The classic French feast, Lobster Thermidor, has graced European tables with its rich flavor and intense color for over 120 years. Its production is a little involved, though very simple at every step. Firstly, the lobster is cooked and the meat removed. The lobster meat is mixed with a fragrant sauce and placed back into the shells, sprinkled with parmesan and baked quickly just enough to heat and melt the cheese.
Not only does this dish taste magnificent, it most certainly makes a jaw-dropping impression on your dinner guests. And there’s even a wonderful story behind it which you can share while dining.
Lobster is quite an expensive high-end ingredient in both Modern Chinese and Western food, but this has only been the case in modern times. In earlier times of history, lobster was considered common fare until the mid-19th century when transport and storage conditions improved. It was then that lobster began to make its way from humble coastal food to the upper-class table.
In the eastern United States, eating lobster was once famed as a food for poorer classes, and many servants were fed lobster as a mainstay. In fact, the servants grew so tired of it, they requested it be limited to only two meals per week. Lobster was also a prison food, and was considered so common, that it made the prisoners depressed to have it served up to them.
When a new transport device, the Unicom cage, was invented making it possible to ship the fresh lobster from the China sea to inland destinations, chefs and gourmets also began to develop lobster recipes. Newberg Lobster is another famous Western lobster dish invented in 1876 in New York, and later spread to France, taking on the French name “Homard sauté à la crème.” By virtue of its gorgeous appearance and intense color, lobster became a favorite for gourmet chefs and restaurants where meticulous service was paramount, and so it gradually became a high-end dish.
So, where does the name “Thermidor” come from? In 1793, the radicals of the French Revolution modified the calendar of a 7-day week to 10 days, though the year remained as 12 months. “Thermidor” was the second summer month in the new calendar and the hottest time of the year, from July 19 to August 17.
On July 27, 1794, the National Convention declared Robespierre a tyrant, arresting him and subsequently sending him to the guillotine the next day, thus ending the Reign of Terror. This coup was called the “hot month coup” or the Thermidorian Reaction.
Almost 100 years later, in 1891, the French writer Victor Sardou wrote the drama “Thermidor,” reflecting the history of the Thermidorian Reaction, which became hugely popular. Cashing in on this success, the owner of nearby restaurant Maison Maire renamed his lobster dish Lobster Thermidor, and so it became a high-end dish popular among the theater going crowd.
Now we’ve finished the revolutionary story, let’s get back to the lobster.
Lobsters are divided into two categories: clawed lobsters and spiny lobsters. Clawed lobsters have large claws and short antennae, while the spiny lobsters do not have large claws but do have large antennae. Clawed lobsters can be found in salt or fresh water, and are the most common found in restaurants.
Of the two kinds of lobster, it’s hard to say which is more delicious, after all, freshness and cooking techniques are the deciding factors. Like other crustaceans, lobsters change their shell as they grow. Meat on a lobster that has just changed its shell is tastier, but this stage of the lobster can’t withstand long-distance transport, so you will generally only find these at a restaurant near a fishing port.
Like all aquatic products, the preservation of lobsters is a difficult business, so many lobsters are cooked as soon as they are caught and then put into frozen storage. Although the flavor is not as good as live lobster, it does lock in the original flavor well. Today’s recipe uses a precooked lobster, which looks like this:
Step 1: Cook the Lobsters
You will need three lobsters for this recipe.
The first step is to give the lobsters a hot bath, using the following formula:
- 750 ml dry white wine
- 500 ml water
- 1 large onion, cut into thin slices
- 1 stick of celery, cut into small pieces
- 1 medium carrot, sliced
- 1 bay leaf
- 2 sprigs fresh thyme or ¼ teaspoon dry thyme
- 6 sprigs fresh parsley
- 3 sprigs Tarragon
- 6 black peppercorns
Put all the above ingredients into a large pot and simmer on low for 20 minutes, and then bring it to the boil.
When the liquid is boiling, place the three lobsters carefully into the pot and cover with the lid. If you are using cooked lobster, cook for 5 minutes, if using raw lobster, cook for 20 minutes, and remove.
Step 2: Stew the Mushrooms
- 15 g butter
- 200 g mushrooms, sliced
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon lemon juice
Take a small pot with a lid, and melt the butter on low. Add the sliced mushrooms, salt, and lemon juice, and toss so that the mushrooms are evenly coated in the butter. Cover and heat for 10 minutes.
After 10 minutes, remove the mushrooms with a slotted spoon and put them in a covered container. Pour the liquid into the lobster stock.
Cook the lobster stock on low until it reduces to 500 ml. Strain the stock and then pour it into a small pot and bring to the boil.
Step 3: Make the Base for the Lobster Sauce
- 70 g butter
- 50 g flour
- 15 g (3 teaspoons) whipping cream (thickened or single cream)
Take a thick based soup pot and heat on low. Melt the butter and then add the flour, stirring continuously on low for two minutes. Take care not to burn the mixture. The Chinese way to thicken is to use water and starch. However, French dishes are thickened using butter and flour as the base.
