The Weekend Dish column: The story of Brazilian cheese bread (Pão de queijo)
The Weekend Dish
Brazilian cheese bread, or pão de queijo, is much more difficult to pronounce than it is to prepare. The closest phonetic approximation I can come up with is pawn-dehj-kay-sho, but somehow that still does not sound quite right.
I had never heard of pão de queijo until recently when a Brazilian friend told me about it. It is quite a big deal in Brazil.
Pão de queijo is a cheesy bread that is a mix between biscuits and cheese puffs. It is small, round, baked and best served hot from the oven. It can be prepared for breakfast or as a snack. My friend and I agree it would also be good with beer.
The recipe for pão de queijo originates in the state of Minas Gerais, Brazil. This sprawling state is often called Deep Brazil because it is more traditional, native, and Portuguese than some of the surrounding areas. Throughout Brazilian history, it became a prosperous region rich with natural resources and bountiful agriculture. It also has a darker side cast by the shadow of slavery.
Serves two to four people
1 cup water
1/2 cup canola oil
2 cup tapioca flour
3 large eggs
3 cups Parmesan cheese, grated
1 teaspoon salt
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
- In a large measuring cup, combine the water and oil.
- In a large mixing bowl, stir together the liquid and tapioca flour. Stir until dough is thick and stringy. Mix in eggs, cheese, and salt and continue to mix with a spoon until mixture is even.
- On a floured surface, knead the dough for about ten minutes.
- Separate the dough into spoonfuls, then roll into balls with your hands. Add oil to your hands first to prevent sticking and to coat the dough balls.
- Add dough balls to a greased mini-muffin pan, and put into the oven for about 20 minutes.
- Serve immediately
In Brazil’s early days, slaves were needed to harvest and transport Minas Gerais’s many natural resources. Since the land was rugged and landlocked, this could be an arduous task. While the slaves were a mixture of populations, many of them originated from Africa. Everyone in that situation struggled for survival with different coping mechanisms. One such coping method was cooking, and that is how pão de queijo was born.
The enslaved men and women worked their hands and fingers to the bones, and those hands helped to build nations such as Brazil. When it came time to feed themselves, they were often denied essential ingredients, such as wheat flour, since those ingredients were “too good” for them. Pão de queijo is the story of survival and making the best of a brutal situation with limited resources.
Since they did not have access to wheat flour, they made their own by milling cassava roots into flour. Then they added cheese that was considered unfit to eat by their masters. They assembled the only ingredients that they could access, and they transformed them into bread. As time went on, and slavery was abolished, they took this hardscrabble bread and refined it further with tapioca flour and Parmesan cheese. Since then, it has become a national favorite in Brazil.
My Brazilian friend encouraged me to learn more about pão de queijo directly from one of the descendants of the slaves of Minas Gerais. Marcina Lacerda is a nanny and personal assistant from there. Her great-grandmother was a slave who was bought by her great-grandfather.
“My great-grandfather bought the slaves to work on his farm,” Lacerda said. “He stayed with my great-grandmother, and my grandfather was born.”
Lacerda is as colorful as her floral aprons. She is always on the go, while her hands are usually a blur of kinetic motion. Pão de queijo is one of her specialties that has been passed down from her great-grandparents. She is also an interesting character. She has an Instagram account that depicts her travels around the world. You can follow her adventures on Instagram at marcinaroundtheworld. Drop a line and say hello! You may learn something new from her.
“I was 20 years old when my mother taught me how to make this,” Lacerda said. “There was a big family, so we had to make sure there was enough for everyone.”
The ingredients are common in Brazil, while the bread itself is simple to make. I imagine this was perfect for feeding a large family. While cassava root flour may be difficult to obtain in the states, tapioca flour is not. If you want to use cassava root, it is available online at Amazon or similar retailers.
Lacerda emphasized to me the importance of eating this fresh from the oven. It is no good if it’s not served fresh, according to her. I did try some day old bread, and it was still delicious. It was less light and airy than the fresh bread, so I can see why it is best served fresh and hot. Hot or cold, I am lucky to have been introduced to this. It was born from slavery and hardship. The same loving hands that have built nations made this bread, and I am honored to share it with you.
Jordan Callier is an avid foodie and business owner in Glenwood Springs.
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