Growing up with a Portuguese mother meant that besides anticipating colorful Easter eggs and chocolate bunnies, our holiday prep included a day of whipping up her Portuguese sweet bread recipe. Mom would twist the dough into braids and tuck eggs between the folds. From the fragrance of the proofing yeast to the dough rising and then baking into golden brown loaves, this family tradition – above all others – is my favorite. Nothing compares to a slice of sweet bread, still warm from the oven and topped by a pat of real butter.
When I moved to Hawai‘i, I noticed plenty of differences in the selection at the grocery store, but what surprised me more than anything was the sheer abundance of Portuguese sweet bread. It was available everywhere, every day. No longer would I have to wait for the once-a-year baking and kneading session to savor this slice of my childhood. While the island style bread is a bit airier than those made with my favorite recipe, having access to Portuguese sweet bread on a daily basis certainly makes up for whatever minor shortfall I perceive in the finished product.
So just why is there such a preponderance of Portuguese sweet bread here in Hawai‘i? The answer lies in the Portuguese immigrants who came to the islands to work the sugar cane fields in the 1800s. They brought this traditional bread recipe with them and it eventually became as familiar as the sticky rice and poi that are staple foods for island residents.
Those Portuguese immigrants also brought along the old world style of baking in a wood-fired stone oven called a forno. While most of the bread you’ll find in Hawaii is baked in a more modern manner, there is one place that you can still savor sweet bread that’s been baked in the traditional way.
The Kona Historical Society has created a replica of a traditional forno in a field below the old Greenwell Store in Kealakekua. Every Thursday morning, volunteers light a fire in the forno in the wee hours, and by 10 am the action begins as more volunteers help to prepare the dough for traditional Portuguese sweet bread or pao doce.
Visitors are invited to watch the baking process, then take some bread to go. The posted hours for this event are from 10 am to 1 pm every Thursday, but I’ve arrived during the latter part of this window only to find the bread sold out. If your heart is set on fresh bread, get there early! Want to try their recipe? You can get that here. Or give my family recipe a try.
Grandma’s Portuguese Sweet Bread Recipe
- 4-1/2 teaspoons active dry yeast
- 1/4 cup warm water
- 1 cup organic sugar
- 1 cup milk, scalded and still hot
- 1/4 cup butter
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 3 eggs, beaten
- 6 to 7 cups all purpose flour (I like this)
Dissolve yeast in warm water. Mix sugar, hot milk, butter, and salt together in a large bowl, stirring until butter melts. When cooled to lukewarm, beat in eggs and yeast mixture. Gradually beat 5 cups of flour into liquid to make a smooth dough.
If you have a stand mixer that will handle this amount of dough, you can use that to shorten the process. Simply complete above steps in your mixer bowl and let your dough hook do the kneading for you.
To knead by hand, heavily flour a board with a portion of the remaining flour. Turn dough out onto board and sprinkle with remaining flour. Knead until very smooth, adding flour to eliminate stickiness as necessary. You should see small “blisters” of air on the surface of the dough. This takes about 15-20 minutes. Consider it your workout for the day.
Place dough in a large buttered bowl. Cover loosely with a towel and put in a warm place until doubled in size (about two hours). Punch down dough (it will collapse). Using buttered hands, form dough into desired loaves. You can divide dough into two large loaves or try them as smaller rolls. Or you can try the pie pan method you see used by the historical society. Place your formed loaves and a buttered cookie sheet or in a buttered pie pan. Cover loaves and set in a warm place to rise again for about an hour. Bake at 350 degrees for 20-30 minutes or until golden brown. Baking time will vary a bit depending upon loaf size. Optional: Use a pastry brush to baste milk over the loaves just as they start to brown. This will give them a beautiful shiny glow.