Portuguese Sweet Bread

I carry a lot of memories through food.  Though I haven’t had an experience quite as intense as Proust’s madeleine, mussels and fries will always make me think of a certain stone plaza in Belgium, fresh crab in the shell puts me back in Alaska on a rainy summer day, and certain flavors will always remind me of home.

Growing up on the east coast, the flavors of everyday living were so different from the Pacific Northwest.  Dense, chewy bagels were easy to come by, doughnuts were cakey and dippable, and we ate ice cream all winter.  Many of the flavors I remember were thanks to the more recent immigrants to New England, and when I was young they were still coming from eastern Europe, Portugal, and the Caribbean, to say nothing of the Italian that you still hear walking through Boston’s North End.

Cup of tea

I think about that a lot living in Portland, and will never forget when I first moved to Oregon and found out that my new friends mostly just identified themselves as ‘white.’  “Yes, but what kind of white?” I would ask, and the question didn’t mean anything to them.  In Boston, everyone knows who’s Irish and who’s Italian, but I also remember the Portuguese students in my elementary school’s ESL program, the Polish girl with snowy blond hair, and the annual clam bakes at the Franco-American Club.  I’ve since learned that there is a Sons of Norway hall in Portland and a Ukrainian community in the metro area among others, but it still seems to me that the old country will always be closer to people’s hearts on the east coast than out here.

Portuguese sweet bread was one of those occasional treats with such a distinctive flavor that it sticks with me to this day.  Every now and then I would come home and find a little bag of the dark golden rolls in our bread box.  Their insides were yellow and rich with a hint of citrus, the perfect sweet roll to eat with jam for breakfast or with tea before bed.

So when I got a hankering for that eggy sweet citrus flavor the other day, I turned to the man I trust most when it comes to bread, Peter Reinhart.  His introduction to the recipe talks about how it was tweaked and polished by his students for years, all of whom had childhood memories of that flavor and texture.  It seemed I was in good company.

Portuguese sweet bread

But though the bread was good, and especially so with some boysenberry jelly made by a friend, it still wasn’t the same.  He calls for round loaves, but I remember only rolls.  The breads were a little dry (maybe my fault), which led to a thicker crust rather than the thin, springy crust I was looking for.  I omitted the lemon extract because I didn’t have any, but in future I’ll be sure to include it.  The citrus flavor fell a little flat for me, and though A didn’t notice because he’d never had it before, it just wasn’t close enough to the flavor I remember.

I guess, like they say, you can’t really go home again, but I don’t think that should keep you from trying every now and then.


I’ve heard tell that Hawaiian sweet bread is merely Portuguese by a different name, but I can neither confirm nor deny these rumors, even though I’m pretty sure you can get some commercial versions of Hawaiian bread out here.

A sponge is a type of starter dough, and in this case you let it rise before mixing in the other ingredients because the milk, eggs, and butter will weigh it down.

Portuguese Sweet Bread
Adapted from The Bread Baker’s Apprentice by Peter Reinhart

1/2 C/2.25 oz. unbleached white flour
1 T sugar
1 1/2 T active dry yeast
1/2 C water, room temperature

Mix the yeast into the water with a pinch of the flour and sugar and let sit about five minutes to hydrate.  In a small bowl, mix the remaining flour and sugar, then pour in the yeast mixture.  Stir until smooth, cover with plastic wrap, and ferment at room temperature 60-90 minutes, or until foamy.

Final Dough
6 T sugar
1 t salt
1/4 C/1.25 oz. powdered milk
2 T unsalted butter, room temperature
2 T vegetable shortening
2 eggs
1 t lemon extract
1 t orange extract
1 t vanilla extract
3 C/13.5 oz. unbleached white flour
about 6 T water, room temperature

Egg Wash
1 egg, whisked with a little water until frothy

Combine the sugar, salt, powdered milk, butter, and shortening in a mixing bowl.  Cream until smooth, then mix in the eggs and extracts.  Knead by hand or with the dough hook of your mixer, and mix in the sponge and the flour.  Add water as needed to make a very soft dough.  It should be easy to knead but not wet or sticky; I ran my electric mixer for 10 minutes to achieve this consistency.  Take a little piece and stretch it gently between your fingers; you should be able to create a ‘windowpane,’ or a very thin but strong sheet of dough that you can see light through.  If it breaks before forming a windowpane, continue kneading.  When fully kneaded, put the dough in a lightly-oiled bowl, turn to coat with oil, and cover with plastic wrap.  Ferment at room temperature about 2 hours, or until it doubles in size.

Divide the dough into two equal pieces.  Form each piece into a boule (check out the photos here if you’re not familiar with forming that shape.  I also drag the seam-side of my boule against the work surface a bit to squish the seam together.)  Lightly oil two 9″ pie pans and place each boule, seam-side down, in a pan.  Lightly oil the surface of each boule and cover with plastic wrap.

Let rise 2-3 hours, or until the dough fills the pan.  Brush the top of each loaf with egg wash.  Preheat the oven to 350°.  Bake the loaves 50-60 minutes, rotating the pans halfway through.  The loaves will be a dark brown when they are done due to the high sugar content; don’t worry if they seem to brown too quickly.

Place on a rack to cool, and cool at least 90 minutes before slicing.  Store in plastic to keep soft.  Makes 2 loaves.


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