It’d be easy to overlook pão de queijo amid the gluttony of a churrascaria. These Brazilian restaurants feature the gallantry that is rodizio service, in which waiters rove the dining room wielding saber-skewers loaded with various kinds of grilled meat, carved to order onto waiting plates.
It’s a civilized step away from the trough of an all-you-can-eat-buffet, with each table equipped with a metal wheel or another semaphore that diners turn to “stop” or “keep it coming,” depending on how close to physically bursting they are.
Who’d bother wasting stomach space on a mundane-looking basket of rolls when sirloin, filet, linguica and much more is visible on the dining horizon?
Luckily, one night at a churrascaria, a suave meat-swordsman stage-whispered in a compelling accent that the pão de queijo should not be missed. Google it and “pronunciation” if you want to fill your ears with the purr of the words (roughly “POW dee kay-jho”). You also can just call it Brazilian cheese bread. Mainly, you need to get it into your mouth to understand its outstanding appeal.
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Pão de queijo are puffy light orbs of baked goodness with a golden shell and an interior that’s cheesy-chewy in the best possible way. They’re akin to French gougeres, but with more substantial centers that have a textural pull you can’t quite put your finger on. That’s because pão de queijo is made with tapioca flour, which is made from the cassava root and, apparently, magic: Despite its airy-then-not, glutinous texture, pão de queijo is entirely gluten-free. If you’re consigned to that sad diet, these Brazilian cheesy puffs might be the most I-can’t-believe-it’s-not-gluten moment you’ve had in a long time.
During my arduous research, I happened upon a newsletter from PCC Natural Markets advertising frozen Brazi Bites: gluten-free, no-GMOs pão de queijo from a company created by a Brazilian woman in Portland, Ore., and now available at markets all across the country (brazibites.com/find-us). I baked some of these for friends, one of whom pronounced them, “Chewy, cheesy and crowd-pleasey!” (This friend is not in the tagline business.)
Another friend who grew up in Rio de Janeiro led me to Kitanda — three Brazilian cafes flying under the radar in Green Lake, Redmond and Totem Lake, Wash. They bake their own pão de queijo on-site numerous times a day.
Any local market that caters to the upscale, potentially gluten-free crowd will probably have tapioca flour in stock. Once you’ve got that in hand, you’re ready for Kitanda owner Joao Boff’s DIY version of his pão de queijo recipe.
KITANDA PÃO DE QUEIJO
2/3 cup whole milk
3 cups tapioca flour (also called tapioca starch)
3 large eggs
6 ounces canola oil or olive oil
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup crumbled Cotija cheese
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 cup grated Monterey Jack cheese
1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Grease a mini-muffin tin. Put all the ingredients in a blender and pulse until smooth, using a spatula to scrape down the sides so everything is blended well.
2. Fill wells of the mini-muffin tin to the top with batter.
3. Bake for approximately 20 minutes or until lightly browned. Let cool slightly, but enjoy while still warm!