I am not what you would call the world’s most organized person. While thankfully hygiene standards don’t usually drop below a certain level in our household, mess is another matter entirely; at times I’ve wondered if I emit some kind of magnetic attraction for chaos as no matter how hard I try to keep things neat, tidy and in their rightful places, they never seem to stay that way. One of the prime examples of this (besides my half of the closet, and believe me, you do not want to go there) is my to-cook list for this very blog – or as I should more accurately say, my to-cook lists.
You see, once upon a time, back when this site was young and I knew that much of its continued success would depend on my being methodical and disciplined about coming up with new content, I bought myself a little notebook. In this notebook I intended to keep one centralized, comprehensive list of things I wanted to cook, including the random ideas that occasionally assault me as well as the many tempting recipes I run across in cookbooks and magazines, which I would be able to refer to whenever I needed inspiration. In addition, having a list would allow me to phase out my far less efficient system of flagging finds with bits of post-it notes or folding down page corners – both of which tended to result in more forgotten recipes than culinary epiphanies.
It actually went very well for a few months, and I dutifully documented every appetizing inspiration and tempting recipe I ran across, and even managed to make a few of them while I was at it. But as I might have predicted, my enthusiasm for this new system eventually began to wane; without even realizing it I started consulting my notebook less and less, and eventually it got itself placed in some pile of stuff that my dear chaos-phobic (i.e. German) husband in one of his I-can’t-take-this-mess-anymore fits relocated to some dark and invisible corner of our apartment.
Although I didn’t really miss the notebook itself, the problem was that I had gotten used to jotting down recipe references instead of marking their location at the source, and thus when the notebook disappeared I simply carried on writing those little notes on whatever paper I could find. Soon our apartment, in addition to drowning in cookbooks and food magazines, was awash with little bits of paper – backs of envelopes, torn corners of bank statements, margins of old shopping lists – enthusiastically reminding me to make Azeri Meatball Stew or some great new variation on eggplant parmesan. I even made a stab at locating the notebook when I realized what a mess I was making, but that failed – as did my half-hearted attempt to collect all those scraps of paper into a central scrap location, since I could never remember where it was. The end result of all this chaos, of course, was that unless a recipe was so phenomenally tempting and immediately do-able, chances are it would be noted, lost and forgotten long before it had a fighting chance to actually be made.
But as luck would have it, a couple of weeks ago I was rifling through a large stack of magazines and old mail in our living room – something I swear I’d done a hundred times already – looking for a misplaced utility bill, when something familiar slipped out: my old notebook.
Clutching it like a long-lost friend, I settled into the sofa and cracked it open, curious to see what exactly I had intended to cook a year or so ago. Inside was a long list of dishes, some of which I couldn’t for the life of me understand what had attracted me but most of which still sounded pretty good. A few even caused me to slap my forehead in disbelief – how could I have forgotten that one? The one that caused me the most head-slapping, however, was the entry at the very top of the list. This was something I’d been intending to make for so long that it was likely the very thing that compelled me to start keeping a list in the first place, in hopes that doing so would finally motivate me to cross it off. Unlike the rest of the list, this entry had no cookbook reference or involved description, just three simple words: pão de queijo. That was all the reminder I needed.
Pão de queijo literally translates from Portuguese as ‘cheese bread’, and though that’s essentially what these puffy little rolls are, the name only tells half the story. The first thing to know about pão de queijo is that the relationship Brazilians have with it borders on obsessive. In researching recipes I stumbled upon one by Valentina (also the author of Trembom), and in the headnotes she relates how she once joined a Brazilian online forum called ‘I’m crazy about pão de queijo’ which was dedicated to nothing else but discussing the merits of, and sharing recipes for, versions of this tasty snack. At the time she joined the forum had more than 200,000 members(!).
