Satisfying kneads

You haven't really tasted garlic bread until you've tried Dan Lepard's version, says Michael Bateman. And with this specially adapted recipe, you can make it for yourself

DAN LEPARD's garlic bread is something else. Cast out of your mind any thoughts of baguettes sliced lengthwise, smeared with garlic butter and wrapped in foil. They simply don't compare.

DAN LEPARD's garlic bread is something else. Cast out of your mind any thoughts of baguettes sliced lengthwise, smeared with garlic butter and wrapped in foil. They simply don't compare.

Lepard is one of London's most inspired and inspiring breed of new young bakers. He is a consultant to Baker & Spice in London's Walton Street, where he heads a team of five restaurant-trained chefs who have diverted their patissier's skills to this more robust craft.

With Gail Stephens, the owner, they provide breads and exquisite cakes for the more demanding hotels and restaurants. The shop also sells a range of a dozen or so unique breads to customers who think that paying five times over the odds for a loaf is a small price to pay for bread that is more than five times better.

The range includes traditional French baguettes and pain de campagne, sourdoughs and dense rye breads, buttery brioches and flaky croissants as well as cakes and biscuits. And then there are some new and original breads, such as his amazing garlic breads.

These are, to all intents and purposes, fruited breads, made using sweet, caramelised cloves of garlic instead of raisins or sundried tomatoes. And we are not talking a mere whiff of garlic here. In a single loaf he incorporates no fewer than five heads of garlic, which means as many as 60 cloves.

This may sound crazy, but most habituees of the London restaurant scene will have encountered a clove or two of roast garlic as a garnish to a savoury dish, providing a nutty, sticky sweetness which isn't as garlicky as one might suppose.

Dan Lepard is an unlikely character to find in a bakery. He was born in Melbourne, Australia 35 years ago to a Yorkshire father who emigrated in the Fifties. He dropped out of university (where he read economics and politics) to pursue a stage career, singing and dancing his way round Australia in Oliver! He then decided to try his luck in the UK, and was signed up to tour with Joseph and his Technicolour Dreamcoat.

Two dramatic career changes followed. He worked first as a photographer for Italian Vogue, and then as a cook for his favourite restaurant, Alastair Little in Soho.

He was started on the pastry and breads, and seven years later was still making them. "Most chefs want to get on to meat and fish. I don't know why. Bread is chemistry, science, magic. You have flour and water, yeast and salt, and that's about all, but you can produce infinite shapes, textures and tastes."

He didn't immediately aspire to making baking a full-time career, though, and took two years out to work in Los Angeles as David Hockney's personal cook. He loved the glamorous life, and meeting the Hollywood stars who came to dinner. When he left, he went to work in New York at a new wave restaurant, trying out Mexican foods, where he dabbled in making breads with ancho chillies and peppers.

Back in London he teamed up with Margot and Fergus Henderson, who had opened St John in Clerkenwell, establishing their in-house bakery. Then he lent his baking skills to Giorgio Locatelli at Zafferano, and John Torode at Mezzo, before settling down with Gail Stephens.

It was here, at Baker & Spice, that Dan Lepard created a garlic bread specifically for an event at the way-out Brompton Road restaurant, The Collection. The resident baker, a Frenchman, Phillippe Dade hated it. "He said it was disgusting. But The Collection loved it."

This focaccia (see below) is based on that bread, but it is slightly easier to make. Its success depends on two factors. The quality of the rather loose dough, which undergoes an unhurried, very slow, rising time, and the caramelising of the garlic, a trick he had learnt at Alastair Little's.

Professional bakers often start a loaf using a sponge, the name for a very wet "dough" made of half-and-half flour and water, in which the yeast can act more freely. After about four hours, the flour and water for the final dough are added to the sponge in precise proportions, and the dough is then kneaded in the usual way.

Baker & Spice, 46 Walton St, London SW3. Telephone 0171 589 4734. Dan Lepard's book, Baker and Spice: Baking with Passion, written with Richard Whittington, is published next month by Quadrille, price £18.99

Dan Lepard's tips on baking bread

FLOUR Buy the very best bread flour you can, preferably organic. It's known as "strong" flour because it contains more gluten, which gives dough the elasticity you need to get it to rise well.

WATER Bread needs soft water. If your tap water is hard, add a pinch of bicarbonate of soda, or better still, use bottled water.

YEAST Modern activated powdered yeast sold in packets is fine, but it is designed to be fast-acting and bread is better if the dough develops slowly. Don't be afraid of using less rather than more, allowing more rising time to develop taste and texture.

SALT The amount you add is critical. Too little and the bread lacks flavour. Too much and it slows down the action of the yeast.

