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When the bread basket is the star

By Jenna Cho

Publication: theday.com

Published May 01. 2013 4:00PM   Updated March 28. 2014 6:54PM

I love cheese.

By itself, baked in a dish, smothering other food, fried.

When restaurant servers ask me if I'd like a sprinkling of Parmigiano-Reggiano on my pasta, I tend to look at them like they're insane. Why do you think I was put on this Earth?

So when I first ventured into the Washington, D.C., location of the famed Brazilian steakhouse chain Fogo de Chão, where your whole life's purpose is to gorge on as many different kinds of meats as you please — served tableside, carved right onto your plate — I fell instantly, irrevocably in love. Not with the variety of meats being offered, but with the bread basket.

This isn't your garden variety bread basket. It's easy to overlook it, in fact, amidst the sea of top sirloin, bottom sirloin, chicken wrapped in bacon, filet mignon, and on and on and on. (That's not even factoring in the amazing spread of cured meats, cheese wedges and endless salad accoutrements at the salad bar for optimal, multi-faceted face-stuffing.)

But there it is. Peering through the cloth napkin are four mini-muffin size, pillowy, sun-glowy, most perfect little puffs of cheese bread you've ever seen. I just want to miniaturize myself and snuggle in among them for a nap.

They're called pão de queijo in Portuguese, which literally translates to cheese bread, and they are most definitely one of the top five human inventions around. Occasionally, one will arrive a little smushed from the ride to your table, but that's just because they're that fresh from the oven.

I know I'm supposed to feel guilty about filling up on bread at a restaurant where an endless supply of succulent meat is the highlight, but I can't help myself. I'll inhale eight of these — gesturing wildly for a refill to the server when I'm down to just one in my basket — before I even stop to consider my meat options.

There's just something about the pão de queijo. It's like a gougère, but lighter, airier, like biting into a cheesy cumulus cloud. It's lightly crispy on the outside but has an intensely satisfying chewy, semi-hollow interior.

I craved the bread upon my return to Connecticut, where sadly no Fogo de Chão has chosen to come. So I did what any sane, I mean obsessed, human would do: I turned to the Internet for copycat recipes.

I wanted to know what gave the pão de queijo the chewiness that other cheese breads didn't have. I thought it would be difficult to crack this case.

But my trusty go-to cooking blog www.simplyrecipes.com had the answer, and I am eternally grateful. Not only did I quickly learn that it's the starchy tapioca flour that provides the unique texture, I also figured out that it's fairly easy to make satisfying imitation pão de queijo. Maybe not quite as good as the ones at Fogo de Chão, but it hits the spot.

The batter, which is reminiscent of pancake batter, is so easy to whip together. In a blender, no less. And best of all, you can refrigerate any unused batter for several days, which I recommend because this bread is best eaten fresh out of the oven. Not that you couldn't eat, like, all of the bread in one sitting. I won't judge you.

A note about the tapioca flour: You can go all fancy and get the Bob's Red Mill kind, which is pricier. Or you can get the cheaper Goya brand tapioca starch at ShopRite or the comparably inexpensive Vietnamese version at Asian grocery stores. It's all the same thing — a very fine, powdery flour derived from the cassava root that looks more like confectioner's sugar. For those of you who adhere to a gluten-free diet, this recipe has no gluten.

Another note: I have a second, slightly more involved recipe for pão de queijo that I haven't yet tried because this one is so easy and good. But if it proves superior, I'll be sure to share.

Final note: I've only tried this recipe with Parmesan cheese, but feel free to experiment. Simplyrecipes recommends queso fresco (which translates to fresh cheese), which is a young, mild and creamy Mexican cheese made from cow's milk.

Jenna Cho blogs about food on theday.com. Email her at j.cho@theday.com.

Easy Brazilian Cheese Bread (pão de queijo)

From www.simplyrecipes.com

1 egg, at room temperature

1/3 cup olive oil

2/3 cup milk

1½ cups tapioca flour

½ cup grated Parmesan cheese

1 teaspoon salt

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Grease a mini-muffin pan. (I use a small one that yields 12 mini muffins, then refrigerate the rest of the batter.)

Add all the ingredients in a blender and pulse until smooth, scraping down the sides as needed.

Bake for 15-20 minutes, until the bread is puffy and lightly browned. They'll puff up to perfect domes in the oven, then collapse a little when you pull them out, kind of like a sad soufflé, but I don't mind this.

Let cool enough to not burn your mouth, then devour.

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