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Get Baked! Making Portuguese sweetbread with Kona Historical Society

The large, lava-rock forno (Portuguese for “oven”), modeled after the ruins of an oven on an old Kona dairy farm, took 
several months to plan and construct. Modern-day stonemasons consulted with several families in the east Big Island town of Honoka‘a who still maintained working stone ovens. The Kona Historical Society’s oven is part of larger plans to eventually build a living history ranch on the site.

“There has been so much change in Kona. Our identity and sense of place and history were being lost,” says historical society program director Ku‘ulani Auld, a fifth-generation Kona resident. “This is part of our story. A way to talk about our multiethnic heritage. The Portuguese are a piece of that. And the oven is how we tell that story.”

Visitors are invited to help bakers roll the sweetbread dough into spheres, which are placed in aluminum pans for baking. The finished loaves are later sold to the public.

It took some time for bakers to learn how to use their brand-new, Old World oven once it was completed—tweaking proper baking temperatures and processes to arrive at a perfect loaf of sweetbread. With a traditional Portuguese forno everything matters—oven temperature, ingredients, even humidity and weather conditions.

“It’s an art, but it’s also a science,” Holland says.

As it turns out, the 6 a.m. lighting of the cavernous oven, filled with kiawe wood, is, the bakers tell me, the least authentic part of the sweetbread-baking experience.
“Here’s this big stone oven and we light it with a big propane tank,” says baker Nicole Freshley, laughing. “But it’s the most efficient way to do it.”

The kiawe wood inside the oven needs to burn down for a few hours. Bakers then rake out the hot coals to allow the heat inside the oven to equalize. Oven temperatures, which peak at 1,000°F, must drop to 400°F to allow sweetbread, with its high sugar content, to bake properly. The dough for the sweetbread—each weekly batch made with 48 sticks of forno-melted butter—is mixed and prepared for rolling throughout the morning in a certified kitchen owned by neighboring coffee grower Greenwell Farms. The near-final task of the process, however, is the part of the day bakers enjoy the most. At 10 a.m., visitors are invited to help roll the dough into small spheres, placing seven each into round aluminum pans for baking.

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Check out these related HawaiiMagazine.com posts:
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How to mail order Hawaii-made Portuguese sausage on the Mainland

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