Lobster Newburg

For the second week in a row, plans were changed in order to make life simpler. We waited until the New Year to celebrate New Year's Eve.

Think of the restaurant markups on: two ounces of Sevruga caviar; three bottles of Moët & Chandon White Star; three good-sized lobsters. It was expensive enough just to buy the ingredients. I need say nothing about the champagne and the caviar beyond noting that M le Neveu and Ms NOLA, initially skittish about the caviar, did not need to be prodded to partake further.

And what did I do with the lobsters? I made that ancient classic, Lobster Newburg.

It appears that Stouffer's, the frozen-food provisioner, no longer offers this dish, which I remember well from childhood. What I don't remember is whether I'd ever had the real thing, made from scratch or served in a restaurant. A dim, blinking message suggests that I may have made it before. That would account for the intense familiarity of the dish's fragrance that just about knocked me on Sunday night: Stouffer's can't have been as liberal with the Cognac.

Lobster Newburg is a dish of sautéed lobster meat, flamed with Cognac robed in a custard sauce of eggs and cream, and served in pastry shells. To do it right, you kill the lobsters with a knife, but I've had unhappy experiences with Zombie Lobsters That Would Not Die Even After I Plunged A Chef's Knife Into Their Skulls, so I steam the beasts for five minutes or so. This kills them, but it does not cook the meat, which still clings to the shells. "Cleaning" (deconstructing) three good-sized lobsters is a messy business, best done a day in advance. The goal is to reserve three cups of lobster meat, cut into bite-sized pieces. The meat ought to be sautéed promptly in a lot of butter (about five tablespoons), after which it can be bagged and refrigerated overnight.

A cup and half of cream and three egg yolks are combined in the top of a double boiler and cooked very patiently over simmering water until the mixture thickens to a luxuriance that is just on the point of ceasing to be liquid. If you've been shrewd, you'll have reserved some of the butter from the sauté pan; a teaspoon of this will give the custard a deep but not insistent flavor.

For some reason - want of cranial wattage? - I bought frozen phyllo pastry instead of frozen puff pastry. Phyllo is not a substitute for puff pastry in the making of Lobster Newburg. The proof of this was in the eating, but I knew long before that that I was barking up the wrong tree. Kathleen gamely helped me, though; together, we assembled four square pillows of phyllo. Never having worked with phyllo before, I didn't know how much like wonton dough it is. The results weren't disastrous, however, because the Newburg inundated all the crannies between layers of phyllo. The dish was genuinely delicious, and I will make it on New Year's Eve from now on. Even if we're celebrating it the next day.

Because I'd like to be a little more assured when I make this dish, I'm going to practice, during the cold months, with shrimp. I know that I've had Shrimp Newburg at some point, and there's no reason why it wouldn't be a treat in itself - just a much less expensive one.

Lobster Newburg

adapted from James Beard, American Cookery

3 medium lobsters

5 tablespoons butter

1/3 cup Cognac

1 1/2 cups heavy cream

3 egg yolks

pastry shells

For four persons.

Bring an inch or two of water to boil in a large pot. Slip the lobsters into the pot and cover loosely. Steam the lobsters for five minutes, or until they stop moving.

When the lobsters are cool, remove the meat from the shells. Cut the meat into bite-sized pieces.

Melt five tablespoons of butter in a sauté pan. When the butter has foamed, at the lobster meat and toss it for two or three minutes. Meanwhile, heat the Cognac in a measuring cup until it flames. Dribble the flaming liquor into the sauté pan while tossing the meat. When the flames have subsided, remove the pan from the heat. Let the meat cool, and refrigerate it in a plastic bag overnight. Reserve a teaspoon of the butter in the pan.

Prepare the pastry shells if you have not purchased them. While the shells are baking, heat the cream and the egg yolks over simmering water, stirring constantly. When the mixture stops splashing, watch it carefully, because the eggs will curdle if they get too hot. When the sauce has thickened, toss in the lobster meat and stir it well, adding the reserved butter. When the pastry shells are baked, place one on each of four plates. Spoon the lobster into the shells and serve. (New Year's Day 2006)

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