Wednesday, June 16, 2010

My food journey to Brazil begins with Pao de Queijo.

This amazing little cheese puff is the very beginning of my introduction into the world of Brazilian food. My friend, Solange, is from Brazil. We met at our sons' library story time, and now get together from time to time to let the kids play and have time for adult chatting. She lives fairly close, and the first time I went to her house, she made me pao de queijo - these (gluten free) cheesy puffs of bread that are best eaten straight out of the oven. She explained to me that these are eaten in the afternoon in Brazil, with coffee or tea... and that they are unbelievably addicting.

I had such a happy day today, that it's hard to know where to begin. Solange called me on Monday, and asked if I'd like to go with her to a get-together with other Brazilian women who have moved to our area. It was a "breakfast" with Brazilian foods, and a drop off point for donations for children in Brazil, organized by our hostess Angela. Angela heads an effort to provide children in Sao Paolo with clothes and other necessities through Hearts in Action. She worked with children when she lived in Brazil, and still has a passion for helping them through a bit of the wealth and extra that people like me have. I hate to think of my attic full of baby clothes that I can't quite bring myself to donate - but it was easy to find a single bagful to hopefully help someone I will never meet.

After a day of rain yesterday, it was a beautiful day to be outside today. Our drive out a bit west of the city left time to talk about many things, and I grew even more excited to try many new to me Brazilian foods and sweets. Brazilians, from my limited experience, are very warm people. I didn't know a single person there other than Solange, and don't speak any Portuguese, yet I was kiss-hello-ed and welcomed. It was just after ten, and our breakfast began:

Trays of fruits, and egg strata-type dish and of course, a big bowl of pao de queijo (you can see it nearly empty near the top) were on the savory table. But out numbering the savory options were the sweets:

I don't profess by any means to be overly knowledgeable of Latin America's foodstuffs, but having that tinge of Latin blood myself, I think that sugar plays a very important role. From the first row and top left above, there was an exceptional and cloud like Tres Leche cake, the petite yet rotund Brigadeiro and Beijinho - sweetened condensed milk based balls in chocolate and coconut respectively, and Bolo de Fuba - a tube cake that reminded me texturally of a pound cake, but made of corn.

Row two from the left: on a tray of wrapped candy sweets, there was an achingly sweet coconut hard candy called Cocada, an pleasantly gummy guava candy called Goiabada that was served with queso fresco to curb the sweetness (I really loved this), and lastly Canjica, a hominy "rice" pudding with peanuts. Yes, I tried each of these things... and didn't have a stitch of room left to try the last cake, a coconut cake with a caramel frosting, made for Angela's birthday.

Our hostess, Angela, serenaded in Portuguese for her birthday.

Angela made the pao de queijo from scratch, and used a mixture of cheeses for the "queijo" part, Mexican cotija cheese and Parmesan cheese. Even though they were cold when we ate them, they were still delicious - and highly addictive. The centers of the warm puffs are less bread-like and more cheesy and chewy, and I couldn't really tell you which way I like them the best to be honest. They are just a little bit of a science project to make, and require monk-like diligence not to polish off a whole batch in one sitting.

Angela's pao de queijo interior.

Many months ago, when I first had pao de queijo at Solange's house, she had just returned from a trip down to Brazil and had brought me a bag of pao de queijo mix. She made one of the bags that day, and it was really good for a mix. A few days after, I picked up some tapioca flour, and tried to make a recipe I had seen on Simply Delicioso with Ingrid Hoffman, that I knew had to be related: pan de yuca. Ingrid is from Columbia, and the puffs were bun sized. I made mine smaller like the pao de queijo that Solange had made, but they still turned out like this:

It could have resulted in a flat pancake of a puff instead of an elegant puff due to the inclusion of a Wisconsin Muenster cheese instead of a dryer, harder cheese. They were tasty, and I ate a whole lot of them dipped into some beet soup, but somehow just did not live up to the pao de queijo mix I had tried.

Solange and the boys.

Today after the get-together, we drove back to the city and detoured to El Rey, a Milwaukee based hispanic grocery that also packages their own line of products. Solange told me that they have recently started asking Brazilians what kinds of foods they would like them to carry, and among them was polvilho, a flour made from manioc or cassava - the source of tapioca. When I tried, in vain, to make my first batch of pao de queijo, I used Bob's Red Mill tapioca flour. I'm not sure if the product is exactly the same. It seems that it should be, and it felt about the same, but since I wrongfully substituted the Wisconsin Muenster, I had no base line to compare against. All I know is that my second attempt at pao de queijo, using a recipe from Solange's sister, was a winner, and I used proper Brazilian polvilho.

If you have never made, or eaten, pao de queijo, do not be discouraged by this dough as it is coming together, it is a strange, strange thing. (If you ever made a mess with cornstarch and water as a child, you'll know exactly what I'm talking about.) Persevere, and you will be rewarded with addicting, and delicious, puffs! The original recipe is given in weights, and using a "glass size", I used metric weight, and an approximate oz. size given me by Solange for the liquid. It is a "by feel" type recipe, so have fun and give it a go. Just be prepared for a little bit of flying polvilho. Your hands are the best tool for mixing this, just take care when adding the boiling liquid. It does cool off fairly quickly.

