Breads of the World: pão de queijo

For my first foray into breads of the Americas, I went south, to Brazil, for an addictive little puff called pão de queijo – literally “bread of cheese” or “cheese bread.” There’s some debate over whether this strictly counts as bread – the base is tapioca flour and the “dough,” such as it is, is formed in a method similar to pâte à choux pastry batter, the base for eclairs, cream puffs, gougeres, and the like. But based on both name and desire, I’m saying it counts.

Based on minimal research (the weekend of Week 4 in my world means a lot of paper grading and not a lot of time for culinary history), I’ve learned that pão de queijo was a product of colonization and the ingenuity of indigenous groups and later enslaved Africans.

When Portuguese colonizers arrived in the 1500s, they found many areas ill-suited to wheat production, so they – and the people they enslaved – learned from indigenous groups how to process manioc, or yuca. When this root is processed, it leaves behind an edible white powder. This was considered an undesirable byproduct by slaveholders, but slaves used it to make balls of starch that they baked and ate to supplement their diets.

In the 18th century, the states of Minas Gerais and Goias in southeastern Brazil became big cattle- and therefore also dairy-producing states, and cheese, along with eggs and milk, were added to the starchy mix to create these delicate crisp-on-the-outside-gooey-on-the-inside puffs. Olivia’s Cuisine suggests these little puffs may have been served to slaveholders as part of afternoon coffee service.

In the U.S., the traditional manioc is most frequently replaced with tapioca flour, and the traditional cheese from the Minas region – a mild, slightly salty soft cheese – with parmesan and mozzarella or queso fresco. Though it is not quite the same product, tapioca flour (also marketed as tapioca starch) has the same origin: the starchy yuca, or manioc, or cassava root, can be processed into a powder that, with the barest touch of liquid, becomes an incredibly sticky, glutinous mass that takes expertise and patience to work with. I noted to a friend while I was mixing up this dough that the combination of water, milk, oil, and tapioca flour already looked and felt like melted mozzarella cheese, and I hadn’t added any cheese to it yet.

My two base recipes for these, from Olivia’s Cuisine and Brazilian Kitchen Abroad, show much greater dexterity in working with the gluey batter/dough that forms these little puffs. I was unable to roll gorgeous little spheres like Aline shows in her recipe (although to be fair, my quantities were slightly different), and since I only had a single one pound bag of tapioca flour, I couldn’t add more. By my second sheet tray full of dough blobs, I was able to manipulate the mix a little better with very wet hands, but the next time I attempt these little treats I’m going to try for a slightly dryer dough.

Despite the difficulties in shaping, we could see easily why these are so well loved. They baked up into delicate, puffy rounds with golden cheese freckles. They are mildly cheesy in flavor but, when still hot, offer the same tempting cheese-pull as a good grilled cheese sandwich. After the first one (or two), I thought maybe I wanted them to have some herbs as well for additional flavor, but when I suddenly realized I’d eaten at least six little puffs, I decided maybe that wasn’t necessary, since I was clearly addicted without any additions.

The recipes I worked from claim to make about 30 little puffs, enough to bake up half for indulgent snacking and freeze the other half for a week or two down the road. I made slightly smaller “rounds” than they did, so I’m guessing I ended up with around 3 dozen, but the truth is I snatched the first one hot off the sheet tray, and then the next, and then N. had one… and an hour later I realized I’d never counted.

Holly the cheese hound sticking a curious ear out from under the table

 

* I suppose I really should have gone with Irish soda bread this week, though as I noted previously, I’m typically not very good at timing my seasonal dishes – I blame my day job, which often makes it a challenge to post here at all. Additionally, I do have several soda bread recipes here already, so if you’re looking to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day with a loaf, consider these!

