Mollie Sanders of Kittery Point considered her lobster mac and cheese a work in progress.
First, she had to get over the old adage that seafood and cheese should never be paired together, ever.
Then she had to figure out ways to make lobster the star of the dish.
“Just simmering the lobster in butter, and then you make the roux from that butter, that kind of gives that lobster taste through the whole casserole,” she said.
Soon Sanders, who works at Maine Shellfish and whose family owns a lobster business in Portsmouth, faced her ultimate test: Feeding her lobster mac and cheese to a bunch of chefs.
“I had to go to a funeral of a local lobster restaurant owner who passed away, and they asked me to make something,” Sanders said. “I knew it was going to be full of chefs, and I was terrified because there’s nothing worse than cooking for chefs — I live with one, so I know — so I made this lobster macaroni and cheese and everybody was going absolutely crazy about it.”
Sanders was one of the nearly two dozen contestants in the lobster mac and cheese contest held Sept. 14, during the week-long Lobsterpalooza celebration held in the midcoast region. Her version of this classic fall comfort food was one of my favorites in the amateur division.
Another was “Meme’s Lobster Mac ‘N Cheese” from Deanna Zoe Smith of Tenants Harbor, whose dish took third place with its subtle touch of lemon and generous helping of lobster. (With the price of lobster so low these days, why skimp?)
Louise MacLellan-Ruf won first place with her “Lobster Mac and Cheese Rockland Style,” which contained a few unusual ingredients that helped her entry stand out.
As a judge, it was interesting to see how many different ways people can interpret this seemingly simple dish. Some contestants brought delicious mac and cheese, but it took a lot of digging to find the lobster.
Others tried things way outside the box, like Allison Lakin’s Maine Lobster Sformati, which used lasagna noodles standing on end in a muffin tin to hold a lobster-ricotta mixture. Chef Max Miller from The Landings in Rockland used squid ink pasta in his Lobster Black Mac & Cheese.
The winner in the professional division, chef Chaz Doherty of Trackside Station, went with an Asian interpretation for his “Thai My Lobster,” which the judges unanimously agreed deserved first place. Doherty has also shared his recipe, which he developed on the fly with a couple of chef friends during a beer-fueled brainstorming session. It includes a coconut milk bechamel made with red curry paste, lemon grass, rice flour and other atypical ingredients for a lobster mac and cheese.
No one really knows how long lobster mac and cheese has been around, but some speculate it may have evolved from Lobster Thermidor, which is sometimes made with a cheese crust, or Coquilles St. Jacques, a scallop dish that’s topped with grated Gruyere or Swiss.
EARLY BUZZ FOR CORRY’S VERSION
One thing’s for sure: In the past few years it has exploded in popularity, appearing on menus all over the country. Locally, it was chef Steve Corry’s version that first appeared on Five Fifty-Five’s menu in 2004 that made people perk up and take notice.
Corry’s locally famous lobster mac and cheese was inspired by a dish Thomas Keller made at The French Laundry in Yountville, Calif. (Corry’s wife and business partner, Michelle, used to work there.)
“He has a signature dish that he does, and it’s Maine lobster with orzo pasta, the tiny rice-like grain pasta, and mascarpone,” Corry said. “That’s kind of where the dish was born, really. We took that and interpreted it a bit. That was two bites at the Laundry. We needed a dish that would suit the clientele here.”
Corry’s version is made with torchio, a torch-shaped, imported Italian pasta that holds sauce well; raw lobster poached in butter; five kinds of cheeses, including mascarpone, fontina, gruyere, cheddar and Parmigiano-Reggiano; shaved black truffles and snipped chives.
“Originally it started out as kind of a colder weather dish and a way to keep lobster on the menu all year round,” Corry said. “We’ve never been one of those restaurants — not that there’s anything wrong with it — to serve it in the shell. We would pull (the truffled lobster mac and cheese) off in late spring, and people would just complain.”
Customers started telling Corry that they came to the restaurant just to try that dish, and if it wasn’t on the menu he would make it for them. Now it is one of Five Fifty-Five’s signature dishes, Corry said, and it has to be on the menu all the time, “which is great from a business perspective, but as a chef it’s somewhat restricting.”
Corry’s dish got to be so popular that other restaurants in the area started coming up with their own versions, until it was on menus all over town. The hype has died down a bit in the past couple of years, but it’s still a dish you can find locally.
Corry has some advice for people who want to try making their own lobster mac and cheese at home. The chef and his staff researched pasta when they were developing the Five Fifty-Five recipe, and found that the torchio shape held the sauce best.
“It depends on how thick your sauce is, but I think the pasta is very important,” he said. “The cheese, that’s subject to opinion. I saw a version that was blue cheese lobster mac and cheese, and I thought wow, that is going to defeat the purpose, in my opinion. Blue cheese is so strong, you’re going to lose the actual flavor of the lobster.”
He recommends using a blend of cheeses that includes some softer varieties with milder flavors that won’t overwhelm the flavor of the lobster.
“The hard aged cheeses tend to break,” Corry said. “They’ll get real oily. I don’t know if you’ve ever had someone’s mac and cheese where you’re like, what is all this grease on top? And it’s the fat breaking out of the cheese when you heat it up. So we do use a range of cheeses, and a lot of them are soft. It’s a bechamel base sauce, it’s kind of classic French technique.”
If you don’t want to create your own version, try one of these recipes.
Just be sure to use plenty of lobster.
Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at: