butter, at room temperature
- 1 whole egg
- Tepid water
- A little oil for the bowl
- 1 egg mixed with 2 tablespoons of water for the egg wash
Add all of the above ingredients to the starter along with about ¾ cup of tepid water. Mix well, first using a wooden spoon and then your hands. Once the dough is well-mixed, turn it out on a lightly floured board to knead. The dough should be very soft and smooth. If it’s heavy and sticky, add a little more tepid water and mix it in before you turn it out.
Knead the dough softly—no slamming the dough on the breadboard, just easing it over and over, folding it gently, incorporating a bit more flour if it gets sticky. When you feel comfortable with the texture of the dough, turn it into a lightly oiled bowl, cover with plastic wrap or a dampened kitchen towel, and set aside for a couple of hours to double.
At this point, King Arthur Flour offers a $35 hot dog bun pan. But that seemed excessive to me—and besides I couldn’t wait for delivery. Instead I followed Chef White’s directions. Here’s how:
Take a baking sheet that is at least 15 inches long and grease it liberally with softened butter.
Deflate the risen dough and spread it on a breadboard dusted with flour. Shape it into a rectangle roughly 7 inches deep and about 14 inches long. Now cut the dough into 13 strips (each 7 inches long) and set each strip side by side on the buttered sheet pan, leaving a half-inch or less between each strip. Cover lightly with plastic wrap and set aside to rise again. The strips will come together as they rise.
Strips of dough as they go in the oven, ready to become hotdog rolls.
Set your oven on 350º. Brush the tops of the buns lightly with the egg wash, then transfer to the oven and bake for 30 minutes, or until they are golden.
Remove and let cool for 15 minutes or so, running a wide spatula under the buns to make sure they aren’t sticking to the pan. But—and this is important—leave the buns attached and in one piece.
Out of the oven and onto the cooling rack—in one piece!
And once they’re cool enough to handle, remove them in one piece and set on a rack. When the buns are completely cool, remove to a breadboard and slice by cutting down the middle of each bun. This sounds like a mistake but believe me, it is not. Each individual hotdog bun is made up of half of the buns on either side.
The buns have been sliced down the middle, leaving the closed-up gap to fill with a hotdog, a sausage, or. . . fresh lobster and mayonnaise.
The space down the middle, which began as the gap between two strips of dough, becomes, with a gentle tug or a slice of the bread knife to open it further, a space to fill with a precious quantity of lobster mixed with mayonnaise, maybe a sprinkle of lemon juice, perhaps a very small quantity of finely chopped chive or celery, though there are people whom I respect who believe a lobster roll is composed of lobster and mayo and nothing else, not even a sprinkle of black pepper.
But first! But first, before filling it with lobster and mayo, you must toast the sides of your roll in butter in a griddle pan or your old black iron spider, really almost frying it until the sides are golden and crisp. Then the lobster goes into the center.
How can something so simple be so utterly delicious?
Of course, if you don’t want to bother with hand-crafted, whole wheat enhanced hot dog rolls, you can go to any supermarket and buy a package of those puffy industrial rolls and if the lobster you tuck into it is really fine and the view is of a spruce-lined rocky cove in Maine, you probably won’t even know the difference.
People always ask me where you can get the best lobster roll. My advice? Get off Route One, which ambles along the coast from Kittery all the way to Eastport. Only down the peninsulas will you find that combination of a lobster shack and scenery to make the heart soar. And go down east, to the east of the Penobscot, to find the places that don’t have long lines of tourists convinced that they’ve found the secret place no one else knows about. Here are two that are personal favorites, though I’m sure my fellow Maine-iacs will contend with my choices:
The Bagaduce Lunch (their lobster roll is at the top of this post) is either on Frank’s Flat Road in Penobscot, Maine, or on Bridge Road in Brooksville, Maine. The Bagaduce doesn’t change location but the address seems to wobble a bit. Established in 1946, it is not the place where lobster rolls were invented but it could have been. Even more confusingly it is both Route 175 and Route 176. But everyone knows it, so don’t worry, someone will always be able to direct you to this enchanted spot looking over the reversing falls on the Bagaduce River. And by the way, the fried clams at Bagaduce are the same terrific quality as the lobster roll.
Quoddy Bay Lobster (their roll, with a full claw on top, is the second picture at the top of the page) is down on Sea Street, wharfside in Eastport, Maine—as the name suggests, you can’t get downeaster than this without running into Canada. This is also a great place to pick up fresh locally harvested fish, if you have the opportunity to do some kitchen experimenting. The view here is of a working waterfront, busy with fishing and lobster boats chugging up and down Passamaquoddy Bay and in the near distance the green hills of Campobello, President Roosevelt’s favorite retreat, in Canada.