American Table

A Hawaiian History of Sweet Breads

They were born in Portuguese homes and raised in Hawaiian bakeries.

Published May 22, 2018.

By the time the time Mrs. M.F. de Rego took top honors in the “Portuguese sweet bread” category at the 1919 Maui Fair, sweet rolls and breads were as Hawaiian as slow-roasted pork and plate lunches. But like many popular Hawaiian foods, they weren't exactly native.

Sweetened breads came to the islands with the Portuguese immigrants who flooded Hawaii in the mid-to-late 19th century to work the livestock ranches and sugarcane plantations. The newcomers were embraced by the business community—as Honolulu newspaper The Pacific Commercial Advertiser dubiously editorialized in 1878, “Those employing [the Portuguese immigrants] prefer them to any other laborers because they never get drunk . . .”

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By 1910, another Honolulu newspaper, The Democrat, counted the number of Portuguese immigrants in Hawaii at more than 20,000. Many of these families baked their own breads using recipes brought from home, but when refined sugar was scarce or expensive (most of the sugar produced on the islands was destined for export), they used local ingredients like honey and pineapple juice as sweeteners.

Shortly before Hawaii became a state in 1959, Japanese-American Robert Taira opened Robert’s Bakery in Hilo, where bakers specialized in sweet Portuguese-style breads. A move to King Street in Honolulu a decade later prompted a name change to King’s Bakery, and distribution soared. Mainlanders took to transporting the breads home as souvenirs; they became so popular in California that King’s eventually moved its center of operations to Torrance, California, spurring another name change to King’s Hawaiian.

Today, a few families continue to bake Portuguese-style sweetened breads in large, hive-shaped outdoor ovens built by hand, particularly in the Kona region on the Big Island. Local kiawe wood, which burns hot and slow, is the preferred fuel.

When we were developing our own Hawaiina sweet rolls, we looked to King's rolls. They are soft and fluffy—not as eggy as challah, not as buttery as brioche. They are sweet but not cloying, and the flavor is distinct but elusive: tangy, fruity, almost earthy. Always game for a challenge, I set out to develop my own Hawaiian sweet roll recipe and learn just what made King's reign supreme.


Hawaiian Sweet Rolls

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It wasn't hard to find copycat recipes claiming to be just like King's. None was illuminating to read, but a few did call for a curious ingredient: pineapple juice. There isn't any in King's, but I was intrigued. So I baked a few batches of rolls and set up a blind tasting alongside a package of King's. After identifying my favorites, I shuffled back through my notes. The rolls that used pineapple juice were the best.

I drafted a working recipe based on these early tests. Flour, sugar, yeast, and salt composed the dry ingredients; pineapple juice, milk, and half a stick of melted butter made up the wet. A few tests showed the ideal amount of pineapple juice to be 1 cup, supplemented by ½ cup of whole milk.

These rolls were tangy and flavorful but not quite sweet enough. I inched up on sugar until I reached ½ cup; now the sweetness was there, but the rolls lacked complexity. A switch from sugar to honey did the trick, adding an earthiness to my rolls. And since honey is sweeter than sugar, I needed only ⅓ cup. I added an egg for structure, and for even more richness, I increased the butter to 6 tablespoons in the dough, with 2 more tablespoons brushed on the just-baked rolls.

I was nearly there, but my rolls lacked brightness. I needed extra acidity without extra pineapple juice: Cue white vinegar. Just 2 teaspoons did it. Adding 2 teaspoons of vanilla enhanced the flavor without distracting from it; a bit more salt brought everything into balance.

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