Dan Lepard has a baking column in the Guardian that I like a lot; at one point I even printed out lots of his columns to make my own mini-Dan Lepard cookbook. (Clearly, I am a child of the 20th, not 21st, century, and prefer my written matter on paper, not on a screen.) I have two real cookbooks from Dan. When I started cooking from these cookbooks, I had very mixed results: some great recipes and a few real duds.
Dan Lepard takes a tour of Europe in The Art of Handmade Bread: Contemporary European Recipes for the Home Baker, from Ireland to the Ukraine, with lots of stops in between. His focus is on traditional breads, usually made with sourdough starters. This pictures in this book are particularly nice: pictures of the breads, the people who make them, and a few travel photos thrown in for good measure. I wanted to like this book more than I did like it. I had a problem finding recipes to try; although there were many intriguing recipes, not that many fit into my meal plans. Of the three recipes I did end up trying, one was strictly mediocre, one had both good and bad points, and one, for which I ignored Dan’s instructions, was great.
Dan’s “Corn Bread” (page 73) looked interesting, like anadama bread but without the molasses. This bread is just a basic white flour loaf with cooked polenta and corn flour (a different product from corn starch and cornmeal). The loaves were quite attractive, both inside and out, but also quite tasteless. The polenta and corn flour seemed to erase taste, and I think that plain white bread would have been better.
I regarded “Sweet Saffron Bread” (page 124) as a semi-failure, although Danny and Alan liked this bread a lot. This bread starts with a sponge, with additions of saffron, a tiny bit of sugar, a tiny bit of butter, milk as a liquid, and currants, for which I substituted cherries. I did not like the way the dough handled and rose, nor the way the finished loaves looked, although the appearance was one of the aspects of this bread that Danny and Alan liked. More importantly, though, this bread was successful when it came to taste and texture, which were both quite pleasing. Based on taste and texture, I would have predicted a much larger proportion of butter and sugar than the bread actually had.
The winner from this cookbook was “Crusty Potato Bread” (page 42). This is a totally basic flour-yeast-water-salt bread, but with a few twists. The yeast is all in the form of a sourdough starter; I used Isaac A’s very good starter. A baked potato is mixed with the starter, then combined with flour (for which I perversely used only white flour), water, salt, and a small amount of honey (one tablespoon for almost four cups of flour). I then followed the no-knead, slow-rise, bake-in-a-pot method. This, I should note, coincides with the recipe in the book only in the ingredient list. Dan uses a grated unpeeled raw potato, and has lengthy instructions, doing something with the bread dough every hour or so. I do not have the patience to follow such finicky instructions, and I think that my loaves were certainly as good as, and probably better than his. This bread had a wonderful taste, with real depth of flavor, whether from the potato, the sourdough starter, the slow rise, or all three, I do not know. [Go to the recipe.]
(Update: Potato bread is quickly becoming one of my favorite breads. I have made it several times now, experimenting with the flour mix, and have found a white-white whole wheat mix to be very successful.)
I have come to expect very nicely produced and attractive books from Chronicle Books, the publisher of Dan Lepard’s Short & Sweet: The Best of Home Baking, but the physical object that is this book fails to satisfy. It is hard to identify just what my problem with this book is: perhaps it is the big type; perhaps it is the recipe format. But, as we know, we are not supposed to judge the book by its cover (which I also don’t like); the real question is how are the recipes. I am inclined to think that the recipes lost something in translation; of the four recipes that I tried, two were not successful, and I wonder if these recipes would have worked better with the flour, butter, and other ingredients that one buys in England. The two recipes I liked, though, were very good indeed, and I intend to continue to mine this book, but with care.
“Black Olive Gougères” (page 526), like the corn bread in the bread book, seemed like a good idea. These are just savory cream puff shells with olives, garlic, rosemary, and cheese. Unfortunately, these did not puff. I actually followed the instructions, so I am okay with blaming this failure on Dan. I think that there was just too much stuff in the dough for it to puff properly. The taste, however, was very good, and at least one of my guests thought that the unpuffed texture was probably superior to what the puffed texture would have been.
There are all sorts of variations for savory tarts, and “Goat’s Cheese and Celeriac Tart” (page 502) is a very good variation indeed. Dan uses a very buttery crust that he rolls out and folds over several times; all the folding I omitted and my crust was still satisfactory. The goat cheese and celeriac are embedded in a rich custard flavored with garlic and parsley. Dan gives us the option of a soft or a crunchy tart: for the soft, the celeriac is parboiled, for the crunchy, it is added to the tart raw before baking. I opted for soft. I liked having this tart on my end of the table, as I kept cutting slices for myself.
“The Alchemist’s Chocolate Cake” (page 148) was just not very good. I believe that the alchemist has had his taste buds destroyed by all the noxious chemicals he has been heating in his crucibles. This is not, however, how Dan came up with this name for the cake: he seems to think that a low fat, low refined sugar cake has been magically transformed into something with “a delicate moist texture and flavor”. I think some magical transformation has changed a cake with a normal amount of sugar and fat into a cake with the vile taste of a diet cake. The secret ingredient to this cake is canned pears; this does not work. Our guest Helene was more gracious in her condemnation of this cake, saying merely that she thought that it was lacking something.
The “Chestnut Chocolate Cream Cookies” ()page 231) were really, really good. These are simple butter cookies made with chestnuts, sandwiched with an overly sweet ganache filling. Dan has us roll out the cookie dough; I didn’t want to do this, so just formed little balls of cookie dough and flattened them in my hands. This technique did not really work because the cookies did not flatten further as they cooked, and so were too thick to be used as sandwich cookies. Undaunted, I still sandwiched the filling between pairs of my thick cookies. We had to open our mouths really wide to eat these. This was just as well, for, as I mentioned, these cookies were too good. If they had been easier to eat, we would have eaten them much more quickly. [Go to the recipe.]
Adapted from Dan Lepard, The Art of Handmade Bread
1 baking potato (8-10 ounces), baked and cooled
9 ounces sourdough starter
1 tablespoon honey
32⁄3 cups flour
2 teaspoons salt
11⁄4 cups water
Combine the potato and sourdough starter in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the steel blade; process to combine. Add the honey, flour, and salt. With the motor running, add the water. You may need more or less water, depending on how liquid your starter is. Ideally, the dough will form a ball and leave the sides of the food processor, but with only a little more water would start to smear out. Once you get a nice ball of dough, put it in a bowl, cover the bowl, and let the bread rise overnight. If it is rising too quickly, put the bread dough in the refrigerator.
This amount of dough will make three small loaves, two medium, or one large. For every loaf you intend to make, put out a dish towel, and sprinkle the towel with flour. Separate your big ball of dough into sub-balls (if you are making more than one loaf), and roll each ball into a round. This I do by flattening the dough ball, rolling it up one way, then the other way, and pinching the ends together. Place the dough balls seam side down on the tea towels, and bring up the towels to cover the dough balls. Let the bread rise for a few hours.
Half an hour before cooking the bread, put one covered cast iron pot for every loaf you intend to bake in the oven, and preheat the oven to 500º. After the oven and pots have been heating for 30 minutes, turn out each loaf into a pot. Cover the pots, and bake. After 10 minutes, reduce the heat to 450º. Bake until done, which should be 30 to 40 minutes. Cool on a rack.
Chocolate Chestnut Cookies
Adapted from Dan Lepard, Short & Sweet
5 ounces cooked and peeled chestnuts
3⁄4 cup dark brown sugar
8 ounces butter, separated
13⁄4 cup flour
1⁄2 teaspoon baking powder
4 ounces dark chocolate
2 tablespoons cream
2 tablespoons rum
1 cup powdered sugar
Preheat the oven to 300º. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
Process the chestnuts and the brown sugar until the chestnuts are completely ground up and incorporated. Add the 6 ounces of the butter and process until combined; then add the flour and baking powder and process until combined. You may need to mix by hand a little at the end.
You may either roll out the dough or form cookies by hand. If rolling, refrigerate the dough for 20 minutes, preferably no longer. Roll out to about ¼ inch thick; cut out Oreo sized cookies. If forming by hand, form small dough balls, then flatten. Put the cookies on the baking sheet and bake until done, which may take 30 minutes. Remove to a rack and cool. When cool, sift cocoa powder over the cookies.
To make the filling, melt the remaining 2 ounces of butter and the chocolate with the cream. Add the rum and beat in the sugar. Set aside until the filling is spreadable. Spread halfd the cookies with the filling, then top with the other half of the cookies.