Brazilian cheese breads are a quick and satisfying treat

Brazilian cheese breads
© K Martinko

Chewy, salty, and impossible to stop eating, they're the next best thing to an actual trip to Brazil (especially when paired with a caipirinha).

The first time I ever tasted Brazilian cheese breads, or pão de queijo, as they're called, I couldn't figure out what they were. They had the strangest texture, a firm shell on the outside with a soft, stretchy, chewy middle, and a delightfully salty, cheesy flavor. I encountered them at every turn – at people's homes, at meetings, at restaurants and coffee shops. Clearly they were a Big Thing, and the more I ate, the more I agreed.

I asked a friend to teach me how to make them. She laughed and pointed to a bag of powdered mix. "That's what everyone uses. Just add water and egg and beat it hard for several minutes." Nobody made the breads from scratch, apparently, but it didn't seem to matter. They were still delicious.

The few times I traveled between Brazil and Canada, I loaded up my suitcase with mix. Friends would bring it when they came to visit. Sometimes I'd track it down in Brazilian grocery stores in Toronto. It wasn't until I moved out of the city that I realized there had to be a way to make pão de queijo from scratch. Surely the Brazilians hadn't always had mix on hand!

Thus began my quest to recreate these little snacks. It didn't take long. They're astonishingly simple to make, as long as you can get your hands on some tapioca flour, which is now common in most large supermarkets. Tapioca comes from ground cassava root, a staple ingredient in many tropical countries that's used in a wide range of ways, and that's what gives these breads their uniquely chewy texture. It also makes them gluten-free.

The best recipe I've found so far is from The Kitchn. It uses vegetable oil, which is more authentic than the olive oil I've seen in other versions. It uses only Parmesan, whereas other recipes call for shredded cheddar and/or Monterey Jack, which leads to browned cheesy bits that you'd never normally see in Brazil.

The hardest part is gauging the quantity of tapioca. Depending on the humidity of the day, you may need more or less. If the dough seems very loose, let it sit for a minute and see if it seizes up and can be scooped before deciding to add more; tapioca is an odd ingredient and takes a bit of getting used to. Fortunately, it's a forgiving recipe, so don't hesitate to fool around with it. You'll still end up with something delicious.

Brazilian Pão de Queijo

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup whole milk
  • 1/2 cup vegetable oil
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 2 cups (approx. 10 oz) tapioca flour or sour cassava flour (I use Bob's Red Mill Tapioca Flour)
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1-1.5 cups finely grated Parmesan cheese

Preheat oven to 450. Prepare two baking sheets with parchment paper.

Heat the milk, vegetable oil, and salt in a medium saucepan until boiling gently, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat when big bubbles start coming up through the milk.

Add tapioca all at once and mix thoroughly with a wooden spoon until all flour is gone. The dough will be grainy and gelatinous at this point.

Transfer to a stand mixer and beat for several minutes until well-incorporated and cool enough to touch comfortably. There may be an oily slick that appears when you stop mixing, but that's OK.

Beat in eggs one at a time. Mix thoroughly between additions. Beat in Parmesan. The Kitchn reminds, "The resulting dough will be very sticky, stretchy, and soft with a consistency between cake batter and cookie dough. It will not be completely smooth."

Scoop spoonfuls of dough onto prepared baking sheets. Dip spoon into water as needed to prevent sticking. You can make the breads any size you wish, from a level tablespoonful to ice cream scoop-sized.

Place pans in oven and immediately reduce temperature to 350 F. Bake 20-25 minutes, rotating pans once during baking to ensure even browning. Cool on racks. Enjoy warm or at room temperature. These are best eaten the day they are made.

Now mix yourself a caipirinha and imagine you're on a tropical beach...

Brazilian cheese breads are a quick and satisfying treat
Chewy, salty, and impossible to stop eating, they're the next best thing to an actual trip to Brazil (especially when paired with a caipirinha).

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