Dan is the man

Caribbean Beat cookery writer Franka Philip gets to meet one of her culinary heroes, Dan Lepard of the London Guardian

Dan and Franka prepping the chocolate cassava cake. Photograph by Franka Philip

You rarely get to meet your heroes, and if you do, you’re probably not going to spend any time hanging out with them. So I count myself lucky to have met one of my food heroes and actually having had the honour of cooking with him.

In the November-December 2007 issue of this magazine, I wrote about the joy of making Christmas black cake. This was down to a recipe by London-based artisan baker Dan Lepard that was easy and every bit as tasty as my mother’s traditional Trinidad version. Lepard’s method saves a lot of time because it doesn’t involve the tedious process of creaming butter and sugar.

I discovered him when he started writing a weekly baking column for the Guardian’s Weekend magazine, and around the same time, I bought the book Baking with Passion, which he co-wrote with Richard Whittington. It was through the pages of Baking with Passion that I really began to understand how much skill – and indeed passion – went into artisan baking. So when I first tried Lepard’s black cake and it worked so spectacularly well, I sent him a thank-you e-mail message through his website, and wrote about this fantastic cake recipe on my food blog.

Of course, you never expect a response from busy chefs and food writers like Lepard, so I was taken by surprise when, several months later, he wrote back and said he was glad I liked the recipe and wanted to know more about Caribbean baking traditions. By the end of his e-mail, I was totally gaga at his suggestion that we meet up for a chat. It was a no-brainer. Dan lives in south London, not far from the Trinidadian roti shop Roti Joupa, so clearly the best plan was to take him there to see how authentic Trini roti was made.

On the day we were to meet, I started getting nervous as it dawned on me that I had invited a man who helped set up kitchens in some of the London’s top restaurants to a humble takeaway to sample what essentially is grassroots food. What if he didn’t like it?

When Dan turned up, he was just as I imagined, a gentle, down-to-earth man with an easy sense of humour. And I needn’t have worried, because he was totally fascinated by the whole process of roti-making and of course, the tasty results. The master baker was most intrigued by the making of dhalpouri roti. He watched intently as Sham deftly rolled a piece of dough around a lump of ground split peas to form a smooth ball, then rolled it into a paper-thin flatbread that was still strong enough to hold a substantial amounts of filling.

Soon enough Dan was engrossed in conversation with Roti Joupa’s owner Vash about the tradition of roti-making. It was a joy to watch two masters of their craft exchange ideas. My plan was a triumph and by the end of our meal, I was jumping at the invitation to spend a day baking in Dan’s kitchen.

“I want to do a cassava cake,” Dan said as we stood in his warm, cosy kitchen on a cold winter morning. “We’ll do two recipes, a cassava one and the rotis; they’ll go into my Guardian column.

“You’ll have to tell me how to prepare the cassava, because I want to make a chocolate cassava cake,” he remarked. Chocolate and cassava are two ingredients I never thought of putting together, so I was keen to see what he had in mind.  It would be instructive to look at how one of Europe’s top bakers formulated a recipe from scratch.

For the roti, he made a simple dough that had been left to rise overnight. Dan used red lentils for the dhal, as these don’t need to be pre-soaked and require very little cooking – this kind of convenience is what appeals to the majority of his Guardian readers.

After a few tries, we got the balance of seasoning in the lentil mixture correct, and then it was time to stuff the dough and roll it out. Before long, we were rolling out thin rotis as if we’d been working in the Hot Shoppe roti shop for years!

Our discerning taster – Dan’s partner and business manager David – felt they were absolutely delicious. The rotis, or Spiced Lentil Flatbreads as they were called in the Guardian, were excellent as a wrap for diced lamb, labneh (strained yogurt) and salad.

After lunch and a lively conversation in which Dan revealed that his father was stationed in Trinidad during World War II, we set about making the chocolate cassava cake.

Dan’s been doing this for so long that he doesn’t usually need to consult a cookbook about the right proportions. There’s no fuss or grand theatre, he just gets on with it and makes it look extremely easy. It’s like watching your mother cooking: she’ll put a bit of this, a bit of that, and measure ingredients by the “potspoon” – an ambiguous measurement that’s probably only found in older Caribbean cookbooks – but it’ll always come out right. He knows that a lot of people feel baking is a daunting task, but believes the keys to developing this instinct are making recipes more than once, and not being afraid to experiment.

The cake smelt good as it came out of the oven, and it seemed like forever before it cooled down enough for us to sample. It was one of the moistest cakes I’ve ever had, and there was a fine balance between the chocolate and cassava, with the desiccated coconut adding more texture.

Of course, as we were paying homage to the Caribbean, the best accompaniment for the cake was fine Caribbean rum on the rocks. And while we sat around the table drinking, Dan wondered how the chocolate cassava recipe would go down among Caribbean cooks. I told him that a lot of people would wonder about the combination of chocolate and cassava, but inevitably they’d try it because it’s so easy to make. More importantly, they’ll make it again and again, because it’s such a delicious cake.

Recipe: Dan Lepard’s chocolate cassava cake

Ingredients

225g whole cassava root, peeled
4 tbsp cocoa
50g desiccated coconut
250ml coconut milk
1/2 tsp each ground nutmeg and allspice
150g unsalted butter, softened
200g natural or golden caster sugar
3 large eggs
200g plain flour
50g cornflour
2 tsp baking powder
150g dark chocolate, roughly chopped

Method

Finely grate the cassava root and wash it thoroughly in three or four changes of water, each time squeezing it out well. Then soak the cassava in water for 3 – 4 hours, or overnight. Finally, squeeze the cassava as dry as you can and leave on a plate. Meanwhile, whisk the cocoa, coconut and milk in a saucepan, bring to the boil, simmer for a minute, then leave to cool.

Next, beat the butter and sugar until smooth and light, then beat in the eggs one at a time.

Stir in the cassava and coconut mixture.

Sift the flour, cornflour and baking powder together, beat this through, then stir in the chocolate.

Spoon into a 20cm round tin lined with non-stick baking paper and bake at 180C for 50 – 60 minutes.

More from Dan Lepard
Dan Lepard’s official site: http://www.danlepard.com
Dan’s How to Bake series in the Guardian:
www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/series/howtobake