Ghosts visit us in the kitchen

September 17, 2007 04:00 pm

There is a door in a small, lonely alleyway that you can get to by traveling through a slightly bigger alleyway in Moloka’i. Between 11 p.m. and 3 a.m., that door will open just barely enough for an unidentified person to hand you a hefty bag. For $3 to $5, what you will have purchased is something hot. It’s your late night snack of sweet, fluffy and just-baked “hot bread” — an entire loaf either plain or slathered inside with butter, strawberries, blueberries, cream cheese, cinnamon, or all of it, if you want to order the works and aren’t planning to sleep. 

Bread is not just food. Bread lures us to dark alleyways, and I’ve always been attracted to it not only as a thing to eat, but as a common and wide-spread tradition that suggests who we are as people. It’s a portable thing, perfect for sharing.

I try to get people involved when I bake. I tell my brothers that only their musclely arms could knead this bread. When everyone swoons later eating, I let them take the credit. A young cousin used to help me bake. She’s now 13 and makes bread for her own family with skill. I don’t think she even follows a recipe anymore. Lucas, my boyfriend, learned how to bake and surprises me with loaves of bread. They are better than bouquets.

My great-grandmother and I have something in common. When I made my very first loaf of bread in Hawaii, I didn’t really know what to do, but I tried to feel my way through it. Because the kitchen was breezy and cool that day with all the windows opened, I thought that the bread would rise better if I stowed the towel-covered bowl under my bed. My dad asked me who told me to do that because his grandma did that too. For decades, the family bread rose under her big bed on a wooden floor in Kaimuki. Ghosts visit us in the kitchen. They are kind and make us think of great ideas.
In Gilbert Carvalho Park in Hilo, the Hawaii Island Portuguese Chamber of Commerce bakes bread in their brick ovens and gives slices away for free along with Portuguese bean soup, sopa de pedra, every year. Sitting in the park, you can enjoy live music near Wailuku River. There, the water is about to run through the deep basalt “bowls” at Boiling Pots before waterfalling at Rainbow Falls and flowing in to the Pacific Ocean.

One must be willing to take chances and keep their fingernails short in order to become a baker. A loaf of bread is, maybe, a prayer with results in two to five hours. If the mess rises and fills your room with goodness, someone has got to have your back, even if, it is only the unicellular yeast feasting on sugar and building walls, the structure of which will carry butter and honey to hungry mouths.

Ensaimadas (or ensemadas, ensaymadas) is a Filipino dessert bread I coveted as a child. They are large coiled buns, usually as big as three of my fists and sometimes bigger. They are perfect for holding up to your head if you want to pretend you’re Princess Lea from Star Wars. Traditionally, they are spread with a thick layer of good butter and sprinkled with sugar, but you can do whatever you want with the dough. You can knead ham into it, if you like ham, drizzle it with honey, melt cheese over it or just eat it plain. You can shape them however you like too. I like to bake them in knots.
This recipe is based on Oarlene Matsuo’s from the community cookbook, “Favorite Recipes for Islanders.”

Ensaimadas

2 1/4 teaspoon dry yeast
1/4 cup warm water
1 tablespoon sugar or honey
4 cups all purpose flour
1/2 cup whole milk or evaporated milk
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 softened unsalted butter
6 egg yolks (reserve the whites for glazing the buns before baking or for an omelette)

1. Make a sponge by adding the yeast to the warm water with the tablespoon of honey or sugar and 1/2 cup of flour. Cover and let rise until doubled. The time will vary depending on the ambient temperature of the room.

2. Cream the butter with the sugar and add to the sponge with the egg yolks. Mix the flour in a cup at a time, adding the milk to help dough combine.

3. When the dough isn’t so sticky anymore, start to knead until the dough is consistently smooth, about 5 minutes. Let the dough rise until doubled in a greased bowl covered with a towel.

4. Divide the dough into 12 pieces. On a lightly floured board, roll each piece out into a snake and coil. Place on a baking sheet, cover with a towel and let rise until doubled.

5. Bake at 350 degrees for 15 minutes or until lightly browned. When cool, butter the buns and sprinkle with sugar.

When the bread is baked, here is my ritual. I cut the loaf or bun in half to check the quality of the crumb and I inhale deeply, cause I’m addicted. I almost give it a kiss, I’m so happy. After baking for a while, you’ll know what to look for in the crumb. In general, dense areas of dough is not a good thing. It means the air bubbles, formed by the carbon dioxide the yeast produced, were crushed and didn’t have time to reform. The ensaimada recipe tries to avoid this during the rising period after the shaping. For some breads, the crumb will be moist, with very consistent air bubbles. Other breads, will have a more open crumb. Let the bread cool down before storing it, or you’ll get soggy bread and use a sharp knife to slice it, otherwise, the structure will be damaged.

The bakers who sell Moloka’i hot bread near midnight provide a community service. Bar-goers from the Pau Hana Inn used to smell the bread after closing time and stumble into the alley for food, in an effort to sober up. Decades later, countless numbers of men and women still knock at the door and in all stories I’ve heard about hot bread, leftovers have never been mentioned.


Eden Kruger is the news assistant at The Observer. Ono is the Hawaiian word for delicious. People say onolicious for something that is doubly good. Send recipes and food stories to ekruger@lagrande
observer.com.