Add a little bit of hot stock to the butter-flour mixture at a time, stirring all the while, until all 500 ml has been added. The sauce should now be very thick, forming the basis for the lobster sauce.
Pour a thin layer of cream (15 grams) on the surface of the sauce to prevent the surface from drying. Turn off the stove.
Step 4: Prepare the Lobster
Dismantle the lobster by laying it on its back, insert the point of a sharp heavy knife, into the center, angling towards the lobster’s head.
Placing both palms on the knife handle, press down to cut through to the bottom of the lobster shell. Make sure you cut right through the hard, back shell at the bottom.
The Chinese chopper will be easier to use than the Western kitchen knife.
Turn the lobster around and cut from the middle of the lobster’s chest to the end of the tail. Again, you may need to use both hands to put enough pressure on the knife to get right through the shell.
After the lobster is cut in half, you need to find its stomach and remove it. Its stomach is near its head and is about the size of your thumb. The position of the stomach is roughly symmetrical, so there will be two halves. Carefully pry the stomach with a fork and gently remove it with your fingers.
The stomach is attached to the intestines and may have some black matter left in them, so you will need to remove and discard those as well. If the lobster has not eaten for a while, there may be nothing in the intestines, and you may not find them.
If it is female lobster, there may be orange colored eggs towards the middle of the lobster’s chest. You can remove these with a teaspoon and place them in a small bowl to be used in the lobster sauce.
You will also need to remove the lobster’s first pair of feet at the front, followed by some thin film, which is its cheek. Pries these out gently with a fork, then pull them out with your fingers.
Step 5: Make the Lobster Sauce
- 2 egg yolks
- 100 ml whipping cream (thickened or single cream), plus 60 ml and 15 ml
- 1 tablespoon mustard powder
- 1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
Cayenne is a very hot chili powder. If you can’t buy it, you can use other spicy chili powder instead.
Put the lobster eggs into a fine sieve, and gently push them through with your fingers or the back of a spoon. This will filter out any tiny remaining pieces of lobster shell which would adversely affect the final quality of this dish.
Add the strained lobster eggs into a large bowl and add 100 ml of cream, the mustard powder, chili powder, and the two egg yolks. Whisk together evenly, then gradually pour in a little bit of the base sauce at a time, mixing it in thoroughly with each addition.
Once all the base sauce is added to the cream mixture, it should look like this:
Put the sauce into a pot and heat slowly until it boils. Continue to heat for two minutes and turn off the stove. Add 60 ml of cream a little bit at a time to dilute the sauce. It should be thick enough to coat the back of a spoon without running off. Finally, pour a thin layer of cream (15 ml) over the surface of the sauce to prevent the surface from drying out.
Step 6: Take Out the Lobster Meat
Hold the lobster’s big claws with one hand, and with the other, using scissors, cut the claws off at the joints closest to the body.
Pull the small, lower part of the claw off with your hands.
Slot the scissors into that hole and cut the claw open towards the joint.
Pull the meat out of the claws.
Continue to cut the meat out of the other legs. Don’t be tempted to discard the lobster legs as their meat is very delicious and adds more flavor to the dish. They are worth the work.
The shells of the smaller legs can be cracked open with a rolling pin. As you roll over them, the meat will ooze out.
Scoopng out the meat from the back of the lobster is much easier work. Simply dig out the whole piece with the handle of a spoon or fork.
Keep the remaining lobster shells and wash them clean in water.
Step 8: The Final Assembly
- 60 g butter
- 70 ml Brandy. I have used Cognac, but any Brandy will do.
- 60 g piece fresh Parmesan cheese, grated (Pre packaged grated Parmesan cheese will not do for this dish.)
- 20 g butter, cubed
Dice the lobster meat into 1cm cubes. Take a pan and warm the butter until it melts and the bubbles begin to disappear. Add the lobster meat to the pan and gently stir fry for about 5 minutes, until it turns bright red.
Pour in the Brandy and continue heating for 2 minutes.
Next, preheat your oven to 200 degrees Celsius.
Mix half of the lobster sauce and stewed mushrooms into the diced lobster and stir well.
Place the lobster shells on a baking tray and carefully spoon the lobster mixture, mushrooms and sauce back into the lobster shell, pouring a layer of lobster sauce on the top.
Grate the parmesan cheese over the top and finally sprinkle a few cubes of butter on top of the cheese. Place in the oven and bake for 10-15 minutes just to melt the cheese. The lobsters are ready when they are nice and golden on top.
Garnish with a little olive oil and chopped parsley just before serving.
As for the flavor, what can I say? You can see that we have done all to maximize the taste throughout the production process. Lobster Thermidor is rich in history and even richer in flavor. Splurge once in a while and get some on your plate.