portuguese sweet bread

Freshly baked Portuguese sweet bread.

Photo: Megan Spelman

Bake Portuguese sweet bread in a stone forno at the Kona Historical Society

In this Kona tradition, young and old gather to bake Portuguese sweet bread and take a bite out of this delectable part of the Big Island’s multicultural history.

Nestled along the slopes of the dormant Hualalai volcano on Hawaii Island, a traditional stone forno (Portuguese for “oven”) burns with sweet anticipation.  Master baker Laurie Westrich, her hair wrapped up in a palaka (checkered) bandana and wearing a matching apron dusted with white flour, rakes the hot kiawe coals heating up the forno’s domed interior, prepping this morning in Kealakekua for fresh loaves of Hawaii’s beloved Portuguese sweet bread. 

sweet bread
Master baker Laurie Westrich shovels a tin of bread into the forno. 
Photo: Megan Spelman

“The Portuguese would eat this on special occasions,” Westrich says, meaning religious holidays such as Christmas, Easter and Lent. She returns to a communal table fronting the forno where a gaggle of museum visitors, regular volunteers and myself are already deep into the first batch of pão doce, or sweet bread. Here at the Kona Historical Society, that special occasion is a standard Thursday, and, for more than a decade, traditional Portuguese sweet-bread-baking demos have been taking place beneath its H.N. Greenwell Museum each week as a way of sharing the island’s regional immigrant story with visitors.

Because if there’s one chapter of its narrative worth telling (and, then, tasting), it’s how Hawaii’s Portuguese conquered the art of bread. While many may already be familiar with the Islands’ proliferation of Portuguese sausage and Portuguese bean soup (it’s in their names, after all), what’s been mass manufactured and commercially co-opted as “Hawaiian sweet bread”—those soft, fluffy, slightly sweet circular rolls filling tummies at resort luau and lining grocery-store aisles across the world—is, in fact, a Portuguese concoction, too. “It’s just like regular bread,” one of the volunteers says, downplaying its recipe, before adding with a sly smile, “except with double the eggs and sugar.”

sweet bread
Three varieties include whole-wheat, white and sweet breads. 
Photo: Megan Spelman

It’s just past 10 a.m. and we’re pinching and rolling evenly-shaped, fist-sized balls from a mountainous bucket of dough, mixed and kneaded hours prior in a neighboring certified kitchen. Westrich casually looks over our shoulders and offers tips on the best techniques for evenly dividing the mixture and achieving the bread’s smooth appearance. “Be aggressive,” she says, twisting the heavy, but surprisingly soft dough on the tabletop with just her index finger and thumb with a proficiency we all attempt to match. Next, we neatly arrange seven dollops each into round aluminum tins, and volunteers polish the loaves with an egg wash. Finally, when Westrich determines the temperature is just right (400 degrees), she packs them into the forno. About 20 to 30 minutes later, the door of the forno is opened, and the alchemy of butter, eggs and sugar hits us like a strong, warm breeze. By half past noon, we’ve finished baking nearly 100 loaves of Portuguese bread in three varieties—white, whole-wheat and the ever-popular sweet bread—sold for $8 each with proceeds used to fund the nonprofit’s preservation projects and maintenance of historic sites around the Kona district.

sweet bread
Volunteers roll about 100 loaves.
Photo: Megan Spelman

Not many traditional forno like the one at Kona Historical Society still exist in the Islands or are used as frequently as this one. Remnants of them dot the Kona mountains and provided the blueprint for its re-creation; they also indicate where Portuguese families dwelled upon arriving here in 1878. The first wave of Portuguese immigrants to arrive in Hawaii Island hailed from the Azores and Madeira, a set of rocky islands about a two-hour plane ride from continental Portugal, to work its booming sugarcane economy. In the 1920s, a nascent dairy industry took root in Kona and the Portuguese proved their expertise in milking and managing cows (dairy was a major industry in their motherland, so they already had the skills and knowledge necessary to build pens and herd the animals), which allowed them to prosper in Hawaii after the sugar industry began to subside. Unique to the Portuguese immigrants, their labor contracts also allowed them to relocate with their entire families. As a result, they traveled to the Islands with intentions to stay, bringing the customs, traditions and recipes they held most dear, notably pão doce. Given that the Azores and Madeira are also volcanic islands, the forno, fashioned out of lava rocks, was almost second nature for the families to construct. Thus began the rise of Portuguese sweet bread in Hawaii.

sweet bread
Children learn from volunteers how to divide the dough into equal-sized portions.
Photo: Megan Spelman

That ohana-centric presence endures here at Kona Historical Society’s Thursday gatherings and is an element in which the organization takes obvious pride. Volunteers range from children to grandparents, everyone putting their hands to productive use around the multi-generational forno, replicating not just an oven, but a scene that played out in Kona more than 100 years ago. In this keiki-to-kupuna (child-to-elder) ratio of about 1-to-4, as the aroma of sweet bread wafts from the forno and surrounds us like a sweet embrace, you quickly see, smell and taste the adage: It takes a village to raise Portuguese sweet bread.

Kona Historical Society Portuguese sweet bread baking: Free, every Thursday, 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., Kona Historical Society, 81-6551 Mamalahoa Highway (Highway 11), about 14 miles south of Kailua-Kona, between mile markers 111 and 112, (808) 323-3222, konahistorical.org.

sweet bread
Photo: Megan Spelman

Portuguese Sweet Bread Recipe

Recipe courtesy Kona Historical Society

1.  Mix together in a big bowl: 2 cups warm water, 4 packages dry yeast. 

2. Stir in: 2 cups sugar, 2 sticks melted butter, 4 eggs. 

3.  Stir in, one cup at a time: 8 cups bread flour. 

4. Stir in up to 2 more cups of flour as needed to make a soft dough. 

5. When dough is too difficult to stir, turn out on a floured table and knead in the rest of the flour for about 3 to 5 minutes. Add more flour, if needed, to keep the dough from sticking to the table. Put the dough back in the bowl and cover it until it has doubled in size (about 1 hour).

6. Punch the dough down and form into 4 equal sized loaves. Pinch off 7 equal pieces of dough from each loaf, roll and place in greased 9-inch round aluminum pans. 

7. Let the dough rise again until doubled in size (about 1 hour) and brush with egg wash (1 egg mixed with 2 tablespoons water).

8. Bake in a 400-degree oven for about 20 to 30 minutes.

Additional Information:

This story originally appeared in the July/August 2017 print issue of HAWAII Magazine. Get your copy by contacting our Circulation Department at help@hawaiimagazine.com or call 800-788-4230.