A Sweet Bread, A Wash Basin And A Shot Of Whiskey

Dec 13, 2012
Originally published on March 26, 2013 6:45 pm

For the holidays, why not give a gift that tastes like a cloud? Portuguese Sweet Bread may be as close as you can get, according to Marilynn Brass, one-half of the cookbook duo the Brass Sisters.

Marilynn and her sister Sheila — co-authors of Heirloom Baking with the Brass Sisters — collect stories as well as recipes. On Thursday's All Things Considered, they explain that the story that goes with this airy treat, recounted to them by their friend David Lima, is a keeper. They shared the recipe and story for All Things Considered's Found Recipe series.

Like all the girls in her family, Virginia Lima, born on one of Portugal's Azores islands in the early part of the 20th century, was taught how to make bread. As a wife and working mother living in Providence, R.I., in the 1950s, she kept the tradition alive every holiday by making loaves of her Portuguese Sweet Bread.

Lima's youngest child, David, liked to keep her company in the kitchen. He offers the following details about her technique: Mrs. Lima would take a large, enamel basin — big enough to wash a small child in — and tie it to a red metal step stool with a rope. That's where she'd mix her dough by hand. No electric mixer.

She'd activate the yeast in a separate bowl, then measure out her flour into the basin. As she mixed the liquid into the dough, she'd add an interesting ingredient — two teaspoons of whiskey. She'd then cross herself and say a prayer that the bread would come out right and nourish all who ate it. She'd knead and pound for a long time, then take a break and pour a little whiskey into a shot glass to reward herself.

Once the bread was baked, she'd give the loaves to family and friends as an act of love and remembrance for the souls of the departed.

Sometimes David would get her to make dinner rolls shaped like doughnuts or tied in knots. They'd always eat the bread just as it was, David told the Brass Sisters. He never tried toasting it until he was an adult.

Eventually, the Brass Sisters tried Virginia Lima's recipe for themselves. "The scent was heavenly," Sheila recalls, "and the taste was like the best French brioche, with sugar added."

Mrs. Lima would make up to seven loaves in her huge washbasin, but the Brass Sisters have adapted her recipe for a smaller yield. And, in a touch that's sure to please many, they also increased the amount of whiskey.

Recipe: Virginia Lima's Portuguese Sweet Bread

3/4 cup milk
2 packages (4 1/2 teaspoons) quick-rising yeast
1/2 cup water, warmed to 110 degrees
1 cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar, divided
5 1/2 to 6 cups flour
1/2 cup butter
2 teaspoons salt
3 eggs, beaten
2 tablespoons whiskey or 1 teaspoon lemon extract
1 egg, beaten, for glaze

Set the oven rack in the middle position. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Coat two 9-inch cake pans with vegetable spray or butter.

Warm milk in microwave for 40 seconds on low. Set aside.

Dissolve yeast in warm water. Add 1 tablespoon of the sugar and set in a warm place to proof, about 10 minutes. Mixture will bubble when yeast is proofed.

Mix 5 1/2 cups of the flour, 1 cup of the sugar and the butter and salt in the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Add eggs. Add yeast mixture and whiskey or lemon extract. Add up to 3/4 cup milk gradually, continuing to work the dough. If dough continues to be sticky, add remaining 1/2 cup flour until dough firms up. Change to the dough hook and continue to knead for 5 minutes at medium speed.

Butter a large bowl. Place dough in bowl and turn it so that all surfaces have a film of butter. Put in a warm place and allow to rise until double in size, about one hour.

Punch down dough and divide in half. Shape into 2 rounds, using a little flour if necessary. Place in cake pans and let rise for 30 minutes. Make slit on top. Brush with beaten egg. Bake 40 to 45 minutes, or until crust is golden brown. Cool on rack. Slice bread with a serrated knife. Store in a plastic bag when completely cool.

Recipe excerpted from Heirloom Baking with the Brass Sisters: More than 100 Years of Recipes Discovered and Collected by the Queens of Comfort Food, by Marilynn and Sheila Brass. Copyright 2006 by Marilynn and Sheila Brass. Excerpted by permission of Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.


Time now for a found recipe.


SHEILA BRASS: And I'm Sheila.

BRASS: We're the Brass sisters and we love Portuguese sweet bread.

SIEGEL: The Brass sisters of Cambridge, Massachusetts are back by popular demand. And today, they want to share a recipe with us that a friend and co-worker once shared with them. David Lima said his mother's Portuguese sweet bread was a holiday fixture when he grew up during the 1950s in Providence, Rhode Island. And the Brass sisters, curators of Heirloom Recipes, couldn't wait to try it themselves.

BRASS: The scent was heavenly. The taste was like the best French brioche with sugar added.

BRASS: But it had a Portuguese accent.

BRASS: It's like biting into a cloud or eating a cloud.

BRASS: Celestial.

BRASS: Celestial. And I asked David what he put on it and he said, we just ate it as is. Virginia Lima was a really special person. She was married for more than 50 years. She had three children.

BRASS: David was the youngest and he used that to his advantage because...

BRASS: Just like you did.

BRASS: All right, we won't get personal, Sheila. He loved spending time with his mother in the kitchen. One of the things that David did was to give us a description of how she prepared his Portuguese sweet bread.

BRASS: It was obviously a traditional recipe.

BRASS: Almost a ritual.

BRASS: Right. Mrs. Lima used a red metal step stool. She used an enamel basin with two handles, a large one.

BRASS: It was sort of something that you would wash things in, but she was scrupulously clean about washing it before she used it for baking.

BRASS: She used rope to tie the basin onto the step stool.

BRASS: You know, with the two handles.

BRASS: She cracked open her eggs and she made a depression in the middle of the flour. Then, she added an unusual ingredient for bread. She added two teaspoons of whiskey to a shot glass and she just flipped that into the dough. And then, she rewarded herself, as the baker, by allowing herself to also have two teaspoons of whisky in the shot glass.

BRASS: And then she made the sign of the cross over the bread and she said a prayer and that prayer was that the bread would come out right and that it would nourish the people who ate it. Mrs. Lima would give most of the loaves away to family and friends in remembrance of those who had left, in remembrance and with love.

BRASS: When you think about some of the terms about bread, you think of the word companion, somebody that you break bread with together. And when you think about the prayers that are said over bread, bread is the staff of life and Virginia Lima knew how to sustain life for her family in Providence, Rhode Island.

BRASS: And we hope you'll get a chance to try to make this bread yourself and we hope you have a wonderful holiday.

SIEGEL: Sheila and Marilyn Brass, the Brass sisters, authors of "Heirloom Baking." And you can find the recipe for Portuguese sweet bread at our website, NPR.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.