 

Pão de queijo
Adapted from Olivia’s Cuisine and Brazilian Kitchen Abroad
Makes… 36? (see above explanation/excuse)
About 1–1 ½ hours, counting resting and baking time
1½ cups milk
½ cup water
6 tablespoons vegetable oil
2½ teaspoons kosher salt, or 2 teaspoons table salt
1 pound tapioca flour (also labeled tapioca starch)  * as noted above, mine were fairly wet so you might ultimately need more flour. Unfortunately it is most frequently sold in 1 pound bags.
2 large eggs
1½ cups grated parmesan cheese
1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese

 

  • Preheat your oven to 400F and line 2 baking trays with parchment paper or silicone mats.
  • In a medium saucepan, combine the milk, water, oil, and salt and bring to a simmer over medium heat.
  • If you are using a stand mixer, add the tapioca flour and then pour over the liquid mixture. Combine with the paddle attachment into a thick, sticky, pasty mass. If you don’t have a stand mixer, you are in for a workout. Dump the flour right into the saucepan and mix it into the liquid with a sturdy wooden spoon.
  • For either method, let the mixture sit for 10-15 minutes to cool before adding the eggs. You can run the mixer for some of this time to cool even faster – you may notice that mixing at this point produces a texture similar to melted cheese.
  • After the mixture has cooled for at least 10 minutes, add the eggs one at a time and combine fully – this will take some effort. Add the cheese a small handful at a time, again mixing well to incorporate, into a soft, sticky dough.
  • To shape and bake, I found wet hands the best tool. Dip your hands and a tablespoon into a small bowl of cool water, then scoop out tablespoonfuls of dough. If you can, shape them into a ball by rolling gently between your hands, then transfer to your prepared baking tray. If your dough is too wet to work with, you can either plop unshaped scoops onto the baking tray, or try adding more tapioca flour to the dough and mixing again.
  • When you have a full tray of dough blobs, move to the oven and bake at 400F for 15-18 minutes. They will be dry on top, with uneven speckles of browning from the cheese. We found them best eaten still warm and puffy, within minutes of emerging from the oven.

Raw brussels salad with pecorino and panko

Perhaps you thought, given election results and my Halloween wordplay in last week’s post, that this week would offer something sweet. I hope, then, you won’t think a salad composed mainly of raw brussels sprouts a horrible trick.

I had in my files an idea for a brussels sprouts salad with wafer-thin slices of radish and apple tossed with buttery bread crumbs, and then I saw an instagram picture of a salad by LA chef Antonia Lofaso, which looked to be a huge mound of shredded brussels sprouts studded with grapes and pecorino cheese, and everything clicked together.

Here, you’ll process a full pound of brussels sprouts: a few large leaves will likely fall off or be easily peeled away while you trim the stem end and clean up the sprouts; reserve those – they make lovely little cups in the salad itself that collect showers of cheese and panko. In fact, you could likely do the entire salad of individually harvested brussels sprout leaves, but I didn’t have the patience for that. Instead, I turned to my food processor, where I see two possible choices: for a texture like a fine coleslaw, you could shred. For some variation in size and texture, you can pulse, which is what I opted for. This results in some very small leafy bits, and some more substantial chunks.

The sprouts, the transparently thin slices of radish and apple, tossed together in a lemon and honey vinaigrette, would themselves make a perfectly serviceable and somewhat virtuous salad course. But of course that’s not really me. All of those vegetables – and you, about to consume them – deserve a glorious topper. In this case, that takes the form of bread and cheese. First, a generous shower of pecorino romano cheese – you could certainly grate or microplane it, but I find I like the impact of what Deb from Smitten Kitchen calls “rubble-like” cheese so appealing and so easily done in the food processor already used for the sprouts, that I will always choose it over the wispier option produced by grating (at least for this salad). The final coup de grace is almost a full cup of panko bread crumbs deeply browned in butter. If you can’t do bread, you can easily make this gluten- and wheat-free by subbing in ground almonds or hazelnuts and get roughly the same effect, I’d wager.

In either case, what you’re left with is a glorious mountain of veg, topped with a deep snowcap of cheese and crumbs. With a seasonal brew or a glass of something sparkling on the side, perhaps, I think that’s a tremendous treat.

