Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Portuguese Sweet Bread

Today's posting is going to involve a bit of history trivia about me. This is a traditional yeast bread recipe. To date I haven't posted any of those to my blog yet. Eventually I'll probably post several yeast breads, but here's the first regular type. I wrote up the No-Knead bread recently, but that hardly counts.

Some cooks get stage fright when the subject of yeast is even mentioned. I guess I was too young or naive to listen to such wives' tales. I just dug in and did it. I started making bread regularly in the mid 60's, when I was in my early 20's. In fact, once I learned the techniques, and found several recipes that I really liked, I began making all of my own bread. Sandwich bread (mostly buttermilk), cornmeal bread (a raised version), and a wheat bread too. At Christmas I made Stollen, and a few times a year I made this Portuguese Sweet Bread.

Growing up, we had a Portuguese family living across the street from us. Point Loma, a peninsula and a suburb in San Diego, is the home to thousands of Portuguese families, most of whom make their living by deep sea fishing. Although we didn't ever know this family well, one year the matriarch brought over a round globe of this bread on Good Friday. Maybe it was a silent peace offering because their dog barked incessantly, hour upon hour morning to night and during the night. Whatever the reason, it was nice that she shared a loaf with us. We enjoyed it.

Portuguese Sweet Bread is traditional only at Easter, apparently. I asked her about the recipe one day when she was chasing her barking dog in the street, but she seemed disinclined to share it. A few years later I saw a Portuguese cookbook at the library and sure enough, there was a recipe!

So in the early 1970's I was a stay-at-home mother of a very young child. Money was tight. So I began baking bread and selling it to friends. Most of my hard-earned money was used for babysitting, so I could get out a little bit. Many of my mother's friends were kind enough to buy bread from me every week. Bless them! My recollection is that I charged about $1.00 a loaf for the buttermilk type. Up to $2.00 for the richer breads and a bit more for Stollen. Every week my kitchen heated up for hours on end as I made what seemed like endless loaves of bread. I bought 100 pound bags of flour through a local bakery and kept it in a special trash can in the garage (lined with a two layers of heavy-duty plastic bags and sealed very tight).

I didn't have a business, a license, or any of that kind of thing; it was just word of mouth. I bought one pound blocks of fresh yeast (the cube, cake kind) from the same bakery and froze it in small batches. And I bought 1000-piece boxes of bread-sized clear plastic bags (the kind bakeries use). I still have what was left of the last box I bought, believe it or not. Those bags are over 40 years old and they're still just fine. Amazing. No wonder we have problems with our landfills and plastic grocery bags.

The buttermilk bread was the hands-down favorite of all my customers. But every few weeks I made this bread too. Usually only a few loaves. These take more time to make (longer rising times) and can be a bit temperamental if not given the right rising environment. But if the signs are right and the gods smile, you'll be blessed with a wonderfully fragrant loaf of soft, eggy bread. It would be ideal for the Pineapple French Toast I posted recently (click here) if you don't have the King's Hawaiian Bread used in that recipe.

In those days of busy bread baking, I combed through lots of bread cookbooks from the library and gathered ideas from anywhere I could find them. In my own recipe archives I have a funny shaped envelope that still contains all of my yeast recipes from those bread-baking days, with notes about costs, all written on 3x5 or 4x6 cards. And in some book - no recollection where - I read a long dissertation about the molecular action of yeast. I've never forgotten those words of advice about how yeast needs to climb, but if it's mixed only in water the molecules are slippery and have a hard time doing their job. So, this book recommended making the first yeast mixture (where you proof the yeast) with a little addition of sugar and ground ginger. I decided to try it, and believed then, as I do now, that that step does a lot for yeast. Now I use dry, granulated yeast, but it's the same process. No change, just dry yeast for cubed, fresh yeast.

A word about proofing. Maybe some of you have never even heard the expression of "proofing the yeast." The goal is to PROVE that the yeast is good, viable, and that it's working; therefore, proof that the yeast is alive and well. You will always want to do that step.

