One lazy afternoon in Mozambique, us girls volunteered to forage for bread to contribute to the evening meal. I’d read about a well-known bakery in Bilene and so our agenda was set – visit Sonia’s Prawns for lunch, followed by a digestion-aiding walk to the bakery for the local bread called pao. There’s supposed to be a little squiggle above the “a” but honestly I’m too grumpy to figure out which combination of keys does that.
We had not counted on Sonia forcing (ok, maybe “forcing” is too strong a word. “Offering” is probably more accurate) absolutely enormous bottles of 2M beer on us, so rather than walking we ambled gently along the main street accompanied by a friendly brown dog. By then the name of the bakery completely escaped me, I just remembered that it started with an “o”. Being a little beer-happy and trying to ask locals (who’s English is rudimentary at best) where the bakery that starts with an “o” is… not very efficient. Eventually we came across a beautiful mosaic-ed resort with parrots (I think?) and realised that we were running out of street, and turned back. As we walked (and our friend the brown dog picked a fight with a gang of noisy mongrels) I saw the bakery! O Bilas. It was closed. Eventually we found ourselves buying pao from a little “hokkie” (er… informal stall) just across the way from Sonia’s). Grrr. We then proceeded to not eat the pao. Grrr rrrr. We eventually ate it back in Johannesburg – and it was… bread-y.
Anyway, I thought I’d like to have a go at making pao. I have made all sorts of bread in the past and this one doesn’t seem especially special – it’s bland as bread goes, but I liked the knobbly bits at the end. Normally I just go for a loaf of no-fuss beer bread but I thought it would be fun to roll up my sleeves and get stuck into this. Then, my stars were suddenly aligned with those of the Sunday paper – they featured a recipe for pao! The story is lovely – read it. Clearly this was a sign not to be ignored.
Once I’d found the recipe, it seemed a bit vague – the type of flour isn’t specified so I used cake flour (because that’s the only kind I normally have at home) and although it is “Sam’s Recipe” the vinegar is optional and not used? I used it, since I had it on hand. Also, the shaping etc. makes it sound as if those awful flour-coated tough Portuguese rolls were the objective, whereas the picture in the article shows what I know as pao. Anyway. What ensued was a sticky situation. As in, ungodly super-glue-like kitchen disaster. The instructions say to mix the dough initially, not knead – which I duly did with a large spoon. When it came time to knead it, it was exactly like trying to manhandle a couple of kilo’s of particularly obnoxious Prestik. I added flour, gave it a couple pokes, and let it rise again. With the second kneading it was even stickier, so I added even more flour until I ran out (crisis!) but to no avail. It was stuck between my fingers, in a long stretchy band between my hands, it was strung over every visible surface (where it dried to the same consistency as the stuff they make aeroplane black boxes out of) and it was an absolute nightmare. I tried to pull bunches off of it, stretch it out, and kind of swing it round to form those little twisty knob things at the ends, but it was completely unwieldy.
Add to this the stress of being watched. I had a visitor who thought this was all highly entertaining.
Eventually I had three “loaves”. I gleefully slit them each three times with a sharp knife but by the time I’d stabbed the third one I discovered that the first two had grown enormously behind my back. They weren’t modest little staple-diet loaves – they were great big bulky LOAVES. I quickly shoved them in the oven (secretly hoping that they would burn and die a horrible death) and 10 minutes later they were even bigger!! It was scary, and I don’t often feel threatened by a carb. They looked as if they were about to storm out of the oven and stage a coup in my kitchen. A little while later I discovered that they were still anaemically pale so I brushed them with some melted butter, but they were pretty obstinate on this point; so I unleashed a hot grill on them and forced a bit of a tan on them.
After all this fighting and gnashing of teeth – the verdict: These were nothing like the real pao that we ate, although they were similarly bland (that was the only external feedback received – “needs salt”. Personally I think it needs salt as well as being hung, drawn and quartered). I would probably double the salt if I were to (go completely mental and) try this again.The texture was quite good though – not as heavy and inflexible as my previous white bread attempts. It was surprisingly easy to slice, even hot from the oven. It had a nice even texture and was perfectly moist. If it wasn’t so traumatic to prepare, I would have loved to make this a regular recipe in my kitchen but I’m no sadist. This recipe was enough trouble to make me advocate the Atkins diet forever after.
Basic Pão (Sam’s recipe) from the Sunday Tribune – with my notes in italics
1kg flour (I used cake – but possibly it should have been white bread flour)
1 tsp salt (not enough!)
1 Tbs vinegar (optional – the Mozambicans didn’t use vinegar)
1 small sachet dry yeast (I used a 10g sachet)
Enough water to make a sticky dough
1 Mix all ingredients together in a large bowl until the dough is not so sticky (about 6 minutes). Define “mix”. Define “not so sticky”.
2 Cover with dishtowel and leave to rise for about an hour.
3 Take the dough out of the bowl, knead with oiled or floured hands, cover and let rise a second time. I let it rise again for just under an hour.
4 Pre-heat oven to about 220ºC. It should be quite a hot oven. At this point I didn’t care anymore and baked them at 190 instead, because I couldn’t wait for 220.
5 Once dough has risen a second time, tip it out and start breaking off pieces and making them into fist-sized balls. Place them on a floured baking tray.
6 Slit each ball/roll across the top with a very sharp knife and sprinkle them with flour. This is not possible. A tranquilizer-dart is called for. This dough does not lend itself to being moulded into a shape.
7 Once slightly risen again, place in hot oven for about 15 minutes. Once you can smell the bread, check to see if it is golden brown. If it is, take out a roll, knock it on the underside and if there is a hollow sound, the pao is ready to be taken out. Then sit down with a cup of tea, a calming read – might I suggest something by Ram Dass or Kahlil Gibran – and enjoy a butter-smothered slice of well-frikkin-deserved pao. Since you will have 3-4 loaves, share with others, slice them and stash them in the freezer for better days to come, or possibly attack them with a hammer before jumping up and down on them in hobnailed boots.
PS: Do you also love the smell of freshly baked bread? Check this out: