In the kitchen of a flat in Bromley-by-Bow, East London, Rita Duarte is mixing cassava flour with melted butter and milk. She's following a recipe for pão de queijo, the popular Brazilian cheesy dough ball snack. Except there is no recipe—it's all in Duarte's head. Pães de queijo are something she has made countless times since moving from São Paulo to the UK 15 years ago.
Baking pães de queijo began as Duarte's way of curing her family's saudade—the feeling of nostalgia and homesickness that has no direct translation from Portuguese—for their life in Brazil. Late last year, with her son Pedro Duarte and daughter-in-law Clara Tudela, Rita co-founded Dona Rita, a London-based food business selling freshly baked pães de queijo at markets, as well as bags of the frozen cheese balls online.
"Pães de queijo come from Minas Gerais [a state in southeastern Brazil] but they're very popular all over Brazil. On every street corner, there'll be a bakery selling pães de queijo and even places like Costa and Starbucks will sell pães de queijo instead of croissants," Rita tells me. "They're crunchy on the outside but they're very soft and airy on the inside. The cheese taste is very mild and they're usually served with jam or requeijão, which is a cheese spread."
Pedro adds: "It's unusual for Brazilians to make pães de queijo from scratch because in Brazil, you can also buy them frozen and just put them in the oven at home."
But when the family came to the UK, if they wanted to eat pães de queijo, popping to the shops to pick up a bag wasn't an option. Rita puts the cassava flour, milk, and butter mixture to one side to cool before telling me about how she went about recreating the snack, 5,000 miles from home.
"When my husband, my three children, and I moved the UK, we were living in Norwich. Everyone missed pães de queijo so I decided to start making them myself, for my family," she says. "I spent most of my time at home because I didn't speak any English. While my children went to school, I cooked and waited for them to come home."
It wasn't long before Rita's pães de queijo were in demand by people other than her family.
"My children's teenage friends would come over and I'd cook for them. They'd always ask me to make pães de queijo so I started making more and more," remembers Rita with a smile. "After a while, the friends wanted to pay me for them because they knew I didn't have a job and had to pay for the ingredients. I had a small freezer in my house so I'd just make pães de queijo, put them in little bags, and freeze them. Sometimes people would just pop in and ask if I had some to sell. I always had them in my freezer."
Rita mixes in eggs to the now-cooled cassava flour, milk, and butter and continues: "When we moved to London, I didn't know anyone so I made pães de queijo just for my family again. But when Clara and Pedro started dating and she came to visit, I'd cook them and she loved them, especially because she's coeliac and pães de queijo are naturally gluten-free. She was the one who said I should start a business. It's all her fault!"
Tudela laughs: "I tried it and became obsessed with it. For Rita and Pedro it was just this thing that they ate in Brazil all the time but for me, it was something new and I couldn't believe that no one else knew about it. When we went to Brazil a year ago, I was surprised because the pães de queijo we had weren't as good as the ones Rita makes."
I ask Rita how she perfected her recipe.
"The recipe for pão de queijo is very simple and easy. But it's important to use high quality ingredients and to respect the time the mixture needs to ferment so they don't go flat in the oven," she instructs. "If you don't use the best quality ingredients, when the pães de queijo become cold, they become heavy and rubbery. The pães de queijo that I've developed, you can eat cold. Even the next day, they're still soft and light."
And most importantly, you can keep snacking on them.
Rita adds: "You don't eat just one pão de queijo. Mine are very light so you can eat and eat and eat until you've eaten five without realising it. You can eat them whenever you want. There is no specific time that people eat them. You can have them for breakfast, at lunchtime, for tea time. They go with beer, wine, tea, coffee, and hot chocolate."
That's my kind of snack.
By now, it's time to add the cheese, which gives the pão de queijo its all-important savoury flavour. I ask what type is being used. Pedro, Rita, and Tudela laugh.
"That's my secret!" says Rita. "It's not just one type of cheese."
Pedro adds: "The cheese used in Brazil is queijos de minas but it's tricky to find and expensive to buy here. It's not very common to use the combination of cheeses that Rita does which is why it's kept a secret. She doesn't tell anyone. We're the only three who know."
With the secret cheeses mixed in, the trio set about rolling the sticky dough into small balls.
"We've all got full-time jobs—Rita is a nanny, Clara is a designer, and I'm a digital developer," says Pedro. "So, we often get our friends to help roll. When Rita would make pães de queijo for the family, she'd make 50, now we're making thousands for the stall at Druid Street Market. In the two weeks we sold pães de queijo at Old Street station, we made more than 10,000."
RECIPE: Pão de Queijo
Rita, Pedro, and Tudela aren't making that many today but Rita still chides her son when he stops rolling: "No! That's not enough for us all to eat. Let's do a few more."
The pães de queijo go into the oven for 20 minutes and emerge pale with a crispy shell. With the table set with jams and requeijão cheese spread, I take a bite. Just as Rita promised, the ball's crunchy exterior reveals soft, mildly cheesy, and satisfyingly chewy bread inside.
And she was right about another thing too. Before I've realised it, five, light-as-a-feather, cheese balls have disappeared from the bowl in front of me.