Most cultures have some proprietary variation of cheesy bread. Evolutionarily, I suppose, this is likely because grain is a common ingredient, mammals make milk, and once you’ve figured out toast you’re gonna go looking for alternative spreads. Anyway, there is one particular type of cheesy bread for which I have an outsized affection. It’s called Mani’s Pão de Queijo and it’s from Brazil, the mother country of my children’s mother. It distracts me from the 110 degree heat when I visit and always gives my boys something to look forward to.
Kid Food Origin Story: Pão de queijo are small puffy balls about the size of a donut hole that belong to the great tradition of salgadinhos, small salty fried things one can eat at the botequims and lanchonetes on every block in Rio. These are like small bars with snacks. They vary in quality and breadth of offering but you can usually count on pão de queijo, fried cod fritters, fried shrimp fritters with a creamy cheese called Catupiry, and pasteis, envelopes of fried dough stuffed with meat or cheese. Sometimes there are fried dough envelopes stuffed with nothing. These are called wind pasteis or if you’re my kid, fart pasteis. There’s also beer and lots of it, served in very small glasses since it’s so ungodly hot that what is cold turns lukewarm, what is warm ignites, and what is actually on fire implodes in a matter of minutes.
Most salgadinhos are wonderful snacks for kids. But few are widely available in the states. The beauty of pão de queijo, versus snacks that need to be fresh to be good, is that they’ve been replicated by, among other companies, Yoki, Mani (that’s the one you want) and Forno do Minas. You can buy them and you should — if not because of taste, because they’re gluten free (made from tapioca or cassava flour) and some future houseguest or playdating child will need that. But also, you know, the taste.
Kid Food Taste Test: Pão de queijo isn’t bread stuffed with cheese. The cheese itself is worked into the dough mixture. So the taste isn’t about getting through one thing to find another tucked inside (like with mozzarella sticks). The pleasure of pão de queijo is how circumstances change the nature of a uniform substance. The perfect cheese bread — as my five year old calls the snacks as he whines for them with gale force — is that they are chewy and crunchy simultaneously. There are two types of manioc flour one can use — sour and sweet. The ideal pão de queijo meets halfway. There’s a little tang, reminiscent of a gentle sourdough, with a sweet second wave carried in by the cheese. Three of them have about 10% of your daily fat intake and 9% of your daily salt and only an ascetic could eat three.
Whether or not my kids like them expressly because they are horrifically unhealthy is unclear, but it is indisputable that the mix of salty and sweet which endears pão de queijo to adult Brazilians endears them to American children as well.
Kid Food Conclusion: Perhaps the ideal form of cheese breads, pão de queijo are small enough to be snackable and substantive enough to be filling. Though some may associate the snacks with quietly getting smashed on many tiny beers in the afternoon (by some, I mean, me), the snacks rightfully deserve a place in the snack repertoire of the American kitchen.
Kid Food Rating: Five out of five “Dad, come on…PLEASE? One more!”(s) as rated by my son, who is animated by nothing more than he is by desire for cheese.