Cast Iron Pandesal Pull-Apart Bread
Filipino pandesal baked in a cast iron skillet
Prep15 minutes to 20 minutes
Pandesal (sometimes spelled pan de sal) is the most loved, most popular bread in the Philippines. It literally translates into “bread of salt.” No one really knows why it’s called that since the first time “pan de sal” was used in the Philippines, as in Spain, was as a measure for salt. There is pan de sal (a small lump of salt as big as a bread bun) and the larger torta de sal (a cake of salt that was flat and resembling a cake in size). Could be a case of the chicken or the egg — or, shall we say, the bread or the salt? Either way, the French have baguette, Italians have ciabatta, and Filipinos have pandesal.
A Brief History of Pandesal
Wheat-based baked goods were not a thing in pre-colonial Philippines. It wasn’t until the age of exploration and colonization in the 1500s that the knowledge and ingredients of bread-baking made their way into our cuisine via the Portuguese explorers, who pre-dated the Spanish explorers by at least a decade.
The rumored first iteration of this bread was pan de suelo (floor bread) because it was baked directly on the “floor” of a wood-fired oven called pugon. A pugon is similar to an Italian pizza oven and is derived from the Spanish word “fogon,” meaning wood-burning stove. Pan de suelo was originally modeled after the french baguette in terms of texture. Bakers initially used wheat flour, which gave the bread a heartier crust.
Filipino bread production didn’t really take off until the age of industrialization and the changing of colonizers from Spain to America, in 1898. During the American colonial era in the Philippines, the influx of industrialized goods — from canned milk to milled flour — became more accessible. The cheaper American flour resulted in softer bread and, along with the modernization of gas-powered stoves and ovens, gave birth to pandesal.
The first mention of pan de sal with a description is around 1911 in a home economics teachers’ manual, although it does not mention it tasting salty or having salt. It was always just pan, which translates to bread.
Pandesal is now ubiquitous all over the 7,107 island-archipelago nation. No mornings nor merienda (snack time) are complete without it. It’s the bread for all dining occasions. Mornings are usually spent scouring the local panaderia (bakeries) for the freshest pandesal from the pugon, although there has been a decline in pugon bakeries due to the nationwide ban on using mangrove trees for fuel and a shift toward gas-fueled stoves.
Living in Iloilo City, on a different island from Manila, we still had a couple of pugon bakeries. It was a sought-after treat, as the bakeries would usually sell out by mid-morning. We used to line up as early as 5:30 a.m. to just grab a bag (or two) to eat with our almusal (breakfast).
There are still panaderias that make pandesal traditionally — by hand, cut with a wooden knife, dusted with breadcrumbs, and baked in a pugon. The typical pandesal is small and oval-shaped with narrow, pointed leaf-like edges on the top that differentiate it from any other roll.
In panaderias, the traditions and techniques are learned from the maestro panadero (master breadmaker) and passed down from one baker to another. The title maestro panadero isn’t given through certificates or culinary school but through years of apprenticeship and mastery of bread.
The maestro makes pandesal as he learned from the maestro before him. Old recipes utilize the sponge and dough method: the sponge (starter dough) is made first, then mixed with the second set of ingredients to form the dough. To develop its structure and flavor, it is fermented for several hours on a wooden trough, known as a bangka, which means boat or canoe.
When the dough is ready, it’s formed into logs, called bastones, which is Spanish for cane or walking stick. The bastones are then rolled in breadcrumbs, which are often made from toasted older bread. The dough is cut into smaller pieces using a wooden cutter that gives each pandesal its distinct leaf-shaped mark.
This mark gives the traditional pandesal its distinct shape, but is not required. A lot of the modern pandesal iterations are rounded, more like the Mexican bolillos. This specific technique is known only within the older generation of maestro panaderos, which we fear is a dying breed and will then be lost with them.
Pandesal at My House
Throughout my childhood, pandesal was a staple in our house. We had it for breakfast, paired with sunny-side-up eggs or used to make breakfast sandwiches. At merienda the rolls were stuffed with ice cream from the sorbetero, or paired with Tang orange juice. And for lunch, pandesal would be eaten with pancit or dipped in soups. There’s rarely a meal that doesn’t involve pandesal.
My lola always had pandesal to dip in her morning coffee. I learned to dip all my baked goods in coffee from her. There’s a Filipino saying “Walang matigas na pan de sal sa mainit na kape,” meaning “There’s no hard bread in hot coffee.”
