Sunday, December 13, 2020

Portuguese Honey Bread, Revisited

Bolo de mel. 
Photo by TeWeBs, found on Wikimedia Commons
Back in 2010, I posted a recipe that my mother found in an issue of Good Housekeeping magazine back in the 1970s called "Portuguese Honey Bread."  The recipe, as a look at my post will show, had some unusual ingredients, as well as more normal ingredients in unusual quantities.  11 cups of flour! A 1/4 cup of cinnamon (and the recipe said "yes, 1/4 cup")!  A third of a cup of cold mashed potatoes!  And  a half a cup of sherry.  Most of the ingredients are dry ingredients; there are less than 3 cups of wet ingredients in the whole thing, not counting the butter (in a generous amount) and the mashed potatoes.  The bread was nearly uncuttable fresh out of the oven, but after being wrapped up and aged for about a week, it became a wonderful, dense, spice bread.

This week I decided to see whether I could get any more information about the recipe.  Is this a traditional Portuguese recipe, or was the adjective "Portuguese" just put in the name to catch readers' eyes?

I have still not found more information as to whether the recipe is traditional--but I did find other "Portuguese Honey Bread" recipes.  Other than the fact that they are all spice breads or cakes, those recipes are different from the one my mother and I made--some dramatically so.  Some of them I had stumbled upon back in 2010 when I was first exploring the recipe.

One can be read on Epicurious.  It has no mashed potatoes, only a tame quarter teaspoon of cinnamon, and only 4 1/2 cups of flour.  It does have alcohol--a quarter-cup of port, instead of the half cup of sherry in the recipe we made.  And it has three large eggs--which the GH recipe we tried did not.  The Epicurious recipe recommends double wrapping the bread as we did, but for the sake of preserving it, not for aging purposes.

I found another recipe on a blog called Tea With Friends.  The blogger claimed that she found the recipe in a 1969 issue of Good Housekeeping which she found at a yard sale.  Since that date was close enough to the date I recalled of my experiment with my mother, I was very interested.  Further, the blog post containing the recipe she used showed a page from the magazine, with a photograph of a completed bread that had been baked in a pan made so that a sculpted rose would appear on the finished cake, and that photograph looked familiar to me.  

But the recipe she gives is quite different from the one Mom and I made!  It had most of the same ingredients--including the sherry and mashed potatoes--but in much more modest proportions.  Four and one-half cups of flour.  A bare two tablespoons of sherry.  Two tablespoons of mashed potatoes.  Significantly less sugar than in the recipe my mother and I made.  And so on.  Speaking of potatoes, here's one that substitutes instant potatoes for the mashed potatoes, over at Ukrainian Classic Kitchen and International Cuisine.

A fourth recipe, found on the blog Eliot's Eats, is attributed to Gourmet Today.  It's different from the those previously discussed.  It requires three eggs, for one thing (the others have no eggs).  It contains port, like the Epicurious recipe, and about one and one-half cups of dried fruit (cranberries, mixed candied fruits), and modest amounts of spices.  Unlike the others, it also contains yeast (the blogger calls it a "quick bread/yeast bread hybrid").

Finally, from comes a recipe titled "Pao de Mel (Portuguese Honey Bread)."  This recipe uses only three cups of flour, a bit of cloves (or nutmeg, your choice), and chocolate, in addition to other ingredients.  There are no other spices and no mashed potatoes, fruit, or alcohol among those other ingredients.

I could probably go on, but I'm sure my readers get the idea.  

A quick web search for "Portuguese bread" turned up a number of pages, including several pages of the list of "Portuguese breads of note" variety.  Apparently, the Portuguese love breads, both sweet and savory.  

It's certainly possible that the recipe my mother and I used was an erroneous redaction of the 1969 GH recipe that got printed in a slightly later issue of the magazine.  But what of the other recipes?  Which comes closest to the original--if indeed there can be said to be an "original" recipe?  And do any of these recipes have any connection with Portugal, or the Portuguese?  All of the recipes include honey, and Portugal produces some very fine honey.  Perhaps in Portugal any "quick" bread that contains honey is a "Portuguese honey bread"?  

I did find mention of a cake called "bolo de mel," which means "honey cake." Bolo de mel includes molasses, which the "honey bread" recipes (including the one we made) do, but the photographs I've found (except maybe the one which appears with this post) look softer than the honey bread Mom and I made, even though they're all the right shade of brown.  Besides, if bolo de mel is the forerunner or inspiration for the "Portuguese honey bread" recipes I've found, why don't any of those recipes contain Madiera wine, since the recipes contain alcohol, and bolo de mel is a Madieran recipe?  On the other hand, bolo de mel includes star anise, and the recipe my mother and I used contains anise--providing a similar taste. has some interesting things to say about bolo de mel (scroll down for the quoted language).  Unfortunately, I do not know the source/s for the facts it asserts.  But as described on the site, it certainly resembles what my mother and I made.

"With its many sugarcane plantations,  Island became an important depot for sugar production for all of Portugal’s colonies. This dark, spicy cake is made with honey from sugarcane, nuts, cloves, star anise, and cinnamon, and has a strong flavor of molasses. The cake is considered to be Madeira’s oldest dessert, dating back 600 years. Madeira Islanders usually prepare it on December 8, the day of the Immaculate Conception, but it can be found year-round on the island as well as in Lisbon. Note: In accordance with local tradition, the cake should be cut with your hand, not with a knife."

Perhaps bolo de mel is the "Portuguese Honey Bread" we made.  Currently I have no solid solution to the mystery.  If any of my readers do, or if they at least have any interesting ideas or similar recipes, hopefully they will comment on this post.

EDIT: (3/14/2021)  I just remembered, or think I remembered, something that strengthens the case for our "Portuguese Honey Bread" being bolo de mel.  I believe the issue of Good Housekeeping where Mom found the recipe we made was in a Christmas issue.  That harmonizes with's statement that bolo de mel is usually made in December for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception.  If I find any further information that relates to this topic, I'll probably write another post.

2D EDIT:  (3/14/2021)  I re-read my original post on "Portuguese Honey Bread" from 2010, and in it I said that Mom and I found the recipe "late one fall in the special Christmas edition of one of the "women's" magazines--I think it was Good Housekeeping, but I'm not sure."  So it did appear in association with Christmas!  I have also found some web references relating to bolo de mel that I will discuss in a future post.

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