- Skill Level: Moderate
- Cost: Inexpensive
- Favorited: 30 Times
Can be made ahead of time.
When she was growing up in Las Villas, Juanita Plana remembers that the top of each warm, fragrant loaf from the local panaderia was decorated with a single palm leaf. There are two traditional kinds of bread in Cuba, pan de agua (water bread), made with just yeast, flour, salt, and water, and pan de manteca (lard bread), which has melted lard added for moisture. Both are tender and fluffy on the inside and crusty on the outside. Pan de agua is the Cuban bread most often sold in both Havana and Miami, but I’ve chosen to include a recipe for pan de manteca here because it stays fresh a little longer. To make pan de agua, simply omit the lard or butter.
In a large mixing bowl, dissolve the yeast and sugar in 2 cups lukewarm water, stirring well. Set aside in a warm place until the yeast bubbles actively, 8 to 10 minutes. Combine the salt with 3 cups of the flour. Add this flour mixture to the yeast mixture, 1 cup at a time, beating it in with a wooden spoon or using the dough hook of an electric mixer at low speed. After each cup of flour, drizzle in about 1 tablespoon of lard. Once you have added the first 3 cups, use your hands to gradually knead in the remaining flour until the dough is smooth and velvety. Gather the dough into a ball and place it in a clean greased mixing bowl. Grease the top of the dough with the remaining lard. Cover with a dry, clean kitchen towel and place in a warm (80 to 90°F.), draft-free area to rise until doubled in bulk, about 1 hour.
Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured board and divide it in half. Shape each piece of the dough by stretching and rolling it into a long sausage shape about 1 foot long and 2 inches in diameter.
Arrange the loaves 2 to 3 inches apart on a large baking sheet sprinkled with the cornmeal. Cover lightly with the towel and let the loaves rise for 5 to 7 minutes.
Using a sharp knife, slash each loaf in 3 or 4 places and, if desired, place a bay leaf in each slit to decorate the loaf. Brush the loaves with water. Place a pan of boiling water in the bottom of the oven. Immediately place the baking sheet on the middle rack of the cold oven and set the oven temperature 400°F. Bake the loaves until they are crusty and sound hollow when tapped gently on top, 35 to 45 minutes. Remove the loaves to a rack to cool.
Nutritional information is for each loaf, and based on using 5 cups of flour.