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How Pão de Queijo Became Brazil’s Cheesy, Fun-Sized Breakfast Staple

Best chased with an espresso in the morning

A bowl of pao. Dina Avila/Eater

This is the Pastry Basket, a series in which Eater profiles noteworthy breakfast pastries. Up next: Pão de Queijo

In France, a cup of coffee might pair with a croissant. In the United States coffee is often accompanied by a doughnut or a bagel. But in Brazil, cafe culture’s answer to a caffeine sidekick is cheesy bread. Chewy, almost doughy on the inside, balls of puffed pão de queijo are a staple snack among Brazilians, best chased with an espresso in the morning, though they’re available and readily consumed round-the-clock.

"If you have a gathering, which is a huge part of Brazilian culture, there’s going to be cheese bread on the table."

While it’s served throughout Latin America from Argentina to Peru, pão de queijo (pronounced "pow-ge-kay-ju") is best known in its ancestral home of southeastern Brazil. Minas Gerais — an interior state bordering Rio de Janeiro with a robust dairy industry — is credited with refining the recipe. Some have acknowledged late Brazilian president Itamar Franco, who held the country’s top political office in the early ‘90s, as the figure who helped popularize his home state’s go-to snack on a national level. Franco’s fondness for the starchy pastry was apparently so ingrained into the daily fabric of his administration that pão de queijo was made mandatory at all government meetings. The politician’s years in office were eventually dubbed the "Republic of Cheese Bread." The PR boost helped rocket pão de queijo into the collective national consciousness.

In the 20 years since Itamar Franco stepped down, the cult of the cheesy bread has grown into nationwide enthusiasm, with fast-food chains, coffee shops, street food vendors, and prepared-food companies adapting the recipe. Casa do Pão de Queijo, founded as a standalone bakery in 1967, is now one of the country's biggest food franchises, boasting 1,000 points of sale for its products in 2008. McDonald’s even plans to serve them during the Rio Olympics. "I compare it with how popular chips are in the U.S.," says Junea Rocha, the Brazilian-born co-founder of Brazi Bites, a Portland, Oregon-based company that sells frozen pão de queijo. "If you have a gathering, which is a huge part of Brazilian culture… there's going to be cheese bread on the table."

A Brazilian man produces flour from Cassava.
A Brazilian man produces flour from Cassava.
Ricardo Funari/Brazil Photos/LightRocket via Getty Images

Origins

Pão de queijo’s two primary ingredients — tapioca and Minas cheese — are entwined with the history and economy of southeastern Brazil. It all starts with cassava, a brown, starchy tuber also known as manioc, Brazilian arrowroot, and yuca (though not to be confused with yucca). The cassava plant was originally domesticated thousands of years ago in South America by indigenous peoples. Later, when colonists descended on the New World, they found many regions could not support the cultivation of staple grains like wheat, and turned to drought-resistant, poor-soil-thriving cassava. Trade soon brought leafy cassava plants to equatorial regions around the world, including parts of Africa and Southeast Asia, where it has become the "third most important source of calories in the tropics," according to the United Nations.

For all its advantages, cassava pulp is naturally poisonous and therefore especially difficult to process. To avoid being poisoned by cyanide-laced pulp — an affliction that can result in paralysis and possibly death — the roots must be painstakingly peeled, grated, soaked in water, and dried. This method successfully extracts the toxin and renders the root flesh edible and millable, while leaving behind a grainy, waterlogged layer of tapioca starch. At this point, the starch may be either dried for sweet tapioca (polvilho doce) or fermented for sour tapioca (polvilho azedo).

Most experts believe that the basic recipe for pão de queijo developed among 17th-century slave communities, which collected the grainy tapioca flour during the processing of cassava plants to supplement their meager daily rations. The starch could be made into a dough and then rolled into small balls for a simple source of calories.

Precursors to the modern pão de queijo recipe likely endured for quite a while before regional economic influences crept into the dough. The pleasantly cheesy flavor seems to have come into play by the early 20th century, when Minas Gerais gained a reputation for dairy products, particularly Minas cheese — a salty, mild flavored cow’s milk-based cheese. Akin to a softer variety of parmesan or a hard cheddar, Minas that comes in several varieties, but the open-air aged, slightly yellowed curado is now favored among traditional pão de queijo bakers.