The second thing to know is that these little breads are fundamentally different from the majority of cheese-bready things around the world in that they are naturally and completely gluten-free. While they seem to be cousins to the French gougères in terms of technique and appearance, they’re made entirely with tapioca starch (the fine, white powder extracted from cassava roots), which gives them a texture quite unlike anything else. Their transformation is actually quite miraculous to watch: they go into a hot oven as lumpy, ragged little mounds with the consistency of spent chewing gum and emerge light as air, crusty around the edges and possessing a wonderful, toothsome chew. Brazilians, it seems, love to eat them for breakfast with coffee, though I’m just as inclined to nibble them with a pre-dinner drink, and they’d also be a great accompaniment to a hearty soup or stew, or could even be fancied up as party food with a stuffing of some kind.
Brazilians of the world, you are really onto a good thing here – though I’m sure you don’t need me telling you that this is one for the permanent recipe file. And speaking of that file – you know, that centralized, organized place I keep track of all the recipes I intend to make again – well, it’s about time I put one together, don’t you think? I’ll just have to put it on my list.
Pão de Queijo
There seems to be widespread consensus that these are quite tricky to make, but I didn’t find this to be the case. One thing I would recommend is to measure the tapioca starch by weight if you can, which is infinitely more reliable than by volume. If you do measure by volume, note that I use the lightly-aerate-then-scoop-and-level method. In the recipe I’ve given some clues as to the texture you’re aiming for in the dough – the important thing to note is that it should not actually be firm enough to make balls, but rather soft, misshapen little mounds. If you’re worried, you can always test-bake a couple to see if they puff up like they should. As for the tapioca starch/flour, you should be able to locate some in an Asian or other ethnic market (where you might find it under the names yuca, manioc, cassava or polvilho azedo/doce, any one of which will fit the bill), or any place that stocks gluten-free baking supplies.
yield: 20-30 rolls, depending on size
source: adapted from Valentina and other online sources
4 cups (500g) tapioca starch (aka polvilho, yuca, ma
nioc or cassava flour/starch), plus more if needed
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 1/2 cups (375ml) milk
1/2 cup (115g/125ml) unsalted butter or vegetable oil (oil is traditional, butter gives more flavor)
2 eggs, at room temperature
7oz (200g) finely-grated parmesan cheese
In the bowl of your heavy-duty stand mixer* combine the salt and tapioca starch. In a saucepan combine the milk and butter and bring to a boil, stirring occasionally to prevent scorching. Fit your mixer with the paddle attachment, turn on medium-low, and begin drizzling in the hot milk mixture. At first it will all clump up, but keep drizzling in, stopping and scraping down the bowl and paddle as necessary, until it comes together and forms a smooth, thick, gluey dough. Beat for a minute or two, then turn the mixer off, cover the bowl with a cloth and let rest for 15 minutes, or until just warm to the touch.
Preheat the oven to 425F/210C. When the dough has cooled down a bit, turn the mixer to medium speed and add the eggs one by one. When they are completely incorporated add the cheese and mix for another minute. The dough should have a sticky, stretchy consistency somewhat like spent chewing gum (but a little softer). It shouldn’t be firm enough to roll into balls, but it should be firm enough to hold its shape on a spoon. Add a bit more starch or a splash more milk if needed.
Line two large baking sheets with parchment paper. Using a well-greased spoon (or a couple of spoons, or a spoon and your hands – whatever works), drop mounds of dough about the size of unshelled walnuts onto the sheets, spacing them at least an inch (2.5cm) apart. Don’t worry if they are not perfectly shaped, or if the surfaces are not smooth – in the heat of the oven the irregularities will melt away. Bake them for about 20-25 minutes, rotating the baking sheets halfway, until they’ve puffed up nicely and are golden brown in spots. Remove immediately to cooling racks and allow them to cool slightly before eating. The recipes say to enjoy them warm, but I liked them at room temperature as well – the texture is slightly different but still very good.
(*I don’t think I’d trust a handheld mixer to confront this sticky, viscous dough and survive, but it can be mixed by hand in a large bowl with a sturdy spoon – just be prepared for a good workout!)