Before Fogo de Chao came to Minneapolis and introduced us all to pao de queijo and before gluten free was ‘a thing,’ Dr. Sam and I were eating round tapioca cheese bread balls that I made from a mix that went by the brand name Chebe. Neither of us took the time to learn about the origin of the bread, we just ate it because it was gluten free and tasty, and we called it by the brand name, Chebe. It would go something like this: “What should we have for dinner tonight?” “Want to have Chebe? We could have Chebe and some soup.” Yep, like that.
Fast forward several years, after we stopped buying Chebe, after Fogo de Chao and Brazilian steak houses became popular, and after gluten free was everywhere. Add in Dr. Sam’s new Brazilian friend and pao de queijo were practically knocking on our kitchen door, asking to be eaten.
Instead of buying Chebe bread mix again, Dr. Sam went to United Noodles for tapioca starch, the main ingredient in pao de queijo. Instead of tapioca starch though, he came home with a Korean box mix for something that looked suspiciously similar to the pao de queijo we were trying to make.
In spite of the lack on English on the box and our inability to read Korean, these buns were super easy to make and turned out very similar to the Chebe pao de queijo we used to make, except with soy sauce and black sesame seeds instead of cheese. And so easy: just add an egg and some water, mix and then bake. The final step before backing is an optional spritz of water on the buns to help crisp the outsides. As a lover of crust, I wanted to follow this step but didn’t have a spray bottle, so I used a basting brush and liberally dabbed water on the little balls, which did the trick. I highly recommended following this step and applying water to those little guys somehow.
The next time Dr. Sam came home from the store though, it was with tapioca starch and not a box mix, but still with the same request for tapioca bread. Luckily, we knew what the Brazilian bread buns were actually called so I could search for them by name, ‘pao de queijo,’ and not just ‘tapioca bread ball chebe things.’ I came up with a super well photographed, step-by-step recipe at the Kitchn blog. Unfortunately, I figured since the Korean and Chebe mixes never needed additional cooking besides just baking, why cook the tapioca starch before baking this time? Well, because they won’t turn out if you don’t cook the tapioca, as I found out. The batter stayed so runny I had to add another full cup of plain flour just to get the dough to a consistency I could scoop onto the pan so the texture was all wrong.
The next time I made pao de queijo, I followed the instructions (though left out the cheese) and they turned out just right. Dr. Sam’s only complaint is that they were a little bland without cheese or black sesame seeds in them. His suggestion: put chocolate chips in next time. Chocolate chips!? That crazy man. I’m sure it would be delicious and completely unorthodox to both Korean and Brazilian cuisines. The Kitchn recipe is great and the detailed pictures really help, but I would not recommend attempting it without a stand mixer. That tapioca gets crazy gooey. I also brushed the pao before baking with water like I did the Korean mix. It resulted in a thicker crust which we liked but that I wouldn’t exactly call crispy. Maybe hard-chewy but not in a bad way.
I wanted to figure out the ingredients that made the Korean version less labor intensive, but a search of the internet has not yielded good results. After some internet investigating, I found that the Korean bread balls generally go by the English name Korean mochi bread so I suspect there is some sweet rice flour in the mix as well tapioca which makes sense because sweet rice would give a similar texture but cooks a lot quicker than dried cassava.
So what have I learned? Pao de queijo, Korean mochi bread, tapioca bread, whatever you call it: we like it. And mix or homemade? Both have their advantages. Its nice being able to control the amount of sugar and salt and gluten that go into the bread, so I like that about making the bread from scratch (the Korean mix contained all three). But the convenience of the mix also has its draws. It literally takes 10 minutes to get the bread in the oven when using a mix and only requires one dirty bowl. Now I just need to get to Brazil and so I can try real pao de queijo… and samba dance… and go to the beach… and just be in Brazil.