Raw brussels salad with pecorino and panko
Serves 2 generously, 3 more moderately
20-30 minutes
3 TB unsalted butter
¾ cup panko bread crumbs
½ teaspoon salt
1 pound brussels sprouts
3-4 radishes
1 small granny smith apple
2 teaspoons honey
2 teaspoons whole grain or Dijon mustard
zest of 1 lemon
¼ cup (4 TB) lemon juice
2-4 TB olive oil (I like my dressing very acidic)
salt and pepper to taste
½ cup grated or ground pecorino romano cheese

 

  • In a medium skillet, melt the butter over medium heat and add the panko and ½ teaspoon salt. Stir frequently until the panko is uniformly dark golden, then turn off the heat and set the panko aside to cool completely.
  • For the vegetables, first trim the brussels sprouts stems and remove any wilted or damaged leaves. Peel off a few easily removed leaves whole and set aside. If you want the sprouts shredded, like a fine coleslaw, use the shredding disc and feed the whole sprouts into the tube until all are reduced to tattered ribbons. If you prefer a more varied texture, as pictured, put the whole sprouts into the food processor bowl with the regular blade and pulse at 2 second intervals until they are mostly chopped but a few larger chunks remain. Dump and scrape all the brussels spouts, including the whole leaves you reserved, into a large bowl.
  • Trim the stem ends off of the radishes, then use the tails to hold them steady while you slice them as thinly as possible. Quarter and core the apple, then slice it thinly. Add the apples and radishes to the bowl with the brussels sprouts.
  • To make the dressing, stir together the honey, mustard, and lemon zest with a small whisk or a fork. Stir in the lemon juice, then add 2 TB of olive oil in a slow stream, whisking constantly, until the dressing emulsifies. Taste for seasoning and adjust as desired, adding salt, pepper, and more olive oil as you wish. Pour the dressing over the vegetables and mix well.
  • If you haven’t already, grate or grind your pecorino cheese. I like to use the food processor for this: once it is empty of brussels sprouts (no need to wash in between), add the cheese in small chunks, then run the processor on high until the chunks are ground down into a fine rubble similar in size to the panko.
  • If you want to serve the salad in individual portions, use tongs or your hands to create a tall pile of dressed vegetables on plates or shallow bowls. Sprinkle on a healthy snowcap of cheese, then a mountain of panko right on top.
  • If you want to serve the salad in a large serving bowl, use the tongs or your hands to push the dressed vegetables together in the center, creating a tall pile. Top with the cheese, then the panko, for a thick drift of golden crunchiness right on top.

 

Plantains with lime, cotija, and honey

If you are working from home during this pandemic, you have probably thought more than once since March about the weirdness of time passing. On one hand, we’ve been doing this foreverrrrrrrrrrr. On the other hand… no, it’s been forever.

But within that space of Marchunetember, or whenever we are, time passes oddly. Sometimes I can’t believe it’s already Thursday (I know, it’s Monday. But you know what I mean). Sometimes the afternoon just will. not. end. We are feeling the first hints of fall here in Southern California: two beautiful overcast mornings in which the gloom was not smoke, thank-you-very-much, cool enough that I wanted pants on my dog walk. Yet later this week we are supposed to rocket back into temperatures in the 90s. There’s a bit of everything at once.

So this is a little dish that speaks to all of those things. It makes a nice lunch for one, but it would be an equally delightful afternoon snack for two. It could easily be doubled or tripled to feed your pod.  It’s sweet and salty and sour and a little spicy – in fact, it would go so well with this kicky, smoky, spicy mix that you might as well plan to serve them up for a happy hour together, whether that means margaritas, palomas, or puckeringly good lemonade.

I like a mostly-ripe plantain for this, yellow with streaks of brown on the peel, because I enjoy the mix of textures: crisp, fried exterior with cushiony softness inside. But you could also do them tostones-style, frying less-than-ripe plantain slices over medium-low heat first to soften, then smashing them flat and frying again over higher heat on both sides for even brownness.

I ate mine with a fork, as you can see from my not-quite-in-focus close-up, but if you want to go nachos style and use the plantain pieces as scoops, I say go for it.

