IF YOU’VE NEVER TASTED a Portuguese dessert, Jeremiah Duarte Bills would like a word with you. A concert flutist turned baker whose sausage rolls won the approval of revered judge Mary Berry on “The Great American Baking Show” (the stateside version of “The Great British Bake Off”), Duarte Bills is an ambassador for sweet treats from mainland Portugal and the Azores islands. “Portuguese food is completely overlooked compared to other European traditions, and it’s our time to share it with the world,” says Duarte Bills, a Loomis native whose great-grandparents emigrated from the Azores.
As a youngster, Duarte Bills was a picky eater, preferring to eat mainly the cakes and breads that were a staple in his household. “In our Portuguese family, like most, bread is like a religion. When it comes out of the oven, everyone gathers around and there’s butter ready to be spread on that hot bread,” he says. “When I think back to my early food memories, they’re all about sweets and things that came out of the oven.”
Duarte Bills wasn’t much of a cook when he moved away to college (he graduated from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and earned a master’s from The Juilliard School), but he taught himself to bake. The first recipe he tried was for massa sovada, or Portuguese sweet bread. Baking occupied more and more of his time as he traveled overseas to learn recipes and techniques directly from Portuguese bakers. These days, he’s a pro at turning out delicacies like bolinhos de caramelo e noz, tiny walnut-topped cakes from the island of Faial, and pastéis de nata, the eggy custard tarts for which Portugal is famous.
Today, Duarte Bills concentrates on teaching baking classes out of his Sacramento apartment, baking goodies for pop-up events, writing a cookbook, leading pastry tours of Portugal and interviewing fellow bakers on the third season of “Flour Hour,” the podcast he hosts with fellow “Baking Show” competitor Amanda Faber.
“The baking community is a really warm, loving place to be, as you can imagine, so Amanda and I are thrilled to be part of it in a way that we might not be able to if we were just posting Instagram photos,” explains Duarte Bills, who dedicates at least one episode each season to Portuguese recipes. “It’s been amazing to be able to share my love of community, creativity and Portuguese baking with the world.”