eggs in a carton

Freshly Baked Tradition

This is a story about tradition, food memories, and baker’s math. 

I have made Portuguese sweet bread at Easter every year since I was able to stand in the kitchen. My mother wrapped a little handkerchief around my head and let me dip my pudgy fingers into a bowl where she had cracked two dozen eggs. My first reaction was utter disgust, and I flayed my hands around the kitchen throwing egg yolk everywhere. 

My Easter baking tradition started at age one.

Over time I got used to it. I learned to work the yeast, eggs, and melted butter into the flour and sugar. I watched my mother leaning over a huge aluminum bowl, pumping her fists into the dough then turning the edges over and over until the golden mass came together. We would nestle the dough into a clean bowl and wrap the whole thing in blankets for the night.

Around five in the morning, we would get up to a bowl overflowing with bubbling dough. I would butter and flour my collection of bread pans and she would make the loaves. Another two hours to let them rise, and then we would bake them, two at a time. 

The house would fill with the sweet yeasty aroma as loaves turned from gooey pale yellow to chestnut brown. 

My mother Herminia shows off her Portuguese sweet bread, Easter 2001

Easter was the first major family holiday after my mom died. I continued with the tradition on my own, feeling both her presence and her absence as I quietly made the bread in my kitchen. I continued the annual tradition in her honor.

Eventually I invited our neighbors’ young daughters to come help me. They were gastronomes in their own right and enthusiastic assistants in the kitchen. To this day they call it the “eggy Easter bread.” 

My mother’s recipe made up to ten loaves, depending on the size of the pans. The tradition is to make enough to share with friends and family. My mother would make it for her bosses, the priest, the neighbors, her physician, and anyone else who showed a curiosity of this Portuguese tradition. 

I did this every year, until I moved to Portugal. The irony is not lost on me — that I would end a lifelong Portuguese tradition the minute I stepped foot on my ancestral soil. There were many reasons for this. I didn’t have my baking pans. I didn’t have a large enough kitchen. I didn’t have a decent oven. I didn’t know what to do with ten loaves of bread.

So for the last six years, I have let Easter go by without making Easter sweet bread. One year I bought a one at a local bakery. It was actually a version of the bread, called a “folar,” in which a whole egg is baked into the dough, a surprise for someone cutting into it. The bakery-made bread was fine, but it wasn’t my mom’s recipe. It highlighted the missing tradition in my life.

So this year, I decided I would resurrect the tradition. I have a reasonable kitchen — far from my dream kitchen, but serviceable — and a functionally accurate oven. I decided I would reduce the recipe to make just one or two loaves.

Introducing baker’s math

Baking, more than cooking, is precise chemistry. There are specific ratios of dry and wet ingredients and fat for different types of breads and pastries. I couldn’t simply divide the recipe in half or a quarter.

Many years ago I asked my mom to write all her favorite recipes. I wanted a record of them because I knew that someday she would not be here to make them with me. 

If you have favorite dishes that your mother, father, grandmother, uncle or anyone makes, please, I beg of you, have them write it down. Then pay attention to how they make it. Techniques are everything. Take notes. Make it with them. You will not regret it. 

But her recipes were notoriously vague. Luckily I had done it with her for decades and I took meticulous notes. My mother wrote and followed recipes like many home bakers and cooks do — by volume. Eight cups of flour. Two dozen eggs. Three packets of yeast. Three sticks of butter. The problem is that eggs’ weights vary, as does the amount of yeast in a packet.

Then there are the variations of ingredients in the U.S. vs Europe. In Portugal, the flour is different, from a softer wheat. Butter sticks may vary in size. Yeast packets have different amounts. Eggs vary in size everywhere, yielding different amounts of liquid. That doesn’t even address conversions to metric weights and measures!

The most accurate way to bake is measure ingredients by weight. So I estimated the weight of the ingredients in the original recipe using King Arthur’s Ingredient Weight Chart. From there, I did the calculations to reduce the recipe so it would yield only one or two loaves instead of ten.

Here is the result; a gigantic loaf. The dough was wetter than it should have been but overall it’s a close approximation. The house smells amazing, just like our little cottage where I grew up.

Most importantly, I able to reconnect to a lifelong tradition and evoke memories of baking and cooking with my mom.

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