Portuguese Sweet Bread: The Story
12/18/19 Update to this post: We recently found that the event link in the original post went to a page that no longer exists. So, we sent an email to the Kona Historical Society. They were very kind to reply with the following information, “Yes, we still have our forno, stone oven, where our team of Kona Historical Society employees and volunteers baked Portuguese white, wheat and sweet bread weekly. We also do Special Bakes for the holidays like tomorrow’s. To get more info, please visit our website. Here’s a link: https://konahistorical.org/kalukalu.”
Every Thursday between 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. visitors to the Kona Historical Society’s brick oven in Kealakekua on Hawaii’s Big Island can experience and participate in the baking of Portuguese Sweet Bread. It is a happy occasion bringing together people from all over the world who get to meet, know each other for a short while, and taste the result of their efforts. In other words, it’s great fun.
The Portuguese began arriving in Kona in the 1870s from the Azores and Madeira to help develop and manage dairies, a large part of Hawaii’s ranching industry. They brought with them their talent for baking bread which eventually spread throughout the islands. Wherever Portuguese dairymen and sugar plantation workers settled, you’d see their outdoor dome-shaped stone ovens.
Construction of the Kona Historical Society’s stone oven began in May 2005 and it became functional in January 2006. The young bakers, Lewis and Carla Draxlir, recently began the weekly demonstrations.
Bread takes time to rise, but the large brick oven takes even more time to heat up. Lewis and Carla or another volunteer fires it up 6 a.m. using keawe, a reddish hardwood that generates a high heat.
Lewis said that for the best heat he layers the wood systematically within the oven’s chamber and ignites it with smaller kindling. After about 4 hours, he and Carla rake out the coals.
While the oven heats, Lewis prepares batches of dough, each weighing 24 pounds, in a large Hobart mixer. By 10 a.m. 144 pounds of dough have risen and are ready to be shaped into 96 pans of rolls.
Here Lewis deflates a 24-pound mass of dough with his fists on the plastic surface covering the wood table.
Then he divides the dough into sixteen 1 ½ pound portions.
Each portion gets rolled out under the palms into a long “snake”. Here is Carla shaping a snake with the brick oven in the background. Art created by visitors is visible under the clear plastic surface.
Lewis pinches the dough snake into 7 lumps of dough and will form them into rolls. Carla is in the background instructing helpful visitors.
Everyone pitches in to help, but we’re no match for Lewis and Carla who work extremely fast, cupping a lump of dough under each palm and rolling them rapidly to form round rolls with smooth tops in just a few seconds! Talk about wizardry!
The shaped rolls are arranged into foil pans. One down, 95 to go!
As each pan is ready, it’s placed under a cloth and the rolls are left alone to rise until they’ve doubled in size. Then they’re ready to be brushed with egg and baked.