Freddy Mercury had nothing on my friend Max. Max, who worked at the local record store, gave Queen’s summer breakout single six stars on his scale that only went to five, and had us howling with his superbad imitation. ‘Dynamite with a laser beam; Guaranteed to blow your mind. Anytime.’ He cocked his air guitar at the waitress coming to take our orders, and did an exaggerated bow as we cheered.
We were clustered around a picnic table in the shade of an undersized beach umbrella, on the deck of our latest find: a shack of a restaurant, more like the kind of sandwich joint you’d expect to find down at the shore than a few blocks east of Main Street in Conshohocken. At a little past noon the heat was rising into the 80’s, and promised to push past 90 that day. Our ride, a yellow ’67 Impala, sat ready at the curb.
The waitress tossed a handful of napkins onto the table and reached into her apron for straws. ‘Be right back to feed you, boys,’ she said as she flipped her ponytail. ‘Though I think you’ve got enough ham here already.’ She stopped her turn midstride and looked witheringly at Max.
My friend closed his mouth and studied the drops of sweat on his mug of root beer. In light of her superior age (probably 19) and body shape (curvy), we quietly did the same.
But Max couldn’t control himself. By the time the waitress came back with our food, he was out of his seat and hamming for us again. Max’s air guitar, bent high up over his shoulder, nearly collided with the waitress as she came up behind him with a big tray of sandwiches. He had the grace to blush as he helped her steady the tray and, in a heroic act distinctly unlike the Max we knew, he helped her to unload the steaks and subs. Then, in the spirit of the Three Stooges, he got down on his knees to ask her forgiveness. The waitress rolled her eyes, flipped her ponytail again, and strode off. We hooted as she took a last pathetic look at Max.
Max sat down as if nothing at all had happened, and dug into his lunch with a grin that lit the table. The heady scent of yeasty rolls filled my senses. We bathed in the happy fug of adolescence.
My 17th summer – as all summers eventually do – floated away. That shack is long gone now, replaced with yet another high tech building. These days you’ll have to go a little farther off Main Street to get an authentic sandwich experience.
But one thing remains constant: as long as the Conshohocken Italian Bakery keeps churning out their lovely rolls, somebody is going to keep filling them with great things. That means there will always be another sandwich shack, ready for a new adventure. And who knows then what will happen?
Homemade Hoagie Rolls
Makes 6 rolls, 9” long
14 hours for overnight rise (8 hours for fast rise)
2 teaspoons dry yeast (+ 1 teaspoon for fast rise)
4 teaspoons sugar
½ cup water at 100°
14 ounces (2 ¾ cups) unbleached all purpose flour
6 ounces (1¼ cup) High Gluten flour
2½ teaspoons salt
¼ teaspoon ascorbic acid, available as Fruit Fresh
2/3 cup whey*
2/3 cup water at 100°
½ cup extra flour for bench work
2 Tablespoons of cornmeal to coat pans
Necessary for producing high-rising rolls:
2 heavyweight cookie sheets or jelly roll pans
6 quarry tiles or a pizza stone to line oven rack
A good spray bottle to create steam
A humid 80° environment
*To make whey: 32 ounces of plain low-fat yogurt will yield 2/3 cup whey in about 2 hours. Line a strainer with paper towels or several layers of cheese cloth and set it over a shallow bowl. Pour in the yogurt, cover lightly and set it to do its stuff in the refrigerator. The whey will drain from the yogurt and collect in the bowl. Measure the whey carefully before adding to the dough.
(The resulting strained yogurt is great drizzled with honey for breakfast. You can also mix it with shredded cucumber, salt, garlic and thyme to make tatziki – our favorite Greek dip.)
Make the dough: In a large mixing bowl, stir together yeast, sugar and ½ cup of warm water. Let sit for 10 minutes until foam forms on the mixture. Add 20 ounces of flour, salt, ascorbic acid, whey and water and mix to form a cohesive mass, scraping down the sides of the mixing bowl as necessary.
Knead for 10 minutes, using as little extra flour as possible to keep the dough from sticking to your counter and hands. Clean out the mixing bowl.
First rise: You can start these rolls in the morning (using an extra teaspoon of yeast in the dough) and let rise, lightly covered, for 4 ½ hours at room temperature. In order to have the rolls ready for lunchtime, however, it’s best to make your dough the evening before and let it rise, covered, in a 55° environment overnight. Set the dough at room temperature for an hour or two in the morning before continuing. By this time either method will yield dough that has roughly tripled in bulk.
Second rise: Punch down the dough and turn it out onto a lightly floured work surface. Push the dough into a fat snake and fold it into thirds. Gently push the dough into a fat snake shape again, letting it rest for a few minutes as it resists. This method will elongate the gluten, yielding the best rolls. Fold in thirds, put back in the mixing bowl, cover lightly and let sit at room temperature (70°) for 1½ hours, until nearly doubled in bulk.
Shape the rolls: Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface. Gently shape into a snake again, tucking the long outer edge over itself and squeezing in to the bottom seam by using your fingers. Your emphasis from here on out is to create a gluten cloak, a continuous skin on the top and sides of the rolls.
When the snake of dough is about 2 feet long, cut it in half. Form each half into an 18” snake and cut it into three equal pieces. You will now have 6 portions of dough, each weighing between 6 and 6½ ounces. Tuck into cigar shapes and let them rest for 15 minutes.
Sprinkle cornmeal onto the cookie sheets or jellyroll pans and have them handy. Warm your 80° humid environment. (See Creating an 80° Environment at the bottom of Aunt Marie’s Dinner Rolls for details on how to do this.) Your environment should include a pan of hot water.
After your rolls have rested, flatten them somewhat to expel the largest gas bubbles, and then fold them gently into torpedoes of dough that are 9” long. Pull the gluten cloak over each roll evenly and tuck into one long seam. Put three rolls on each pan, seam-side down onto the cornmeal.
Third rise and preheat: Let finished rolls rise for 1 hour to 1 hours 10 minutes in an 80° humid environment. Line the center rack in your oven with a pizza stone or quarry tiles and preheat the oven to 450° a half hour into this rise. Have a good spray bottle with water in it beside the oven.
Bake with steam: Put a pan of rolls directly on the quarry tiles or pizza stone and quickly spray the hot sides and bottom of the oven with 6 or 7 squirts of water. Clap the door shut to keep in the heat and the steam. Bake rolls for 10 minutes without opening the oven door. Turn oven off for 2 more minutes, and then remove rolls to a rack to cool. (As oven temperatures and spray bottles vary, your results may as well. Rolls are ready when the crust is medium brown.)
Repeat with the other pan of rolls.
To make a Ham Hoagie: Split a cooled hoagie roll nearly in half and open it like a book. Sprinkle with a small amount of olive oil and some oregano. Lay on 2 or 3 pieces of thinly sliced Swiss cheese, as much sliced ham as desired, and a line of sliced salami. Cover with lettuce and tomatoes and a bit more oil and herbs. Use the blade of a long knife to squash the lettuce and tomato into the ‘spine’, cutting through the meats and cheese if desired, in order to close the sandwich.
Serve with frosty mugs of root beer and enjoy in any available sunshine.
Hit it Max. Air Guitar!
Many thanks to the Conshohocken Italian Bakery for advice on this recipe. If you live nearby, run – don’t walk – to their bakery.