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Thursday, August 18, 2011

When in Rio

We made it safe and sound!
Last time (and only time) the four of us traveled southbound to my husband's native Brazil, was a disaster (yes, we were that family who's baby would not stop shrieking), but three years later, both, my husband and I, were happily surprised to see how well our kids handled the 10 hour night-time flight to Sao Paulo and the morning connection to Rio de Janeiro.

Ipanema beach in the winter
Rio's winter welcomed us with lots of sunshine and a tropical breeze, and my mother-in-law welcomed us with plates full of rice and black beans and my favorite Brazilian food: Pao de Queijo. As my husband's mother took care of force-feeding (which this time didn't require much force, as we were all famished) my kids, I took care of devouring the little cheese balls that I first encountered thirteen years ago when I came to Rio to meet my then future in-laws.  
We all had gone to a restaurant. Once we sat down, my father-in-law ordered something I thought to be the specialty of the house. The waiter came with a basket full of light yellow, puffy looking spheres. I took one and couldn't believe my taste buds, nor my palate, nor my teeth! Cheese and bread fussed together, but the melted cheese still oozing out in every bite. It was bread-like, but not really bread. It was glorious! Thinking that this was my one and only chance to enjoy the house specialty, I ate like 200 cheese balls, barely paying attention to the conversation or anything else. I was in trance.
As the days passed and our dining adventures increased, I realized that the house special was actually a very popular (well deserved, if you ask me) snack in the whole country. The pao de queijo is as typical as caipirinhas (which I also discovered on that trip) and feijoada.
This visit, and two kids later, I still love them as much as the first time, and I'm glad my daughter isn't into them, as there are more left all for my self!
They are pretty easy to make. The tricky part is to find the ingredients, especially the polvilho azedo (sour starch), which is tapioca flour that has gone through a fermentation process prior to filtering. It's extremely common in Brazil, but not used anywhere else*.

* There's a Brazilian store in Manhattan's Little Brazil (W.46th St) where they sell it, and of course I found it in amazon. And good news: it's kosher pareve (more kashrut info at: )

Tapioca Root
But let's get back to TAPIOCA, or MANDIOCA, MANIOC, CASSAVA, YUCA or AIPIM, which are all the same thing: a root native to South America and the West Indies. In the culinary world, its flour can be used to make breads, puddings, and to thicken sauces and desserts.

Boiled Tapioca
The root can be peeled and boiled or fried and served as a sweet or salty dish. It can be shaped into pearls by passing the moist starch through a sieve under pressure, and the resulting spheres, also known as boba, are used in the ubiquitous bubble teas.
Cassava root has traces of cyanide in it, so after peeling, the fresh root should be boiled in water until soft, and the water should be discarded. Commerically sold manioc flour or starch has already been through the poison's removal process. 
I would not call tapioca a super ingredient in nutritional terms, as it is mostly carbohydrates with almost no protein and a very low concentration of vitamins or trace elements, however, I do believe that we will be seeing this root appear more and more often in American menus and products. Why? Because cassava flour (or starch, which is the same thing in this case) is GLUTEN FREE and as opposed to the common gluten substitutes, its texture, versatility and flavor are AMAZING.
Just try making pao de queijo and you'll see what I mean (although you have to use polvilho azedo, as regular tapioca flour or starch doesn't do the trick in this particular preparation).

Adapted from: All Recipes Brasil

  • Gluten, soy and nut free
  • Contains eggs AND dairy

1/2 cup plus 1 Tablespoon cold water 
3/4 cup whole milk 
4 ounces (1 stick) organic butter, at room temperature 
2 teaspoons sea salt
3 large organic eggs
7 ounces fresh mozzarella cheese, finely shredded
3.75 ounces Parmesan cheese, finely grated


Place the polvilho azedo in the bowl of a standing mixer or in a large bowl and mix in the cold water with your hands, letting the starch moisten.
In a small saucepan, bring milk, butter and salt to a boil and pour over the polvilho mix. In the standing mixer or with a wooden spoon, mix into a dough. Keep mixing until you get a soft and glossy dough.
Once it cools completely, beat the whole eggs quickly and mix them into the dough until incorporated.
Mix in the cheeses with a wooden spoon, distributing them well all over the dough.
Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least an hour or overnight, if possible.
Preheat the oven to 375 F.
Shape the dough into balls (about 3 inch diameter) with your hands. Arrange them on a parchment lined baking sheet, leaving 2 inches in between each other.
If you want, freeze pao de queijo at this point and bake them later or bake them right away for 25 to 35 minutes, making sure the bottom doesn't burn, but cheese balls puff. Serve immediately!


Beyond Prenatals said...

wow, those look great! I didn't know about the cyanide issue though. We made Cassava as oven-fried "potatoes" on Passover. Glad we only had it once!

Alexandra Zohn said...

If you boil the cassava before frying (or oven-frying) it, it tastes much better, gets softer and the cyanide disolves in the boiling water. There are 2 kinds of tapioca: sweet (doesn't contain cyanide) and bitter (does contain cyanide), since it's hard to know which one you are purchasing, it's good to always boil it first and discard water. I'll definitely post more manioc recipes for Passover. They make all kinds of stuff with it here in Brazil. I'm taking notes!