I’m always in search of new and exciting ways to incorporate more cheese into my diet. In our wedding vows, my husband promised to have and to hold and to always keep the fridge stocked with three varieties of cheddar. When the opportunity to develop a recipe for this South American cheesy bread arose, I skipped all the way to the dairy section, gleefully throwing blocks of Grana Padano into my basket.
In Bolivia, these rolls are called cuñapes; in Ecuador, they are known as pan de yuca; in Brazil, it’s pão de queijo; and in Paraguay and Argentina, they go by chipa. You also can’t forget the Colombian version, pan de bono, which incorporates masarepa into the dough. Aside from minor variations in technique and cheese type, they all rely on both cheese and tapioca starch for a bold flavor and incredibly chewy texture that’s instantly addictive. To avoid showing favoritism to one nation over another, I’m just going to call it cheesy bread. I scarf them down by the dozen, plucked right off the hot sheet tray, but they are traditionally served with coffee as an afternoon snack.
When made perfectly, the cheesy bread should have a crisp crust with a chewy and light interior. At its worst, the bread can be soggy, dense, and heavy. They are the simplest bread you can make—they require no kneading or proofing, just a quick mix with you hands to bring all the ingredients together—but the details make all the difference. I wanted to test all the variables to come up with a recipe that’ll bake up just right every time, no matter what you call them.
The key ingredient in cheesy bread is tapioca starch. It’s a finely milled starch, derived from the cassava root, with a squeaky texture similar to corn or potato starch. Cassava root, also known as manioc or yuca, originated in northern Brazil, before it spread across all of South America. This explains the prevalence of this many-named cheesy bread throughout the region.
Once tapioca starch is hydrated and cooked, it has both the chew of mochi and the stretch of Hawaiian poi. These unique qualities of tapioca starch endow it with the texture of melted cheese even before any cheese is added. The combination of this texture along with the flavor of the salty and savory cheese is what makes biting into this bread feel like you’re eating warm cheese by the doughy fistful. Who could resist?
There are several brands of tapioca starch available and, although it is originally a South American ingredient, most of the brands available in the States are imported from Thailand. I wanted to see if there’s a noticeable difference between brands of different origins. I tested batches made with a Thai brand of tapioca starch versus Brazilian polvilho azedo and polvilho doce. The azedo starch is fermented before processing, resulting in a pleasantly sour taste; it is called for in most cheesy bread recipes throughout South America. The doce starch is unfermented and is also used in some cheesy bread recipes, but most often it finds its way into desserts.
I was surprised to find that there are significant differences in both taste and texture between the three tapioca starches. The bread made with polvilho azedo was lighter in texture and had a heartier crunch than the bread made with the Thai starch. The Thai starch has a very fine texture, unlike the Brazilian starches, which have a more uneven grind. The imperfectly milled starch became a flawless final baked bread, while the fine Thai starch made bread that was dense and heavy. The sourness of the polvilho azedo also emphasized the sharp tang of the cheeses in a way that the polvilho doce didn’t. It’s definitely worth the effort of ordering polvilho azedo if you want to make the most flavorful cheesy bread.