I miss my grandmother, my Avo, very much right now. Today is Good Friday, and though I am not personally religious I grew up in a very Catholic family, with Easter being sacred. And because I love and respect my family and this faith that led me to mine, I still feel strongly connected to this holiday.
Massa Sovada – Portuguese sweet bread – is always made in my family for Easter. For as long as I can remember my mother starts on Holy Saturday, mixing dough and shaping loaves, and by the time we go to bed the house is filled with sweetness. We then dig into the bread for breakfast, cracking the hard-boiled eggs baked inside. That is, I enjoyed the bread until I developed an allergy to milk and gluten. After that Easter morning meant either indulging and feeling very sick or abstaining and being jealous – neither a fun feeling on such a spiritually cleansing day!
Mom learned from her mother-in-law, my Portuguese father’s mother. And though Avo didn’t teach me this recipe, I inherited several family recipes, skills and techniques from her through my mother and my Tia Vidalia. I bake so much, so often. But it’s when I’m baking these rare, sweet, simple family recipes that I feel that much more connected to my food, and to home.
Last night I began my second go at making this traditional Portuguese Easter Masa bread both gluten-free and with almond milk instead of cow’s milk. Similar to the first batch I worried at the proportions, at the specific mix of flours, and if the yeast would rise. But this batch came out even better than the last! I mixed, kneaded, set the bowl on my radiator wrapped in towels and, less than two hours later, pulled out a beautiful mound of squishy dough. I turned this dough out on my pastry board and kneaded it into loaves, marveling at the silkiness and elasticity. This morning I awoke to the scent of lemon, almond, flour and yeast, and felt my grandmother with me. This bread she’s made dozens and dozens of times. Recipes she knew by touch and feel, not by book or blog.
I miss her so much.
Avo passed away in August. And though we never shared a common language, and while I’ll always regret not spending more time with her in the kitchen when her mind and body were with her, I will always think of her when I bake during Easter, sitting at my table with a cup of tea, as my gluten-free massa sovada bakes and fills my NYC apartment with home.
This recipe is for her. I am so lucky to have it.
Gluten-Free Portuguese Easter Bread (Masa Sovada)
Click here for my second go -they’re both delicious. The second batch was slightly less dense.
Notes: Like the best kinds of recipes that get passed down from one generation to another, this massa recipe requires time, patience, and an understanding that you might have to make it more than once to “get it”. My mother, for all her love and trying, never made massa the same way my avo did, despite using her exact recipe. It’s about feelings, and preferences, and working with your hands. So here’s how I could best articulate how this recipe works for me. xx
- 16 Tablespoons / 2 sticks unsalted butter
- 1 1/2 cup unsweetened milk – I used almond, but cow’s or soy will work too
- 10 cups of gluten-free flour with xanthan gum (I used a combination that made me ten cups: 2 cups sweet white rice flour, 3 cups brown rice flour, 1 1/2 cup quinoa flour, 2 cups arrowroot starch, 1 cup millet flour, 1 cup tapioca flour, 4 tsp xanthan gum)
- 3 packets active dry yeast
- About 1/2 cup of warm water
- 6 eggs at room temperature or slightly warmed
- 1 1/2 cup white sugar
- 4 Tbsp whiskey (distilled liquor does not contain gluten, but omit if you’re cautious).
- The zest of 2 lemons
- 1 1/2 tsp lemon extract
- 3/4 tsp almond extract
- 1 tsp salt
- Extra butter or egg, for brushing on the loaves before baking
- Make sure your flours are thoroughly blended, either with a whisk or sifter.
- In a saucepan, start to melt your butter. Heat the milk on the stove or in the microwave until at room temperature or warmer.
- In a small bowl, dissolve yeast in warm water thoroughly with a fork, until all clumps are gone.
- In the bowl of a standing mixer with the bread hook attachment, whip eggs until creamy.
- Add sugar and whip at medium speed until very creamy, about 3 minutes.
- Meanwhile make sure butter is melted and slowly whisk in milk. Turn off heat and but keep warm.
- When the sugar/butter is creamy, add lemon zest, lemon and almond extracts, salt and whiskey and mix to combine.
- Add 1o cups of flour and the butter mixture. Mix SLOWLY until just incorporated.
- SLOWLY add in yeast mixture (mine splattered everywhere! Oh no!). Mix on low until incorporated, then increase speed slowly, eventually up to medium, until completely combined.
- Mix until the dough becomes smooth and pulls together. My visual is when the dough has “crawled” its way up the bread hook as much as possible, pulling together in a weird, tornado-looking thing.
- Remove to a pastry board lightly floured withe some remaining bread flour and knead a few times until smooth. Unlike gluten-full bread, gluten-free bread doesn’t need much kneading because there’s no gluten to develop! So just knead until the dough is smooth and silky.
- Spray a large mixing bowl with non-stick spray / cover in a small amount of olive oil. Move dough to bowl, cover with a clean tea towel and then wrap completely in a clean, large bath towel.
- Let sit for about 1 1/2 hours or until almost double in size. Because my radiator (for some reason!) was on, I wrapped the bowl in two towels and sat it right on top! A nod to my grandmother and living in Queens with such radiators way back in the day. Another option is to slightly heat an oven, then turn it off, wrap the bowl and set it in. Or put it in the sun! Any way, get it to a warm spot.
- When almost doubled in size, punch down the dough to release air. Return to pastry board and divide in half. Knead dough a few times to pull together, and shape into loaves. This time I shaped one half of the dough into two loaves, and the other half into four, for a total of two large and four small loaves. But break this up however you like. Just make sure you knead each loaf until smooth.
- Place on thick cookie sheets and once again wrap in towels. Let sit for about six hours or overnight.
- When ready to bake, preheat oven to 300 degrees. Brush tops of loaves with melted butter or egg whites (I use both! First butter, then egg whites)
- Bake large loaves for about 50 minutes, smaller loaves for about 38. They’re ready when just springy to the touch.
- Serve warm with butter or let cool and eat with coffee, brunch foods or… oh my goodness, this bread is so good, just EAT IT!