Pão de queijo (meaning "cheese bread") is certainly THE snack and breakfast staple of many parts of Brazil. In Minas Gerais, where people proudly boast the best cheese is made, it is very common in every snack shop, gas station mini-mart, and lunch shop. My experience was that they certainly had variation, but they are ubiquitously very salty, very cheesy, and mostly very chewy. The best ones had an incredible texture, somewhere between chewy and soft. And I loved the ones stuffed with cheese and chicken.
Although I did get lessons on how to make the little buggers in Ouro Preto by the cook at our hostel (I highly recommend them!), the poofs came out very dense and very chewy when I tried the same recipe at home in the States. This was followed by a solid week of cheesy-poofs, using different variations of recipes found online - it helps if you can read Portuguese! - and the help of a woman at a local Brazilian bakery. (Actually, this isn't quite accurate - I visited ALL the three Brazilian stores in the area, and asked at each one of them for help. Each one gave me a new little nugget of knowledge)
Type of manioc flour - sweet or sour?
Various recipes all over the web recommend using one or the other, or both, or just indicate 'tapioca flour'. I was advised in my cooking lesson to only use sweet; some recipes use sour, and some use both. Which to use?
Manioc starch (both sweet and sour) is the flour ground from cassava, or manioc, root. The root is grated, squeezed with water, and the starch in the water is allowed to settle and dried in the sun. This "sweet" starch (polvilho doce) is tapioca flour, used to make tapioca pearls or sticks. To make "sour" starch, the starch/water solution may be fermented under anaerobic conditions before drying in the sun. Like any sourdough starter, it contains a variety of Lactobacillus bacteria, which eat the starch and convert it to acids.
Apparently, there has been quite a bit of research on the bread making potential (BMP!) of sour starch. This paper details sour starch's production - cool! Various factors, such as the degree of exposure to UV light while drying, significantly improve the expansion ability of the flour when baking (and therefore BMP) of the starch. The BMP of sweet starch is much lower - the fermentation process of making sour starch, and the subsequent UV and heat exposure, is what creates the ability of the starch to expand during cooking or baking.
So, the upshot: use sour starch!
What kind of oil to use?
In Brazil, I was oh-so-excited to use olive oil in my pão de queijo at home! The flavor of most pães I had seemed like a clean slate for complex flavors, different cheeses, etc. The Week Of Pão upon my return, however, I discovered that all of my experiments with 'complex flavors' were dense and chewy, and did not 'poof' at all. So I scoured the web, and found a wiki recipe that explicitly stated "do NOT use olive oil." To my immense disappointment and some relief, changing the oil did improve the poofs. I will continue to experiment with more flavorful oils, but lighter oils are certainly better able to get it up.
The other revelation was that many recipes used either all butter or half butter and oil. The young woman at the Brazilian bakery indicated that butter is important for the texture - go figure. So that's what I'm using.
How many eggs?
In Brazil, it was easy: 6 per kilo of starch.
But, these were medium-sized eggs, which supermarkets (at least around my hometown) don't even sell. The key is the texture, as in all bread-making ventures. Pour the liquids into the flour, then add only as many eggs as needed to get a fairly silky, springy dough (you'll only get close to wheat flour, not spot-on). I usually add about two and a half per 5oo grams of flour.
Every bread baker has that 'aha' moment, when the breakthrough happens; that glorious moment when you see the connection between flour, water and yeast and that soft, pillowy and elastic living being that you are kneading. I've experienced this for bread; using manioc flour is a completely different animal. Uh, bread. But that moment is still out there for experiencing.
What kind of cheese?
Interestingly, this seems to be the question that concerns Brazilians the most. Their beloved Minas cheese (from the state of Minas Gerais) is distinctive, and very hard to find outside of Brazil. A quick trip to my local Whole Foods did the job, though - I walked up to the counter and said, "I need a cheese nerd." And I got one, who asked me to describe, specifically, what Minas cheese was like. My description was something like, "semi-hard, pretty salty, subtly tangy, but with a good deal of 'foot-iness'." After a wonderful round of tasting only four cheeses, we went with the very first one: a sheep's milk Rustico with peppercorns. The 'sheep-iness' was the 'foot-iness' I was looking for, and the texture was about right. The price... well, I don't eat THAT many of them (about $5 for the amount I needed for one recipe).
If you want to fill it with cheese, I can't recommend Parrano Robusto highly enough. Heaven. Truly heaven. But it makes the rolls rise less.
How salty to make it?
If there's anything I remember about the pães (heck, any of the cuisine!) of Brazil is the amount of salt - MUCH more than I am used to. 2 tsp seems about right for this recipe, but up to 1.5 Tbl might be more authentic. A salty cheese is key here, too - cheddar is a tasty cheese, but you'll have to ramp your salt WAY up! The addition of Parrano Robusto makes this a salty but super-tasty treat.
Ok, without further adieu, my current state of understanding for pão de queijo. If you have comments on further improvements, PLEASE let me know. This is a work in progress.
Pão de Queijo
500 grams (1 package) polvilho azedo (sour manioc starch, or 'sour starch')
2 tsp salt
1/4 cup refined, flavorless oil (soy for authenticity - otherwise try canola, safflower, etc.)
1/4 cup butter (or margarine, again, for authenticity)
1 cup whole milk
1/4-1/3 lb sheep's milk semi-hard cheese (sheep's milk rustico with peppercorns), grated
optional: 1/4-1/2 lb Parrano Robusto, cut into 1/4-inch cubes
- Place half the polvilho and salt gently together in a bowl (like cornstarch, it will billow!). Mix gently.
- In a small saucepan, bring the milk, butter and oil to a simmer for 5 minutes. You must be able to see little bubbles of the milk above the oil!
- Make a well in the center of the polvilho and pour in the hot liquid.
- Mix with a wooden spoon or KitchenAid (with paddle attachment) until all the dough gets moist.
- Let rest at least 1/2 hour, until it cools.
- Turn on the KitchenAid and add the remaining polvilho, a little at a time, until everything is well-incorporated. The dough should NOT stick together at this point. If it does, add more polvilho until you have a uniform bowl of crumbs.
- Add the eggs, lightly beaten, one at a time, until the dough just comes together without cracking and has no lumps (not kidding!). Note: this is HARD WORK. Recruit a machine, or get ready for a workout.
- Once this comes together, you have two options: add another half egg to make a sticky dough, or move on. Regardless of which one you choose, IT MUST BE FREE OF LUMPS.
- Remove the dough from the KitchenAid and add the grated cheese, kneading with your hands until the cheese is evenly distributed.
- Preheat oven to 375F, and place a medium ramekin filled with water on the rack.
- Make little balls of dough by greasing your hands with more oil and rolling 1.5 Tbl of dough between your palms. If your batter is dry, this is easy. If the batter is wet, measure the dough with the help of a spoon and keep greasing your hands after every other ball. The oil should help keep the dough from sticking to your hands.
- Place balls on a baking sheet, with at least 1 inch between them (they will expand... hopefully).
- If stuffing with cheese, push one cheese cube into each ball, seal the seam, and place seam-side down on the baking sheet.
- Slide the balls into the preheated oven for between 20-30 minutes, just until the rolls have a golden hue between the golden flecks of grated cheese.