Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Increasingly Ubiquituous Brazilian Cheese Bun (Pão de Queijo)

Wait a minute... can something be "increasingly ubiquituous"? The title of this post claims increasing ubiquity for a Brazilian breakfast food and snack called pão de queijo, but second thoughts tell us that something is either ubiquituous or it isn't - just like "perfect", there are no degrees to "ubiquituous." But we think the title has a nice ring to it, so we'll keep it just as it is. In any case, readers of the blog will get the idea.

However you want to say it, though, these little round cheesy puffs of manioc starch are extremely popular - inside Brazil and increasingly outside the country as well. When I visited Vancouver in July, a city where Brazilian food is notoriously thin on the ground, I spotted a small hole-in-the-wall restaurant on the city's trendy Main Street strip that specialized in these Brazilian cheese buns. It was called Quejos and it appeared to market the cheese buns primarily to people with restricted diets. All of their promotional material and signage trumpeted the fact that their product was gluten-free, wheat-free, yeast-free and non-dairy. It's true that there is no gluten in  pão de queijo since it's made from manioc starch, not from wheat, but it seems to me that selling the product only on the basis of what it doesn't have is discouraging at the very least. The fact that the store either couldn't properly spell the Portuguese word for cheeses (Quejos instead of Queijos) or thought that the Canadian market couldn't handle such a foreign-appearing word was another sore point with me.

In Brazil, though, people don't eat pão de queijo by the handful because they're good for you or because you can't really eat what you want to eat so you'll eat pão de queijo rather than starve to death. They eat these little round balls because they love them. Properly made, they are wonderful - light as air, aromatic and full of flavor, satisfying without being heavy or greasy. They make a perfect accompaniment to fresh fruit and strong coffee at the breakfast table, or a few of them in a paper cup provide a great pick-me-up on a window-shopping spree, a day of museums, or just a coffee break from work.

Although pão de queijo means cheese bread in Portuguese, these morsels are really not bread, as they have no leavening agent at all. The ingredient list is short - manioc starch, milk, eggs, butter or oil and some sort of cheese. In Brazil the cheese is usually a white cheese known as Minas, from the state of Minas Gerais, but it can also be cheddar, mozzarella or parmesan. The manioc starch is strongly elastic and consequently small pockets of air trapped within the dough expand during baking resulting in pão de queijo's light and airy quality.

Although most Brazilian's buy pão de queijo from a bakery, or from one of the fast-food chains that specialize in these treats, such as Casa de Pão de Queijo, they are quite easy to make at home and many Brazilians make them fresh in the morning to eat for breakfast. They can be made from scratch or from a pre-packaged mix. All that needs to be done is to mix the ingredients, knead them in a mixer with a dough hook or by hand, roll them into small balls, and pop them in the oven on a cookie sheet. Pão de queijo is almost always good, but it's never better than when it just comes out of the oven, like most other kinds of bread.

If you live somewhere there's a significant Brazilian community, you're likely to find pão de queijo in ethnic bakeries and lunch spots, and if you want to try to make it at home, you can find the one exotic ingredient, manioc starch (called povilho doce in Portuguese) in Latin American markets. Unfortunately, though, unless you can source the starch, you really can't make pão de queijo at all. It's absolutely essential. For those of you who might want to try to make Brazilian cheese buns at home and who can locate some manioc starch, we'll post a recipe tomorrow.


  1. Did you post the recipe for this? I don't see it.

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