If you use a bread machine, that step is skipped. You don't want the yeast to be dissolved in liquid in a bread machine recipe as the machine process relies on the use of dry, granular yeast which dissolves slowly, and some not at all during the mix and sit, mix and sit series. I have a bread machine that I don't use very often anymore. It was a great timesaver when I was working, but I was never very satisfied with the wheat varieties I made in the machine. We rarely eat white bread anymore, so the machine has been relegated to a shelf in the laundry room.

Don't attempt to make this bread in a bread machine - it won't work because the dough needs longer rising periods. Now if you want to tinker with the yeast (adding more) to make it rise faster, either conventionally, or in the bread machine, by all means try it. Or if you just want to use the bread machine to accomplish the first mixing and kneading, that's fine.

So, back to Portuguese Sweet Bread. This bread is a sweet dough. And if you're a bread novice, you need to know that when you add some sugar to bread, it helps the yeast to grow (rise), but the sweeter the dough, the longer it will take to rise. Don't, under any circumstances, be in a hurry when you make this. This bread needs long, slow rising times (actually two) and if it doesn't rise nearly double in volume it probably wasn't kneaded enough. Because this bread contains so much sugar, the yeast struggles to do its job - to double in volume. That's why it's temperamental and if the yeast molecules aren't dispersed and kneaded well enough in the beginning, it just won't rise sufficiently. Then you'll be left with a kind of heavy, leaden bread. Not tasty at all.

You can try rising it in a slightly higher temperature (turn the oven on for a few minutes, then turn it off and put the dough in the oven to continue to rise). But when it's done and you slice into this, you'll be amazed at the perfume. Glorious. And you don't have to wait until Easter to make it.

Portuguese Sweet Bread
Recipe Source: unknown
Serving Size : 20
1/2 cup evaporated milk
1/4 cup water
4 tablespoons butter
2 packages dry yeast
1 teaspoon sugar
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 cup warm water
3/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon salt
3 whole eggs
5 cups bread (hard wheat) flour
1. In a saucepan, melt the butter with the evaporated milk and water. In a large bowl place the 3/4 cup sugar, salt and eggs. Pour in the milk/butter mixture and stir to dissolve the sugar. Allow to cool while gathering the other ingredients for the bread. In a small, glass measuring cup, combine the warm water, ground ginger, sugar and add the packages of yeast. Stir briefly and set aside for only about 5-10 minutes. (Do not do this step ahead).
2. When the egg and sugar mixture is cool, add about one cup of flour and stir. Add the yeast once it has become bubbly, then stir in additional flour. The mixture may take a bit more flour than the ingredient list shows since adding flour to yeast bread is never an exact science. But, be careful you don't add too much. Sweet breads can sometimes take more flour, but then the bread will be heavy and tough. Only add as much flour as you must to keep the stickiness under control. Roll the dough out onto a floured board and knead until the dough is elastic and smooth. Put into a greased bowl and allow to rise in a warm place until double in bulk. My notes say this takes about 2 hours.
3. Punch the dough down and pour out onto the floured board again and knead until there are no air bubbles in the dough. Cut in half and shape into bread shapes, place in bread pans and allow to rise again. This dough does not rise very fast, so wait until it's nearly ready before you preheat the oven. You can also mold these into rounds - and use round cake pans.
4. Heat oven to 375°. Bake bread for 25 minutes. Remove from oven, cover the pans lightly with foil, then reduce temperature to 350° and bake an additional 8-10 minutes.
5. Remove bread from the oven and IF it's stable enough, set loaves out on a rack to cool. If made correctly, this bread is very tender, so it may require cooling for 10-15 minutes in the pans before you remove them to a rack.
Serving Ideas : In Portuguese homes, this is served on Easter morning as part of a traditional breakfast.
NOTES : You can make this more festive by putting it into a large springform pan (full recipe) and after the second rising, brush with egg white and sprinkle with granulated sugar. Bake for about 45-50 minutes at 350°.
Per Serving : 196 Calories; 4g Fat (19.1% calories from fat); 6g Protein; 34g Carbohydrate; trace Dietary Fiber; 40mg Cholesterol; 149mg Sodium. Exchanges: 1 1/2 Grain(Starch); 0 Lean Meat; 0 Non-Fat Milk; 1/2 Fat; 1/2 Other Carbohydrates.
To view a printable recipe, click title at top. (photo from

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