Easter in Portugal is not about bunnies and eggs, as the country is rich in age-old traditions and rituals that celebrate the main feast in the Christian liturgical year. Domestic celebrations always include the folar da pascoa or Portuguese Easter bread, a sweet or savory bread that comes with a boiled egg in the middle, representing rebirth and the resurrection of Christ, very symbolic during the Easter celebrations.
Forget chocolate bunnies, colored eggs or peeps. Portuguese sweet bread or folar da pascoa is something to get egg-cited about during the Easter season in Portugal. The Portuguese sweet bread or pao doce (pan dulce), is traditionally made with milk, sugar, eggs, flour and/or honey that produces a subtle sweetness.
In the 1950s up until as late as the 70s, these dome like shaped loaves were baked in an outdoor wood burning oven called forno. These ovens were built of stone and took on a beehive resemblance. Portuguese sweet bread or massa sovada (“kneaded bread”) or simply massa, pao doce is a light and airy bread usually made during Christmas and Easter. It is also enjoyed throughout the year for breakfast, during meals and even served as a dessert.
There are many variations of this sweet and savory bread. Some recipes call for raisins, lemon zest, rum or whisky to intensify the flavor. I mean a little whisky in our bread is good for the heart and if not the heart then definitely to lighten the mood!
This delicious bread has maintained its popularity and its tradition within the Portuguese immigrant communities in the United States. It is most common in areas with large populations of Portuguese Americans such as northern New Jersey, southern Florida, California and Toronto and it is prominent in Hawaiian and New England cuisine.
The first Portuguese immigrants came from the Azores and settled on the East coast of Southern New England to work in the fishing and whaling industry during the late 18th century. A century later, another group of immigrants settled on the West Coast in San Francisco Bay area to work in the dairy and farming industry.
The Portuguese sweet bread was introduced to Hawaii in the late 1800s when the sugar plantation migrants arrived in Hawaii from Portugal’s Madeira and Azores islands. At one time, Hawaii featured numerous fornos for baking this folar da pascoa constructed by Portuguese immigrants.
While the island style bread is a bit airier than those made in Portugal, it is still one of the most popular breads in Hawaii and similar to the popular hot cross buns found in other countries.
The eggs baked in the dough of the bread stem from the Pagan festival Oestre (egg) where eggs were used to symbolize the rebirth of Christ. Despite regional variations such as lemon zest or cinnamon, they all contain hard boiled eggs, held in place by a cross of bread dough.
Sweet breads and brioches are popular recipes for Easter and Christmas in Christian countries. Some examples include panettone from Italy, pan de Pascua from Chile, vanocka from the Czech republic, pasca from Moldova, cozonac from Bulgaria and Romania, or Greek tsoureki.
How to make folar da Pascoa
Let’s get to the actual making of this bread. Since we do not have the pleasure of a forno, we are using our traditional oven set at a low 320 F. This bread does not need a high temp to bake.
It is extremely important that you take the time, at least 15 minutes to grow your yeast. If after this time, you do not get a fluffy, frothy, bread smelling like consistency in your yeast, discard it and start over.
This recipe calls for 8 cups of flour, only add 7 cups at first and hold back the 8th cup to add later after you have added your liquids. This is to ensure you do not over knead your dough, and it becoming too hard and dried out. Then your bread will be dry and hard after baking.
Our recipe has fennel seeds, do not fear the fennel. It adds the most delicious, subtle anise flavor to the bread. Allow the dough to rest at least an hour and a half or until it has doubled in size. Make sure you set it in a warm area. This aides in the rising of the dough.
This sweet and savory bread is usually served simply with butter and is sometimes served with a rice pudding known as arroz doce. I love to smear some Nutella or even a bit of jelly on mine and enjoyed with a hot cup of tea!
Folar da Pascoa is a deliciously airy Portuguese sweet bread or brioche, that is traditionally prepared for Easter. The eggs at the top symbolize the rebirth of the Christ.
- 8 cups flour
- 1 cup sugar
- 3 tablespoons active dry yeast
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon fennel seeds
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 6 eggs , beaten
- ½ cup unsalted butter (very soft)
- ¾ cup milk (or more)
- 12 hard-boiled brown eggs (unpeeled)
- 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
- ¼ cup flour
- 2 egg yolks
- 1 tablespoon milk
Heat the milk to 95 F. Mix the milk and yeast well until the yeast is completely dissolved. Set it aside for 15 minutes.
In the bowl of a stand mixer, mix the flour, sugar, cinnamon and fennel seeds and dig a well in the middle.
Pour the yeast and milk into the bowl, in the center of the well. Using the dough hook, start kneading at low speed.
Immediately pour the eggs and butter and knead at low speed for 5 minutes.
Add the salt and, at medium/high speed, knead for 10 minutes until a smooth and obtaining a smooth and homogeneous texture. Add a little milk while kneading if necessary.
Place the dough in a large floured bowl.
Cover it with a cloth and let it rise for about 1h30 in a warm place, away from drafts. The dough must at least double in size.
Place the dough on a floured work surface and knead it with the palm of your hands.
Cut a piece of dough big enough to shape 6 strips. Set it aside.
Divide the rest of the dough into 3 equal dough pieces and place them in buttered and floured round molds.
On each dough, place 4 whole hard-boiled eggs in a cross shape.
Roll the reserved piece of dough and cut 6 strips.
On each loaf, place a long strip of dough to partially cover 2 hard-boiled eggs. Repeat in the other direction to cover the other two hard-boiled eggs. The strips of dough will thus form a cross.
Beat the egg yolks and the milk and brush the 3 loaves. Let rise again for 10 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 320 F. Bake for about 40 minutes.
You can "secure" the eggs by placing 2 long strips of dough cross as explained in the recipe or you can use 4 strips, each one covering 2 adjacent eggs.