Plantains with lime, cotija, and honey

Serves 1 as a light lunch or 2 as a snack

15-20 minutes

1 large, yellow plantain, peel removed, cut into about ½ inch slices (I like mostly ripe, but see above for another option)

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

2 tablespoons butter

salt and red pepper to taste – I like the fruity heat of aleppo pepper

1 lime, which you’ll use for zest, supremes, and juice

1-2 tablespoons crumbled cotija cheese

1-2 teaspoons honey

about 1 tablespoon chopped cilantro

 

  • In a cast iron or other skillet, heat the vegetable oil and butter over medium-low heat until the butter is melted. Add the plantain slices, dust with salt and pepper, and continue to cook over medium-low for 4-6 minutes, or until they are nicely golden brown on the bottom. Don’t rush it. Don’t turn up the heat. They need to cook inside but not burn on the outside.
  • As plantains brown, flip, dust the other side with salt and pepper, and cook on the second side until it is also nicely browned, around 4-5 minutes this time.
  • While the plantains are cooking, zest the lime and reserve that zest for serving. Then use a sharp knife to cut a thin slice off the top and bottom. Remove the remaining skin and pith by cutting it off in strips from top to bottom, following the curve of the fruit. When you have removed the skin all the way around, cut supremes: slice between the fruit and the membrane that separates each segment. This is a useful step-by-step as well.
  • To serve, pile the fried plantains on a plate or in a shallow bowl. Add the lime supremes and cotija crumbles. Squeeze on some juice from the remaining carcass of the lime. Drizzle on the honey, then scatter the cilantro and the reserved lime zest over the top.

Huevos Rancheros con Frico

The first iteration of this meal was a lunch I threw together when I wasn’t satisfied by any of the leftovers already in my fridge. And it was easy: egg, cheese, tortilla, a scoop of salsa. Done. But instead of melting the cheese on top, I flopped the toasted tortilla over and held it down with my spatula so the cheese sputtered and hissed directly against the pan. A minute or two later, a quick but determined scrape, and the tortilla emerged with a frico of pepperjack welded on, crispy and seared and ready. And as soon as that happened, I was no longer alone at the stove. Suddenly instead of the sandwich he’d been intending, N. wanted my lunch. He was entranced by that crunchy layer of cheese, so a few days later we had it for dinner, this time bulking things up with the addition of a bed of black beans for the tortilla to rest on.

Three days later, we already wanted it again. A week after that, we had it a third time. That tells you something. And unlike so many of my recipes here, this is quick – no more than 20 minutes and it’s ready to go – and takes a few shortcuts along the way: canned black beans, jarred salsa. Of course you could go the extra mile and start from scratch, but for what is essentially the quickest weeknight dinner I’ve made in months, I’m not going to bother.

Huevos rancheros is a simple dish, usually eggs and salsa atop tortillas, with beans, cheese, and other accompaniments optional. Basically it’s a fried egg taco. Frico, on the other hand, is an Italian creation probably originally invented to use up cheese rinds. Though there is a version that incorporates potatoes and other vegetables fried into something like a rosti or latke (which N. has informed me he now wants), the sort Americans are probably most familiar with – and certainly my version here – is a thin round of plain old cheese, fried until it holds together.

Most fricos are made with hard cheeses – think “parmesan crisps” or similar – and can be fried just until they are malleable, then draped over a jar or muffin tin or rolling pin to shape them into baskets or bowls or other decorative shapes. But they can also be baked or fried until they are crisp and shattering discs you could stack in a savory napoleon or crumble onto a salad or, in my favorite application, crust the outsides of a grilled cheese sandwich.

But this frico is made with softer cheese: I tried both cheddar and pepperjack, and found I preferred the latter. When you first turn it into the pan, a distressing quantity of grease appears and the cheese bubbles worryingly around the outer edges of the tortilla, and you are sure this isn’t going to work at all. Give it a minute or two, though, and then cautiously but firmly apply your spatula, and the tortilla should have a crunchy, orange, lacquered coating. You then have only to set the egg on top, pile with accouterments, and gobble up the whole thing.