Dough, before it hits the oven.
Pão de queijo dough, before it hits the oven.
Alexandre Macedo/Flickr

How to Make Pão de Queijo

Making the slightly sour mini bread buns — with their cracked, crunchy toasted cheese exteriors, and soft, spongy interiors — is relatively simple. Although the ratios may vary, recipes generally call for a standard assemblage of ingredients including water, oil or butter, salt, milk, cheese, and eggs. Fermented or "sour" tapioca flour is the secret to the bread’s a slightly tart quality, and the tapioca dough’s stickiness provides the bread with a soft, airy, slightly undercooked interior not unlike French gougères — but without the gluten.

The wet ingredients are first brought to a boil a saucepan and mixed with tapioca flour. "If you're making a really small batch you can just mix it with a spoon," Rocha says. The mixture is then allowed to cool. Rocha then blends the tapioca dough with eggs, salt, and cheese in a stand mixer. The fresh dough may then be rolled by hand into approximately inch-wide balls, placed on a sheet, and either frozen or baked in the oven at approximately 400 degrees for about 20 minutes, until puffed and golden in color.

Pao in a bowl. Alexandre Macedo/Flickr

Challenges to Mass Production

Rocha grew up watching the women in her family preparing the mini bread buns on the family’s farm in Minas Gerais, using fresh milk and homemade cheeses. "The cheese bread was always present," she says. "We had our own family recipe and my aunts would make with their own little twists and turns, with extra cheeses or different things." According to Rocha, in Brazil and especially Minas Gerais, frozen versions of the cheese bread have flourished in supermarket grocery aisles ever since companies discovered that the dough was well-suited mass production and freezers. (Meanwhile, the Casa do Pão de Queijo chain adopted its franchise model in 1987 with 13 stores — and counted over 250 locations by 2005.)

However, outside the restaurants, markets, and cafes in Brazilian communities throughout the United States — including in South Florida and NYC — the dish hasn’t made substantial headway in U.S. grocery aisles until recently. Rocha and her husband decided to change that, launching Brazi Bites in 2011, and were joined by other brands including California-based Mani Snacks.

In starting Brazi Bites, Rocha quickly discovered roadblocks to reproducing cheesy bread on a mass scale from the U.S. Sourcing key ingredients was particularly difficult. Standard tapioca flour, for instance, is now widely available in grocery stores, but the fermented tapioca necessary for making pão de queijo isn’t as easily accessible. "We use a tapioca flour that's a little bit more fermented, so it's a little bit thicker which gives you an outer crust — a crispy crust outside and a fluffiness inside. That's the magic of the cheese bread," she says. "If you make it with your standard tapioca flour, the crust is going to be very thin. There's not going to be something to bite on. It's going to be too soft."

For Brazi Bites, Rocha and her husband traveled to Brazil to test and import a coarser sour tapioca flour, but she says she’s constantly faced with finding larger supplies as the company grows. The volatility in Brazil’s economy, she says, adds another layer of instability in her supply chain.

Finding the right cheese to recreate the flavors Rocha grew up with in her hometown of Belo Horizonte also required experimentation. Though it’s widely available across Brazil, Minas cheese is not easily acquired in the United States. While Rocha had accepted that she’d have to import sour tapioca from Brazil and purchase her production equipment abroad, she hoped to source as many of her ingredients locally as possible. Over the course of a year in their home kitchen, Rocha and her husband experimented with the recipe, trying to find the right combination of cheese that would mimic the salty, aged, and slightly soft quality of Minas cheese. After testing "dozens of cheeses," the pair settled on a ratio of cheddar and parmesan.

Rocha is not alone in trying to bring pão de queijo to a new crop of cheesy bread fanatics. In the 20th century, the bread has made its way around the globe. Today, the snacks have gained a following in Japan, thanks to expatriates living in Brazil (the world’s largest Japanese community outside of Japan is located in São Paulo) bringing the popular recipe back to the island nation. In the United States, the bread is also gaining attention in bakeries from Chicago to New York, and thanks to the gluten-free craze, the tapioca balls seem primed to attract an even wider consumer base. For instance, Brazilian brand Forno de Minas, which was founded in 1990, recently rolled out its frozen cheesy bread in American markets.

"For us, it has been a huge asset," says Rocha of the product's gluten-free content: Her company now produces approximately five million pieces of gluten-free, frozen cheesy bread per month. "At the end of the day, all we want is for people to be able to try it once," she says, "because we know that when they do, they're going to fall in love."

Read More: Rio 2016: Eater's Guide to Eating and Drinking at the Olympics [E]

Brenna Houck is editor of Eater Detroit and the weekend editor of Eater.com.
Editor: Erin DeJesus

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