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
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.