You can, of course, use multiple skillets here, and make more than one at the same time. I opted to cook the eggs first and set them aside to stay warm while I did the tortillas, because my dishwasher (I have one of those human models, not the mechanized kind) appreciates when my cooking projects don’t result in a whole sinkful. I’ve also opted in the ingredients to list quantities for each egg-cheese-tortilla stack, which of course can be easily doubled, tripled – or, should you have a large griddle and some brunch-loving friends – multiplied to serve what will no doubt be a happy crowd.

Huevos Rancheros con Frico
15-20 minutes
quantities and instructions for one, but oh-so-easily multiplied
½-1 cup canned black beans
1-2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 egg
1 corn tortilla
1-2 ounces pepperjack cheese, thinly sliced
¼ cup salsa, or more as desired
3-4 avocado slices
optional: torn cilantro and/or a lime wedge

 

  • In a small pot, heat the black beans along with their liquid over medium heat; let them simmer until most but not all of the liquid has been absorbed and the beans are hot.
  • While the beans simmer, heat 1 tablespoon of the vegetable oil in a skillet over medium heat. Crack in the egg sunny-side up, sprinkle a little salt on the yolk, and cook until the white is just set and the edges are starting to brown slightly. Carefully flip over to finish either over easy or over medium, depending on your preferences. Remove and cover to keep warm (I like to place mine in the shallow bowl I use to serve and cover with another shallow bowl).
  • If the pan looks dry, add the other 1 tablespoon vegetable oil, let it heat for a minute, then add the tortilla. Fry the tortilla until well toasted with deeply browned spots on both sides.
  • Remove the fried tortilla from the pan and use a paper towel to wipe most of the oil out of the pan. Top the toasted tortilla with the pepperjack, arranging the slices so most of the tortilla surface is covered. Add back to the skillet, still on medium heat, with the pepperjack side down, directly against the surface of the pan. Cook undisturbed for 2-3 minutes. Fat from the cheese will be released and the cheese will look like it’s all going to ooze out the sides. Don’t worry.
  • After 2-3 minutes undisturbed, use a wide spatula to carefully but firmly loosen the cheese from the pan surface. Flip the whole tortilla back over so the cheese is on top.
  • To serve, pile the hot black beans in a shallow bowl. Place the tortilla, cheese side up, on top of the beans. Carefully put the egg on top of the cheese-crusted tortilla. Top with salsa, avocado, cilantro and lime if desired, and eat immediately.

Lamb Stuffed Zucchini

The last week of summer is a curious avalanche of light melancholy and nervous action. I’m caught between the post-vacation-slump of wanting to curl and laze and bake my mind in nothing, and the deep itch of my protestant work ethic demanding I Get. Things. Done. before school starts.

So I cautiously plan in small doses, and I soothe the anxious itch that rears up when I am “wasting” time by consuming novels in gulps, to make up for reading little during the rest of the summer. I’m struck by Jesmyn Ward and Tommy Orange, and just this morning I fell back down into the entrancing, haunted wonderland that is Toni Morrison’s Beloved, inspired in part by this suggested reading list for white Americans assembled by a group of black writers. When I saw Morrison’s perhaps most famous novel on the list, I was brought back to an interview she did with Stephen Colbert in which she describes looking through her book for the right page to autograph for a reader, telling him “I looked down and there were these sentences.” I needed to read those sentences again. I burrowed through the first fifty pages this morning and now that itch is to open the book again.

But I do have other obligations, and one of them is to the final, late summer push of my miraculous zucchini plant. It flourished in our absence, our friend who was on plant-watering duties taking home several swollen specimens, and offering another few to our neighbors, and then suddenly, with only two large, hidden bats remaining, took a gasping breath and shuddered to a… pause? A stop? I think it will produce a few more, maybe, but its time seems limited.

That being the case, there was little time to waste in sharing my biggest zucchini triumph of the summer with you, in case you, too, have a few dark green baseball bats you aren’t sure how to consume.

