This Portuguese sweet bread recipe was traditionally baked for Easter celebrations at my house. It’s sweet and perfect fresh out of the oven with a pat of butter. Turns out, this deliciousness doesn’t have to be reserved for just holidays!
Slather it with some butter and lilikoi jelly!
Mom’s Portuguese sweet bread recipe
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, just like her mom did.
From the fragrance of the proofing yeast to the dough rising and then baking into golden brown loaves of Easter bread, 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.
Kneading the Portuguese sweet bread
Kneading is a method of repeatedly folding and stretching dough until it’s smooth. The old-school way to knead bread, of course, is by hand. Turn the sweet bread dough out onto a floured surface and sprinkle more flour onto the dough. This prevents the dough from sticking to your hands.
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Use the heel of your hand to push the dough, making an indentation in its center. As you push, use your fingers to lift and pull the dough toward you, placing it back over the dough. Repeat with the opposite hand. Lift and turn the dough, adding more flour as necessary to prevent sticking. (Use just enough added flour to prevent sticking; too much will dry out the dough.)
It’ll take about 15 minutes. You know you’re done when the surface of the dough feels smooth and not sticky. If you look closely, you might be able to see tiny air bubbles starting to form under the surface.
Modern day bread making allows us the use of a stand mixer equipped with a dough hook to do the kneading.
The rising process
Making bread is not difficult. It does take time, though. The cool thing is that most of that time is hands-off. You can go do something else while the yeast is doing its work. Once you’ve kneaded the dough, you’ll set it aside to rise for a couple of hours until it has doubled in bulk. Punch the dough down by pressing your hand into the soft dough; the dough will deflate.
Now you’re ready to form the dough into loaves and allow it to rise again for another hour.
Forming the sweet bread dough
This Portuguese sweet bread bread recipe can be formed into a simple loaf, a braided loaf, or rolls. No matter how you choose to form it, start by dividing the dough in half after the first rise.
For a round loaf:
Form each half of the dough into a ball, working to put the “loose” ends on the bottom so that the top is nice and smooth. Place each dough on a cookie sheet and set aside to rise.
How to make a braided loaf of bread:
Divide each half of the bread dough into three equal pieces. Roll each into a rope, about 1-2 inches in diameter. Press the ends of the ropes together and braid. When you reach the end, tuck ends under slightly and place bread on a cookie sheet for the second rise.
To make sweet bread rolls:
Form each half of the dough into a log. Cut the log into (roughly) two inch lengths. Roll each small portion into balls and put in a pie pan. Allow to rise, then bake until nice and brown.
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- 4 1/2 tsp. active dry yeast
- 1/4 cup warm water
- 1 cup granulated organic cane sugar
- 1 cup milk, scalded and still hot
- 1/4 cup butter
- 1 tsp. sea salt
- 3 large eggs, lightly beaten
- 6 to 7 cups unbleached organic all-purpose flour
- 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 on 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 25-30 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.
To make Portuguese sweet bread rolls:
- Turn dough onto floured surface. Divide dough in two. Form each half loosely into a two-inch log. Cut log into two-inch lengths.
- Roll dough into balls. Place onto a buttered cookie sheet or in a buttered pie pan, not quite touching.
- Cover rolls and set in a warm place to rise again for about an hour.
- Bake at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for 20-25 minutes or until golden brown.
How to make a round loaf
- Form each half of the dough into a ball, working to put the "loose" ends on the bottom so that the top is nice and smooth. Place each dough on a cookie sheet and set aside to rise.
How to make a braided loaf of bread
- Divide each half of the bread dough into three equal pieces.
- Roll each into a rope, about 1-2 inches in diameter.
- Press the ends of the ropes together and braid. When you reach the end, tuck ends under slightly and place bread on a cookie sheet for the second rise.
Nutrition Information:Yield: 20 Serving Size: 1 grams
Amount Per Serving: Calories: 80Total Fat: 3gSaturated Fat: 1gUnsaturated Fat: 0gCholesterol: 35mgSodium: 132mgCarbohydrates: 11gSugar: 10gProtein: 1g
Portuguese sweet bread in Hawaii
When I moved to Hawai‘i, I noticed plenty of differences in the selection at the grocery store. 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.
History in the [baking]
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. 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. By 10 am the action begins as more volunteers help to prepare the dough for authentic Portuguese sweet bread recipe 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. Note that 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 the Portuguese sweet bread recipe from the historical society? You can get that here.
Originally published in October 2014; this post has been updated.