I got 70 small balls from the whole batch, but you can freeze them in a single layer and transfer them to a zip top bag. You can take them from the freezer and bake them right away without defrosting, so only make as many as you want to eat. They really are that addicting. Also, they taste best when they are hot from the oven.

Pao de Queijo (adapted from a recipe from Solange's sister)
  • 500 g. polvilho (manioc or tapioca flour)
  • 250 g. cotija cheese
  • 1 glass of cold water (about 7 oz)
  • half glass of boiling oil (I used canola, about 3 1/2 oz.)
  • half glass of boiling milk (about 3 1/2 oz.)
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • pinch salt
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Mix polvilho and water and mix well with your hands. This will seem impossible, but use your fingers to break up the polvilho coated water into pea sized pieces. Try to get everything as uniform as possible.

Add egg and salt, and continue to mix well. The mixture will start to come together, but still not look like a dough.

In a small pot, bring the milk and oil to a boil and take off the heat. Add to the flour mixture, and stir with a spoon then carefully mix by hand until the mixture "melts" into a dough. It will be soft.

Add the cheese, and mix thoroughly. It will feel kind of like a play dough. Form into 2 inch balls, and bake on a parchment or foil lined sheet for about 35-40 minutes until the dough is puffed and lightly browned.

These went into the freezer...

...and these went into my mouth!

I was so happy that these turned out like the ones I have had, as of today, twice. I have about 60 frozen and waiting for whenever company arrives, or afternoon hunger strikes. My Husband loved them too, so it is a good thing I can have some homemade "convenience snack food" in the freezer for him!

I really do not know what it is about these that makes them so completely addicting. You will not be able to eat only one of them. Even when I made the not-so-good Wisconsin Muenster ones, I ate almost all of the them. (If I was going to tell the truth, I'd have to say that I actually had to force myself to throw them away so I would stop eating them.)

I will no doubt continue learning about the foods of Brazil. One thing I learned already and never knew was that cashews actually come from a fruit. Did you know this? It almost seemed like party trivia. Solange showed me a picture on a package of drink mix she brought back, I couldn't believe that I had never read this anywhere before. Brazilians like the cashew fruit juice, and she mixed the Kool-Aid type packet without sugar into water to give me an idea of it's taste.

It really is exciting to do a bit of traveling without actually leaving home. That is how I felt today when most of the conversation I overheard was in Portuguese. I like this feeling, however, and how it causes me to pay attention to expression and inference. It reminds me how everyone the world over is essentially the same underneath, and has something to say that is worth being heard.

It also confirms how food truly draws people together. It reminds us of where we are from, and how our families migrated, what we prefer, and what we have come to know and love. There are stories everywhere, told over washing dishes and romping children, and for a morning I got to glimpse parts of a place I've never been and may never get to. The US is comprised mostly of immigrants, some of here many generations, and some just one or two. Our food culture can sometimes seem lost in the scheme of world cuisine, and our native cuisine championed by only a few. Yet, we have the opportunity to live side by side with so much diversity, and that makes for many exciting kitchen adventures.


  1. A friend of mine owns a brazillian cafe and i have been begging and begging for the recipe for their pao de queijo but he will not give it to me... now i'm wondering if they use a box mix! anyway, i am excited to have a recipe and try them at home, yum!!!
    the brazillian feast looks amazing, what a treat to have been invited!

  2. What a fabulous feast -- and lucky you to have been invited to join in on the fun! I love the idea of pao de queijo... but then, who can argue with the concept of a cheese puff?

    Now that you've got me thinking about it, we could really use a great Brazilian restaurant in Milwaukee, don't you think?

  3. What a wonderful post! I loved reading it. Though I would love to make the puffs I can't find the flour in our town. Even so I love the post and how right you are. The town I live in is mostly Italian immigrants but also other nationalities and I remember my mother new out of Italy making friends and exchanging recipes with Finnish, Spanish and English friends. Food is truely a bridge!

    1. Google where to buy tapioca starch in your are, or you could order online.

  4. I love this food adventure. I have been trying to make pao de quiejo, and did a few times successfully, but the last time it flattened. Maybe it was the cheese? I love it with a parsley/cilantro chimichurri (think there is a post on my blog).wonderful story, and great food!

  5. Otehlia, I think my first batch failed because I used a softer cheese. My friend told me that the Parmesan or cotija crests work best, presumably because it has less fat and moisture?

  6. What a lovely feast! I've never had Brazilian food, but now I'm inspired to try making it.

  7. The real Pao-de-queijo is made by a special cheese and flour that is impossible to find in USA. Because of this your friend used a mixture powder that dosen't come close to the original one. I hope one day you guys can eat pao-de-queijo made with queijo minas and have a glass of guarana antartica.

  8. I can post the recipe, but i don't they anyone could find the ingredients in usa.

  9. Angela, Just saw this article. Que bom!!!



Communication is a good thing, most of the time...