An Ancestral Valentine: Beetroot, Filbert, and Chocolate Bread
Some things I love to bake for the outcome, some things I like to bake for the process. One of the things that’s been ticking both boxes for me lately is bread. There’s something so satisfying about kneading a fragrant yeasty dough into a smooth, tight ball, of leaving it to rest to find it grown and soft, of shaping and braiding and baking to fill the house with the most intoxicating and friendly aroma I know.
Baking bread feels like a way to connect with my family. And I’m not just talking about my mother, or hers… but rather a line of women, of hearth holders, stretching back thousands of years to the dawn of humanity itself. I was surprised but pleased to learn that a particularly revealing Archaeological find was discovered just this last year; researchers from the University of Copenhagen found a small campsite complete with preserved bread-like products that belonged to an ancient culture known as the Natufians. The archaeologists believe that the culture was foraging for roots and wild cereals to make flour for bread 14,400 years ago, 4,000 years before the start of agriculture! They believe that this bread was reserved for special occasions rather than everyday consumption, probably due to the labor-intensive process of hand-gathering wild grains.
I think of that as I knead my dough, made so simply from processed flours and instant yeast. How 14,400 years ago some ancient relative of mine might have been kneading her own dough and looking forward to sharing it with her people too.
Even before this, I always felt good about making special bread to celebrate special occasions. Sure, we can buy beautiful artisanal breads at local markets and even grocery stores… but being able to infuse my creations with my own creativity, my own love, and my own handiwork makes them something extra special. It’s both meditation and an act of care, and this time of year when love is on the mind, something tasty and nourishing to share with the ones I love.
Valentine’s Day is often a day of awkwardness and controversy, of cynics and bitterness and conspiracy. But to me, it’s always been a day of love. As pure and simple as that. All kinds of love - from love for self (important!) to love for family, friends, and, yes, romantic partners. I see it as such a wonderful opportunity to express my love to so many - little notes for my closest friends, a new cookbook for my sister, a surprise treat for my partner, some snuggles with my dog. And since bread is really the center of the hearth, it seems a rather magical way to connect to my heart as well.
My “Ancient Love” bread begins with a beetroot bread recipe, which gives it a lovely pink/red color and subtle earthy sweetness. Eating roots helps to ground me and feel my place in the world. Then, it is filled with the winning combination of dark chocolate and hazelnuts - firstly, because all of these things taste amazing together, and secondly because hazelnuts feel very masculine to me, chocolate feels sensual and romantic, and the bread itself carries within it a sort of inherent femininity, an ode to all of those foremothers. It’s a balance of beauty, of nurture, of flavor, and of love. Biting into this bread is an absolute joy. First, there’s the subtle earthiness of sweet red beets balanced by some lemon zest, then you hit a rich chocolatey middle filled with crunchy hazelnuts, sour dried cherries, and pockets of silky melted chocolate. Definitely serve this bread warm and eat it with your hands.
1 medium beet
5 Tbs. unsalted butter, softened
1 Tbs. lemon juice
Zest from 1 lemon
¾ c. milk, at a tepid temperature
1 Tbs. honey
1 package (2tsp.) active dry yeast
1 large egg
3 ¼ c. bread flour
2 Tbs. beetroot powder
¼ c. all purpose flour
1 Tsp. salt
Extra egg, for egg wash
Place the beet in a microwave-safe bowl and top with plastic wrap. Microwave at 1 minute intervals until the beet is tender. Let cool, then peel and roughly chop.
While it cools, warm milk until warm but not hot. Whisk in the honey and yeast. Let stand until foamy, or about 15 minutes. Beat the egg in a separate container.
Add the beet and the butter to the food processor and blend until smooth. Add the lemon juice and zest and beat well.
Whisk the flours, salt, and beetroot powder in a large bowl. Make a well in the center and pour in the cooled beetroot puree, yeast mixture, and beaten egg and stir until a medium dough forms. (You may need to add a bit more milk if you used a smaller beet or if your flour is very dry.)
Knead until smooth and elastic, about 8-10 minutes. Shape dough into a ball and cover with plastic wrap. Let rise until doubled in bulk, about 1 hour. Meanwhile, make the filling (below.)
Line a baking sheet or pizza peel with parchment paper. Divide the dough into 9 even balls. Keep them all covered with plastic wrap while you work with each at a time. Flatten 8 into a disc and fill with 1 heaping Tbs. filling, then pinch and seal the bottom. Once all 8 are filled, roll the final dough out into a circle 7” in diameter. Place the balls around the outside to form a circle with ½” gaps in between each one, then slice the middle dough from the space between each ball across to the other one. Repeat to make a star pattern. Fold each triangle up to cover the roll behind it and secure with a tiny dab of water. Cover again and leave to rise until the design is full and puffy without being overly risen. (Anywhere from half an hour to two hours.) Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 400F with a baking stone on a middle shelf and a small pan on a lower shelf.
Place a little hazelnut in the gap between each roll as shown. Beat the remaining egg with a little water to make an egg wash. Brush it over the wreath of bread. Optional: you can use a stencil cut from plastic or cardboard to dab on some rice flour, which will create a white pattern on the baked bread. Transfer to the baking stone, then pour 1 c. of hot water into the separate pan to keep the oven steamy. Close the door quickly. Bake, rotating the pan halfway through, for 15-17 minutes. Let cool for a couple of minutes before serving, then serve warm.
Chocolate, Cherry, and Hazelnut Filling:
⅓ c. chopped roasted hazelnuts
⅓ c. chopped dried cherries
4 oz chopped dark chocolate
⅔ c. chocolate hazelnut spread
¼ c. softened butter
¼ tsp. Salt
Beat together the softened butter and hazelnut spread. Mix in the rest of the ingredients (you may have to use your hands to mix it evenly.) Set aside at room temperature until you’re ready to fill the bread. You may have a little bit left over, but I can assure you that’s not a problem: it is equally delicious when spread upon any other bread as well!
P.S. Isn't that cutting board the bread is sitting on gorgeous! I recently discovered the local artist Pisces Woodworks and asked if he'd make a custom cutting board for me purely out of purple heart wood. (It was a gift to myself for surviving my recent surgery.) He was wonderful to work with and I couldn't be happier with how it turned out! You can see more of his work on his Facebook page if you are interested.
Love what you’ve read here? Don’t forget to Subscribe to get frequent updates of new posts!
Huge thanks to my Patrons that make sharing all of these lovely posts with you possible (without all of the pop-ups and ads that make browsing other blogs so annoying). If you’re feeling generous, you too can support the wonder with a monthly contribution of your choice. Even $1 helps a lot! Your donation will help to fund this blog as well as my surprise free events and gifts for strangers. Learn more about this program at the link below: