Pão de queijo
“Of all smells, bread; of all tastes, salt.”
-George Herbert, English poet (1593-1633)
In almost every lanchonette (corner snack shop) here in São Paulo, the bakery windows display these golden balls called pão de queijo – which, in Portuguese, translates to bread of cheese, or, less awkwardly, Brazilian cheese bread. They vary in size from tiny, 1″ circles to giant 6″ circles, and you can’t walk past one without being smacked in the face with their delicious aroma – after all, what better scent is there than fresh bread and warm, salty cheese?
Back in the 1600’s, the slaves of Minas Gerais (a state in central Brazil) were primarily cultivating manioc (yucca root) to make into flour. To fabricate the manioc, they would peel and finely grate them, soak them in a big wood bowl (called a gamela) with plenty of water, wash, drain, and then spread this manioc on a tiled floor outdoors to let it dry under the sun. When it dried, they scraped the manioc into big bags and stored them for food consumption throughout the year.
This was a noble food prepared for the farmland owners – therefore, slaves were not supposed to eat it . After the flour was bagged for the land owners, a fine white powder remained in the bowls – during the washing process, the larger, sand-like flour particles separate from the starch, which falls to the bottom of the bowls. The plantation owners had no use for the leftover starch, so the slaves, as usual, turned it into something delicious. They would scrape the starch out of the bowl, mix it with a little water, roll into small balls, and bake them. The original balls didn’t even have milk or cheese in them – just manioc starch and water. At that time, the upper class shrugged the breads off while they became increasingly popular with the slaves. More than 200 years latter, cattle farms became more popular in Brazil and the surplus of recently-freed slaves gained access to better foods – such as milk and cheese. Eventually, they began to include these new ingredients into their centuries-old bread recipe. After Brazil had completely eradicated slavery, their culture began to spread among the rest of the population… and Pão de Queijo became popular in Minas Gerais, and eventually the rest of Brazil.
The manioc starch later got the name of polvilho. There are two types of polvilho – polvilho doce (sweet) and polvilho azedo (sour). Sweet polvilho is the name for the original type of manioc starch – the dried result of making manioc flour. Sour Polvilho is made by letting the germs in the wood bowl ferment the milky liquid before letting it dry.
Sour polvilho makes Pao de Queijo a little more acidic and helps it rise better. The prepared mix you can buy is almost always made with sour polvilho, although some people claim the acidity gives them heartburn. I read a poorly translated article about testing research done with different types of polvilho. Among the different points made, the scientists concluded that sour polvilho cannot be commercially produced, making it a completely regional commodity – artificial drying of the fermented starch resulted in a much inferior product, and it’s actually the solar radiation that gives the starch its distinctive properties and ability to rise. The expansion ability of sour polvilho dried in the sun was two times higher than in the other drying conditions.
Since pão de queijo is made with tapioca flour instead of wheat flour, they are a good bread-like product for people with an intolerance to wheat.
Through Alex’s brother, we were lucky enough to get the opportunity to provide catering for the executives of the Peugeot car company while they conduct market research here in São Paulo for the week. The food is mainly a coffee-break type, and pão de queijo is a traditional accompaniment with afternoon coffee here – it has morphed into a food without any class barriers, loved by rich and poor alike. We looked up several recipes, and found that there are apparently a million different ways to make pão de queijo – some swear that you need to use both types of polvilho, some people only use the sour type, some people use the sweet type with mashed potatoes, some people use oil, some use butter, and the type of cheese varies in every single recipe. Asking around (and reading the labels of the popular prepared mixes), we found that several things are common here : first, sour polvilho is used, and almost all the mixes contain oil and a mixture of Parmesan cheese and queijo Minas (a mild, white cheese typical in Minas Gerais – mozzarella can be substituted as well). Most of the better-rated recipes recommend slightly scalding the milk and wet ingredients before adding it to the polvilho – this apparently activates the starch and allows it to rise better in the oven. Many tips also say to let the batter rest for at least 15 minutes before beating in the eggs. We had very limited cooking facilities and a tight time constraint, so we cheated and bought frozen, ready-to-heat pão de queijo (I know… ssh).
I found one recipe from a seemingly reliable source, adapted to the availability of ingredients in the US – if you test it, please comment and let us know how it turned out!
- 2 C. polvilho (in the US, you’ll probably find this labeled as Tapioca Starch, and it’ll probably be in specialty baking stores – I never looked for it, but I know we used it in our baking class at the CIA)
- 1 lb. of cooked, mashed potatoes (no salt or butter or anything, just plain potatoes – make sure they are room temperature before mixing)
- 2 T. butter
- 1/2 C. oil
- 4 eggs
- 1 t. salt
- 3 1/2 c. grated cheese – if you can find Queijo Minas, use that and Parmesan; otherwise, use what you like best
- 2 c. very warm (almost boiling) milk
Preheat oven to 350° F
In a large bowl or electric mixer with a dough hook attachment, mix the starch, potatoes, cheese, and salt. Warm (but don’t boil) the milk, butter, and oil. Beat the eggs in a separate bowl. Add the milk mixture slowly, and then the eggs – mix until you get a soft dough.
Place 1 inch balls spaced in a unbuttered cookie sheet and bake at moderate oven (350 F) for about 20 minutes or until golden brown. They should be crunchy on the outside and almost rubbery on the inside – the bizarre textual contrast is part of their appeal.
I should also note that pão de queijo – while it is absolutely delicious when hot – loses flavor and becomes very unappealing as it cools, so make sure you eat them right out of the oven!