Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Pão de Queijo - Brazilian cheese bread

This long-running post, started before our vacation to Brazil, is finally ready for publishing. Why did it take so long, you might ask? Because it's bread! And not just any bread, but a bread dear to any Brazilian's heart.

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
2-3 eggs
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
  1. Place half the polvilho and salt gently together in a bowl (like cornstarch, it will billow!). Mix gently.
  2. 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!
  3. Make a well in the center of the polvilho and pour in the hot liquid.
  4. Mix with a wooden spoon or KitchenAid (with paddle attachment) until all the dough gets moist.
  5. Let rest at least 1/2 hour, until it cools.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. Remove the dough from the KitchenAid and add the grated cheese, kneading with your hands until the cheese is evenly distributed.
  10. Preheat oven to 375F, and place a medium ramekin filled with water on the rack.
  11. 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.
  12. Place balls on a baking sheet, with at least 1 inch between them (they will expand... hopefully).
  13. If stuffing with cheese, push one cheese cube into each ball, seal the seam, and place seam-side down on the baking sheet.
  14. 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.
These balls turn out well (some say even better!) if they are frozen before baking, which makes them very convenient. Place a sheet of waxed paper on a baking sheet, roll dough into balls, and place the whole baking sheet into the freezer. Wait until they're frozen rock-solid, then consolidate in a large Ziploc freezer baggie. To bake, place in a preheated 375F oven with a ramekin of water for 40+ minutes, until they are golden brown on top.


Monday, March 16, 2009

A Moroccan Feast

This menu was aided by the fact that I was hungry... but even the next day, all the flavors of these foods together made me swoon.

A Moroccan Feast for Four
(or two, if that's what you've got)

Parsnip hummus
The Best Tzatziki
Nigella-scented Moroccan rolls

Pat's Berber Kale
Simple Horiatiki
Roasted chicken with preserved lemon sauce
Pomegranate molasses in club soda

Sweet almond milk flavored with orange-blossom water

The Best Tzatziki

Pat, who hates all things yogurt, even likes this. The secret: Greek whole-milk yogurt. Absolutely, utterly creamy, without the tang of That Other Yogurt. With a Moroccan feast, you can't go wrong with this dish. Also goes well with any other kind of Middle Eastern dish that needs creaminess.

The Best Tzatziki
Serves 2-3, depending on appetite

1/2 cup English cucumber, grated with the large holes of a box grater
1 clove garlic, finely grated or pressed
1/2 tsp fresh lemon juice
1/4 tsp salt
1 small container Greek-style whole-milk plain yogurt
1 tsp extra-virgin olive oil
black pepper to taste

  1. Over the sink, squeeze handfuls of the grated cucumber until no liquid remains.
  2. In a bowl, mix cucumber and remaining ingredients.
  3. Let sit for at least 10 minutes. It is better several hours later, if you can wait that long.

Parsnip Hummus

One of my new favorite cookbooks, Spice; Flavors of the Eastern Mediterranean, by Ana Sortun, has an unusual arrangement of chapters and recipes with unusual seasonings paired together. The recipes are not that difficult, but have all been terribly delicious.

This recipe is an unusual take on hummus, which I love, but is much lighter-feeling on the tongue and uses parsnips (a local winter treat) rather than garbanzos. The texture is very creamy and quite a bit sweeter than regular hummus, and definitely gives a feeling of the Pacific Northwest in winter.

Warning: this contains butter, and it is heavenly.

Creamy Parsnip Hummus with Parsley

Adapted from Spice
Serves 2-4

1/2 lb parsnips, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks
1-2 Tbl tahini
2 Tbl freshly squeezed lemon juice
2-3 large cloves garlic, chopped
2 Tbl unsalted, cultured butter, cut into small pieces
3 Tbl extra-virgin olive oil
2 tsp ground cumin
salt and pepper to taste
garnish: 1 Tbl chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
optional: sumac & kalamata olives, for garnish

  1. In a medium saucepan, cover the parsnips with water and bring them to a boil over high heat.
  2. Reduce the heat to medium and simmer the parsnips fo about 20 minutes, until they are tender but not mushy. Drain.
  3. Mix the tahini with the lemon juice until there are no lumps.
  4. Combine the cooked parsnips and the butter in a food processor. Process until smooth.
  5. Add the tahnini mixture and remaining ingredients (except garnishes) and puree until smooth, about 3 minutes. Scrape sides of bowl a couple times with a spatula, if needed.
  6. Let cool, or eat slightly warm sprinkled with garnishes.
  7. Serve with Nigella-scented rolls, tzatziki and ajvar.

