Sunday, May 27, 2012

"Rotten Cake" - A Terrible Name for a Terrific Dish

When Flavors of Brazil was in Belém, Pará recently, one of the best things about our hotel's marvelous breakfast buffet was something with the very unappetizing name bolo podre. The name means "rotten cake" in Portuguese but fortunately the dish was far from rotten, and not all that close to what we'd call a cake. Serving cake for breakfast might itself seem a strange practice to some people, but there's nothing unusual about it in Brazil. Hotel or resort buffet breakfasts always have a selection of cakes from which to choose, and even at home there might be a some slices of unfrosted caked on offer for the family.

We tried bolo podre the first morning we were at the hotel, mostly out of curiousity's sake and just because the name was so weird. It turned out to be absolutely wonderful, and by the time we left the hotel a few days later the dining room staff would greet us each morning saying "bolo podre" with a knowing smile.

The bolo podre we ate in Belém was more of what we'd call a pudding than a cake. In fact, we'd call it tapioca pudding. Bolo podre, as it's eaten in Belém, consists of small pearls of manioc flour (what's sold in North America as tapioca) combined with grated fresh coconut, coconut milk, sweetened condensed milk, milk and sugar. The mixture is pressed into a tube-shaped cake pan and then refrigerated until the manioc flour has absorbed enough of the liquid that the "cake" can be unmolded and cut into slices for serving. The result is creamy, sweet and rich, much like rice pudding, with the unmistakeable flavor of coconut.

In preparing for this blog post, we did some Internet research on bolo podre, and it turns out that although the name itself is a heritage of Portuguese culinary traditions, the dish itself doesn't resemble its Portuguese namesake at all. Traditional Portuguese bolo podre is a rich spice cake, sweetened with honey and moistened with generous amounts of vegetable oil and 8 whole eggs! It is spiced and flavored with powdered cinnamon.

The connection between the Portuguese spice cake and the Amazonian tapioca cake-that's-not-a-cake is a mystery. But for us, an even greater mystery is why either one of these treats would be burdened with the utterly unappealing name "rotten cake."


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