This recipe is one that my lola taught me with an homage to the original iteration. She passed away about five years ago but I was able to spend some time with her in the kitchen, learning how to make her famous pandesal. This recipe is quite similar to Parker House rolls, but with a heartier crust on the bottom (similar to the pan de suelo).
By using a sponge as the base of this pandesal and baking the rolls in a cast iron pan to encourage a crust to form, my aim was to create a recipe that reflects the care and craftsmanship that the maestro panaderos had in order to preserve some culinary tradition, even on a small scale.
To quote the late Doreen Fernandez in her book Palayok: Pandesal “is our basic tinapay, our ‘bread of salt,’ whether putok or pang-araw-araw (the daily bread). It is the bread of our history, at the core of our culture, at the heart of our tastes. It is brown and plain like the Filipino, good by itself or alone, crisp on the outside and soft on the inside. It is good, basic and strong — just the way we are, and would like the nation to be.”
Filipino pandesal baked in a cast iron skillet
Prep time 15 minutes to 20 minutes
Cook time 1 hour
- 1 cup
- 6 cups
bread flour, divided, plus more as needed
- 1/2 cup
plus 1/2 teaspoon granulated sugar, divided
- 1/2 cup
(1/4-ounce) packet active dry yeast (2 1/4 teaspoons)
- 4 tablespoons
(1/2 stick) melted unsalted butter
- 1/4 cup
canola oil, plus more as needed
- 2 teaspoons
- 1/2 cup
fine, dry breadcrumbs
Make the sponge: Microwave 1 cup whole milk in a medium microwave-safe bowl until room temperature (about 75ºF), about 20 seconds. Add 1 cup of the bread flour and 1/2 cup of the granulated sugar and stir to combine.
Microwave 1/2 cup warm water in a small microwave-safe bowl or glass measuring cup until warm to the touch (90 to 110ºF), about 20 seconds. Sprinkle with 1 packet active dry yeast and the remaining 1/2 teaspoon granulated sugar and whisk to combine. Let sit in a warm place until bubbly, about 10 minutes.
Microwave 4 tablespoons unsalted butter in a medium microwave-safe bowl until melted, about 30 seconds. Add 1/4 cup canola oil and 2 large eggs and whisk until combined.
Place the remaining 5 cups bread flour and 2 teaspoons kosher salt in the bowl of a stand mixer and whisk to combine. Add the butter mixture, yeast mixture, and milk mixture. Beat with the dough hook attachment on the lowest speed until a shaggy dough forms, about 1 1/2 minutes. Increase the speed to medium and beat until the dough is smooth, shiny, and not sticking to the bowl (if the dough is sticky, mix in more flour a tablespoon at a time as needed), 10 to 12 minutes.
Coat a large bowl lightly with canola oil. Add the dough and turn to coat. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let the dough rise in a warm place until doubled in bulk, about 1 hour. Meanwhile, coat a 12-inch cast-iron skillet with canola oil. Place 1/2 cup fine, dry breadcrumbs in a shallow bowl.
Gently punch the dough down and place on a work surface. Flatten and shape it into a 15x18-inch rectangle. Starting at a bottom corner, roll the dough up toward the opposite top corner into a log about 24 inches long. Cut crosswise into 16 pieces (about 4 ounces each).
Working with one piece at a time, shape into a smooth ball and immediately roll in the breadcrumbs: Pull the sides up to meet at the top and pinch together. Flip and place on the work surface. Roll the dough in tight circles against the work surface (like the “wax on, wax off” motion from Karate Kid!) while pressing slightly down. Within a few circles, you will start to feel the dough tighten under your palm. Continue rolling it in a circular motion, but slowly lift your fingers to form a cage around the dough with your fingertips brushing the work surface. Keep light contact between the dough and your palm and roll until round and taut.
Place rounded-side down in the breadcrumbs, then flip and place in the skillet breadcrumb side up. Gently press the breadcrumbs into the roll if needed. Repeat shaping and breading the remaining dough pieces, spacing them evenly apart in the skillet.
Cover with a kitchen towel and let rise in a warm place until the rolls are touching each other, 20 to 30 minutes. Meanwhile, arrange a rack in the middle of the oven and heat the oven to 350ºF.
Uncover the rolls and bake until golden-brown and sounds crisp and hollow when the top is tapped, about 30 minutes. Let cool for 2 to 3 minutes, then serve with jam, cheese and/or coffee.
Storage: The cooled rolls can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 3 days.
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