Rather than an accompaniment or a burying-ground, this recipe uses the zucchini as a vessel. Ground lamb, seared and spiced and liberally tossed with toasted pine nuts, golden raisins, chick peas, preserved lemon, feta crumbles, and as much grassy, bright dill as you can handle, gets piled into the scraped-out cavity of the monstrous squash. A mound of oiled breadcrumbs on top is not a necessity, but what a luxury.

This may seem like a lot of ingredients, but they really play together well. Lamb with dill is obviously a winner, but if you haven’t tried lamb with golden raisins, I insist that you make it a priority – they add a perfect sweetness and here, soak up some of the fat from the meat so they are juicy and plump in the final product. The feta and preserved lemon each contribute a nice brininess – I wouldn’t forgo either, though if you don’t have preserved lemon (and are unwilling to make it yourself), plenty of zest might fill in reasonably well. I initially added chick peas as a way of stretching the lamb, and you certainly don’t need them, but they provide a nice lightness of their own and, I think, eradicate any need for a side of starch. Though we ate ours overflowing segments with garlic-rubbed toast and were quite happy.

I like to think this filling has a life of its own beyond zucchini, which is what makes it so nice. A well-hollowed eggplant would work nicely as well, maybe a cored bell pepper, and as the days shorten and hopefully cool, a carefully carved butternut or kabocha squash. Or you could just ignore the vegetables entirely and use the lamb mixture (maybe minus the chick peas) as a loose filling for a take on stuffed shells, or ravioli, or just tossed gently with rigatoni and a few glugs of sauce.

Lamb Stuffed Zucchini
Serves 6-8 with filling left over
About an hour
1 very large zucchini squash
a maximum of ½ cup olive oil (you probably will not use all of it)
salt and pepper to taste
⅓ cup pine nuts
1 pound ground lamb
1 teaspoon allspice
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
15 ounce can chick peas, drained and rinsed
½ cup golden raisins
2-3 tablespoons finely diced preserved lemon
3-4 tablespoons finely chopped fresh dill (you could sub with an equal amount of mint or about half as much oregano, if you don’t like dill)
4 ounces crumbled feta
¾-1 cup panko bread crumbs

 

  • Preheat the oven to 400F and line a large baking tray with aluminum foil. Split the zucchini in half lengthwise so you have two long, rounded planks with seeds exposed. Scrape out the seeds and some of the interior flesh with a metal spoon. Discard the scrapings and place the remaining “boats” on the baking tray. Lightly coat them with olive oil before seasoning liberally with salt and pepper. When the oven is preheated, put in the zucchini-laden baking tray and let them roast about 20 minutes while you start the filling. After 20 minutes, remove from the oven and set aside.
  • To make the filling, first heat about 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a medium pan and add the pine nuts. Toast over medium heat, stirring and checking often, until they are nicely golden. Be careful; they burn quickly. When toasted to your liking, set them aside.
  • In the same pan, still on medium heat, add a little bit more oil and then your ground lamb. Use a flat-sided wooden spoon, if you have one, to break it up, then sprinkle over the allspice, cayenne pepper, and a bit of salt to season. Let it cook, stirring and turning and continuing to break up large chunks, until no longer pink in the center.
  • When the lamb is just cooked through, stir in the chick peas and the golden raisins, turn the heat down to medium-low, and let it go another five minutes. This lets the new additions pick up some flavor. After five minutes, remove from heat and drain off any excess fat.
  • To the now-cooked lamb, add the toasted pine nuts, the preserved lemon, the dill, and the feta, stirring well to combine everything. Taste for seasoning and add salt and more cayenne pepper, if needed. When you are satisfied with the flavor, scoop the filling into the empty, partially-cooked zucchini halves. I like to mound it up a bit. It will be crumbly because there is no binder.
  • In a small bowl, toss the panko bread crumbs with enough olive oil to coat them well. Pack spoonfuls on top of the lamb filling and exposed zucchini flesh.
  • Carefully place the laden tray back into the oven, turn the temperature down to 375F, and roast for 25-35 minutes, until the panko is deeply bronzed and the flesh of the zucchini pierces easily with a fork.
  • Let cool about 5 minutes before slicing and serving large segments.