“Anyone who says they don’t like garlic bread must be fibbing” declare the authors of retro recipe bible The Prawn Cocktail Years – and, as usual, I’m in complete agreement. Hot and crisp from the oven, sodden with rich, punchy butter, it’s the pleasure that never, ever palls. Even the plastic-wrapped supermarket version, pallid yet powerful, has its tawdry charms: it seems garlic butter can do no wrong.
That said, not all members of the pungent pantheon are created equal: Nigel Slater’s quite outrageously good parmesan garlic bread has been closest to my heart for some many years now – and has sustained many, many house parties over the years: a burnt tongue being apparently a small price to pay for seizing the first slice from the steaming foil, especially after a few drinks – but could there be something even better lurking quietly out there in a pool of delicious grease? The Pandora’s box of possibility finally opened, I can’t stop until I’m satisfied I’ve tasted the best garlic bread has to offer me.
Bread: droves of loaves
Nigel uses a baguette, the classic British choice. Jamie Oliver goes for a garlic pizza in Jamie’s Italy, Nigella has something called a garlic and parsley “hearthbread” in How to be a Domestic Goddess, Giorgio Locatelli gives a recipe for a confit garlic foccacia in Made in Italy, and America’s legendary Barefoot Contessa, Ina Garten, uses ciabatta. So it’s fair to say that there’s a diversity of opinion on the matter of bread.
Having made them all, I’d say the most important thing for garlic bread is the softness of crumb. Although it shouldn’t quite be soggy, it should be up to the job of absorbing obscene amounts of garlic butter. This rules out Jamie’s pizza base, which, as modernity dictates, is thin and crisp: there’s just nowhere for the garlic to go. Although Locatelli doesn’t use garlic butter (of which more later), foccacia doesn’t seem right either: it’s too soft for anything more than olive oil. Nigella’s hearthbread has potential, although as she smears the garlic on top, it doesn’t really penetrate the bread.
Best are Nigel’s baguette and Garten’s ciabatta: the former doing its usual excellent job of turning itself into a buttery, parsley-flecked sponge, and the latter offering a bit more structure, which I traitorously enjoy.
Garlic: a light bulb moment
Next up, there’s the garlic issue. Nigel, my point of reference on all things garlic bread related, uses crushed raw garlic, mashed into butter and baked, and Jamie smashes a couple of cloves with olive oil and drizzles them over the top of the pizza. Elaine McCardel, author of The Italian Dish blog, rubs grilled bread with a cut garlic clove to make something called a fettunta which is surprisingly tasty, but unapologetically harsh: not quite the result I’m after.
Everyone else cooks their garlic before use. Garten drops it into hot olive oil before using it, to slightly neutralise the flavour, while Nigella roasts the garlic until soft before puréeing it and adding it to the top of her hearthbread. This seems to me to miss the point of garlic bread or, at least, the kind of garlic bread I’m seeking: I have no doubt Nigella is a woman who also appreciates the joys of a good old-school baguette. The sweetness of a baked bulb is undeniably delicious, but garlic bread should pack a punch, and this doesn’t. The same goes for Locatelli’s confit garlic, which is simmered in milk and sugar until sticky and almost jammy: it’s lovely, but it doesn’t hit the spot. I’m going to stick with raw garlic, crushed or finely chopped, to release the juices and spread the flavour through the butter or oil as far as possible.
Apart from the fettunta and Giorgio Locatelli’s foccacia, which both deploy garlic in a different form, it’s customary for the garlic to come in a hefty dollop of fat, which is one of the reasons why garlic bread is so very delicious. (This is also the reason that I decide not to try Dan Lepard’s recipe, lovely as it looks: it’s not the kind of garlic bread I seek.) Nigel and Richard Bertinet go for butter. Jamie and Nigella both opt for olive oil, and Garten uses a mixture, spreading the bread generously with butter, then topping it with garlic and herbs in olive oil. Oil, to my taste, simply makes the bread seem greasy: it’s great for dipping, but it doesn’t seem to soak into the bread in the same way as butter – I’ve probably just got hopelessly rich Anglo-Saxon tastes, but for me, it’s butter all the way.
Now we come to the blessed union of the two ingredients. I’ve already dismissed Jamie and Nigella’s method of spreading the garlic paste on top, which not only stops it soaking into the bread, but also, in Nigella’s case, gives it a slightly acrid flavour. Locatelli’s complex folding process won’t work for garlic butter. Bertinet, who’s using thick slices of leftover bread, spreads it on top and bakes “until the butter has melted and the bread is golden”, which is nice, but leads to a lot of leakage (to spill garlic butter on to barren ground is surely a sin) while Nigel, using a whole loaf, cuts it into half slices in the classic fashion, and stuffs each with butter until it squeaks. Garten, presumably for ease because ciabattas are traditionally rather flat, demands that the bread should be sliced laterally which, thanks to the workings of gravity means that the bottom half of each slice is saturated, and the top fluffy and disappointingly innocent of garlic. This should not be a bite of two halves.
Fortunately, few people seem to have dared to mess with perfection. Nigel adds generous amounts of grated parmesan to his garlic butter, so that “the cheese form[s] thin strings as you tear one piece of bread from the next”. Although not classic, the cheese acts as seasoning, so I think it’s allowable, mostly because leaving it out might mean my friend Ian, a garlic bread maker supreme who once produced 14 Slater loaves in 20 minutes for a Christmas party, never speaks to me again.
Garten uses a half and half mix of oregano and parsley, which I don’t like: the herbs shouldn’t be too assertive here, and oregano doesn’t go with butter in my opinion. Bertinet adds a squeeze of lemon juice, which I really like: while cutting through the richness of the butter would be nothing short of a crime here, a slight tang works brilliantly with the parsley and garlic. He also prefers curly to flat-leaf parsley for garlic bread, but in this case, I can’t really tell the difference. Although be warned, neither it or the lemon will be enough to give you fresh breath afterwards.
Perfect garlic bread
1 ciabatta loaf (Richard Bertinet has an excellent recipe in his book Crust)
100g salted butter, at room temperature
4 cloves of garlic, crushed
Small bunch of whichever parsley you prefer, finely chopped
40g parmesan, grated, plus a little extra for topping
Squeeze of lemon juice
1. Preheat the oven to 220C. Very carefully cut the ciabatta into slices, making sure not to go right through, and put it in the middle of a piece of foil large enough to wrap around it.
2. Beat together the other ingredients, apart from the extra parmesan until well combined, then gently force the butter between the slices (this will be messy, but it’s well worth it). Sprinkle the top of the loaf with the remaining cheese, and seal the foil around the loaf.
3. Bake for about 20 minutes, then open the foil and bake for another five minutes, and devour as soon as it’s cool enough to handle.
Is garlic bread the savoury equivalent of chocolate brownies – the food everyone likes, or is there someone out there who can resist its charms? Are you an old-school supermarket baguette fan, or do you prefer a simple Italian-style toast? And honestly, is there any such thing as too much garlic?
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