KNEADING Don't "knock back" dough violently. Use a strong but light touch, pulling the dough towards you, then pushing it away firmly with the heel of your hand. The object is to stretch the strands of gluten until the dough is lively, elastic and silky. This will take about 10 minutes, but it is a pleasantly therapeutic activity.

OIL Some breads, such as ciabatta and focaccia, owe their character to the inclusion of olive oil (use extra virgin). Incorporate it by pouring it over the surface of the dough, and kneading it. Fold the dough in half, tucking the ends underneath and repeat, giving a quarter-turn each time.

TEMPERATURES Bread dough is happiest rising at room temperature (24C/46F), so consider the balance of your ingredients. If your flour is cold, you may need slightly warm water. Put the dough to rise in an oiled bowl, covered with clingfilm to retain warmth and humidity.

BAKING Your oven should be as hot as possible, and ideally, you should bake on something like a large terracotta tile (try your local garden centre). Professional bakers use steam to kick-start the baking. You can simulate this by spraying the oven with a mist of water just before putting in the dough or by throwing half a dozen ice cubes into the bottom of the oven.

Garlic focaccia

It is advisable to read the recipe and method through before proceeding. If the garlic doesn't appeal, omit it, and instead sprinkle the dough with rosemary and olive oil before putting it in the oven.

For the garlic

5 heads of garlic, blanched for two minutes in boiling salted water, then peeled. This should give you about 60 cloves 2 tablespoons olive oil200ml/7fl oz water1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar3 teaspoons caster sugar1/2 teaspoon salt

Heat the olive oil and garlic cloves in a wide, preferably non-stick, frying pan, over a high flame. As soon as the cloves begin to sizzle, reduce the heat and saute for about five minutes or until the garlic is very lightly and evenly coloured. Add the water, vinegar, salt and sugar and simmer over a very low heat for 15 to 20 minutes, until the liquid has evaporated and the garlic is golden and tender when pierced with a knife. Transfer to a bowl and leave until cool. This can be prepared a day or two in advance.

For the starter, a day in advance

100g/4oz strong white flour100ml/4fl oz warm water(24C/46F) 12 teaspoon fast-acting dried yeast

Stir all the ingredients together for two to three minutes in a small bowl. Cover with clingfilm and leave in the fridge overnight.

On the day

You should prepare the sponge four and a half hours in advance: so if you need the bread for 1pm, mix the sponge at 8.30am. If you want it for 3pm, at 10.30am and so on.

For the sponge

1 quantity starter (as above)325ml/11fl oz very warm water (28C/54F)150g/5oz strong white flour1 teaspoon fast-acting dried yeast

Put the warm water and chilled starter in a large bowl and gently beat the two together with a hand whisk. Add the flour and yeast, beat for another minute, then cover the bowl with clingfilm and leave in a warm place (an airing cupboard is perfect) for two hours. By this time the mixture will be scented and bubbling.

For the dough

300g/11oz strong white flour1 teaspoon fast-acting dried yeastpinch of bicarbonate of soda, if you live in a hard-water area12 teaspoon fine sea salt (or a little more according to taste)50ml/2fl oz extra virgin olive oil

8.30amAdd the flour, yeast, salt and soda to the sponge. Stir the mixture together in a three-litre bowl for a couple of minutes until it resembles a batter. Scrape down the sides of the bowl with a spatula, tip one tablespoon of olive oil over the dough, and, after rubbing a little on your hands, start rounding and stretching the dough. It will feel rough and rather wet, but so long as your hands are coated in a film of oil this stretching will pose no problem. Continue for a couple of minutes, then cover the bowl with clingfilm and leave in a warm place.

9.15amLightly oil your hands and the upper surface of the dough with one tablespoon olive oil. Lift and stretch the sides of the dough for 20 to 30 seconds. You will notice the dough is softer and smoother. Lightly round the dough up and replace the clingfilm over the bowl. Leave for another 30 to 45 minutes.

10amPreheat oven to 220C/425F/Gas 9.Rub the inside of a 25x30cm Swiss roll tray with 1 tablespoon olive oil. Round the dough up in the bowl, then tip it into the centre of the tray. With oiled fingers lightly press the dough out until it covers three-quarters of the tray. Cover with cling film and leave for 15 minutes.

10.15amWarm the garlic. Oil your hands and lift the edges of the dough out to the corners of the tray. Then press with your fingertips to even the dough. The dough should be full of air bubbles. Press the garlic evenly and well into the surface of the dough. Cover once more with clingfilm and leave for 15 minutes.

10.30amPlace the dough in the centre of the oven and bake for 15 minutes, then reduce the heat to 180C/350F/Gas 7 and bake for 25 minutes.

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