Nigella-scented Moroccan rolls

This is not a French baguette.

In truth, it is unlike any savory breads of Europe. Dense, cakey and dry, the sole purpose of this sweet and delicately-fragranced roll is to sop up the juices and sauces from a Moroccan dinner. Its use as a sponge is very effective, and makes for a really delicious accompaniment to hommous, ajvar, tzatziki, or any tagine. Pat says this is very much like the breads in Morocco - DO NOT eat this alone, but DO make it with other dishes. We had it last night with our Moroccan dinner, and it was fabulous.

Nigella-scented Moroccan Rolls
Adapted from Authentic Recipes from Morocco by Fatema Hal
Serves 4-6

1 1/2 tsp active dried yeast
1/4 cup warm water
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup fine semolina flour
1/2 tsp whole nigella seeds
1/2 tsp salt
2 tsp sugar
1/4 cup unsalted butter, melted
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 egg yolk, lightly beaten

  1. Dissolve the yeast in a little of the warm water and set aside.
  2. Combine the flours and the nigella seeds, salt, and sugar in the bowl of a KitchenAid mixer. Using the paddle attachement, mix well (~1 minute or so).
  3. Stop the machine and make a well in the center of the flours.
  4. Add the melted butter and whole egg to the well.
  5. Use the paddle attachment to mix on the lowest setting until combined, ~45 seconds or so. Stop machine to scrape down sides of bowl with a spatula.
  6. Start the machine on the lowest setting and slowly add the yeast.
  7. Add the remaining water until the dough holds together.
  8. Using the dough hook, knead the dough on the lowest setting for 7-8 minutes.
  9. Remove from bowl and divide dough into 6 equal pieces (I use a board scraper or knife).
  10. Roll into balls, sprinkle flour over, and set to rest for 1-2 hours in a warm place.
  11. Preheat oven to 400F, or 200C.
  12. Flatten the balls of dough and place on a baking sheet.
  13. Brush tops with egg wash and prick a few times with a fork.
  14. Bake for 10 minutes, or until golden.

Roast Chicken with Preserved Lemon Sauce (slowcooker)

This recipe is adapted from Authentic Recipes From Morocco; 60 simple and delicious recipes from the land of the tagine, by Fatema Hal. The recipes really are deceptively simple, but the flavors of unusual spices paired with high-quality ingredients are mouth-wateringly delicious. This dish would have been okay with a 'natural' or organic chicken, but free-range chickens really do have much better flavor.

The long cooking times for many Moroccan main dishes are great for adapting to slowcookers, which takes longer than the recipes but gets the food put away for a couple hours to attend to salads and side dishes, as well as friendly conversation. This paired extremely well with Pat's Berber Kale, Tzatziki, Parsnip Hommous and some Nigella-scented Moroccan Rolls.

Roast Chicken with Preserved Lemon Sauce

serves 6
preparation time: 20-30 minutes
cooking time: 2 hours

2 cups hot water or chicken broth
several saffron threads
1 free-range chicken, cleaned and dried*
2 heaping tsp whole nigella seeds - one tsp crushed
6 Tbl olive oil
2 onions, peeled and thinly sliced
1/2 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp salt
freshly ground black pepper
1 bunch cilantro, coarsely chopped
1 large preserved Meyer lemon, quartered**

  1. In a bowl, add the saffron to the hot water or broth. Set aside.
  2. Rub the chicken with 1 tsp of crushed nigella seeds.
  3. Heat the oil in a large Dutch oven over high heat.
  4. Add the onions, ginger, salt, pepper and chicken.
  5. Brown the chicken on all sides, about 5 minutes per side.
  6. Remove the chicken to the insert of a slowcooker, breast-side up.
  7. Add the saffron, cilantro, whole nigella seeds, and preserved lemon to the onion and oil mixture. Stir until just heated.
  8. Pour onion mixture over chicken in slowcooker.
  9. Cover and set on HIGH for 2 hours.
  10. To serve, place the chicken on a warmed platter. Skim off the top layer of oil and reserve for a dipping oil (heaven in a dish, really). Pour remaining sauce over the chicken and dig in.
*The drier the skin, the better the chicken will brown.
**The preserved lemons are Meyer lemons with a Safi spicing recommended by Paula Wolfert - ours are nearly a year old and have a great perfume with a lot of sour, bitter and salty flavors.
Welcome to Yummy Stuff, a place for my recipes, new ideas on ingredients and procedures, and general food-related thoughts.