Guest post and photo by Peter in Brazil, chef and co-owner of Pousada do Capão
One of the pillars of the Brazilian pantry, polvilho -- also known as mandioca starch -- is the key ingredient in pão de queijo, the cheese bread that hooked me on my very first taste of it, during my very first trip to Brazil five years ago.
When I came home to Rhode Island, I started cruising ethnic markets to find polvilho. With more than 200,000 Brazilians in the southern New England area -- 80 percent from Minas Gerais, where I live now -- it was a cinch, and pão de queijo rapidly became a fixture on the menu of my personal chef business.
Mandioca, a large, white-fleshed, and very nutritious tuber also called cassava or yucca, is native to the Amazon region and has been cultivated there for more than a thousand years. Its use as a staple spread as far north as Florida and to Africa, via Portuguese slave traders in the 16th Century.
Resembling a slightly gummy, subtly-sweet potato, mandioca can be boiled, fried, grated and transformed into fritters and hearty soups, or processed into meals and flours used in both sweet and savory baked goods. Tapioca, which I always had in my New England pantry, comes from the same tuber.
Polvilho is a by-product of the painstaking process of making cassava meal. The juice has a fine starch, similar to the starch that leaches from rice or potatoes soaked in water. The fresh juice left to dry in the sun yields polvilho doce (sweet manioc starch); from the fermented juice comes polvilho azedo (sour manioc starch).
An ancient Tupi myth about the origin of mandioca goes like this: The daughter of the chief conceived a child without a father, and the chief, refusing to believe her story, condemned her to death as a liar. In a dream, an ancient white man appeared to the chief begging a stay of execution. The princess was pardoned and later gave birth to a very beautiful and very white daughter, and named her Mani.
Mani died suddenly on her first birthday. No sickness, no pain, no suffering, no explanation. From her grave sprang a plant with big leaves, which in no time filled the surrounding earth with big, fleshy, white tubers. And so this miraculous gift was dubbed Mani-óca, or “the house of Mani”.
Pao de queijo (Brazilian cheese bread)
Delightfully crispy on the outside, moist and chewy on the inside, kind of like a cheesy cross between a popover and a dinner roll, pão de queijo can be found daily in almost any bakery, bar, café, or luncheonette in Brazil. It is easy to make, gluten-free, freezes like a charm before baking, goes right from freezer to oven, and offers a bit of a playground for experimentation with different kinds of cheeses. Great for breakfast, delicious for mini-sandwiches (I’m especially fond of a combination of quince or guava paste, prosciutto, and a semi-soft cheese), and fantastic for munching with drinks. Makes 100 small or 60 medium biscuit-like breads. [Note: 1/2 kilo = a tiny bit more than 1 pound.]
1/2 kilo sweet manioc starch (polvilho doce)
1/2 kilo sour manioc starch (polvilho azedo)
1/2 liter (just over 2 cups) milk, plus a bit more if needed
2 Tbsp butter
1 tsp kosher salt
1/2 kilo coarsely grated cheese (I like a mix –- include cheddar, parmesan, but experiment)
If you’re going to bake right away, preheat your oven to 375°F.
Put both types of polvilho in a very large mixing bowl. In a small sauce pan, bring 1/2 liter of milk, butter and salt to a boil.
Pour the hot milk mixture over the polvilho, and let it cool just enough so you can work the milk into the starch with your fingers. Add the eggs and knead well, adding milk bit by bit until you have a dough that is not too stiff but will hold its shape. Add the cheese and mix in well without kneading.
Either oil your hands or dip them in cool water, then roll the dough into balls -- about the size of a hard-boiled egg yolk for the small breads, and the size of a whole walnut for the medium.
Arrange the balls a few inches apart on a baking sheet lined with a Silpat (silicone liner) or parchment paper, or on a baking stone, and place in a 375°F oven. Once the breads rise, reduce the heat to 325°F, so they can dry out a bit and brown up -– about 20 minutes total.
Note: To freeze, place the uncooked breads on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper. Put the cookie sheet in the freezer; when the breads are firm, remove from the sheet and store them in ziploc bags. To bake the frozen breads (do not defrost), follow the process above, but expect them to take longer, 30-40 minutes total.
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