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Bread made with cheese is a universal combination throughout the world, and the term "cheese bun" may be accordingly common. It is, however, most closely associated with a type of baked bread very popular in the country of Brazil and elsewhere in South America. Pão de queijo, or “cheese bread” in Portuguese, is technically not a bread, which is made from the flour of milled grains such as wheat. This is instead made from a finely powdered starch derived from the thick roots of a plant called cassava.
The main ingredient of a Brazilian cheese bun is called polvilho azedo, or almidon agrio in Spanish. Elsewhere around the world, this slightly sour tasting starch is commonly called manioc, or tapioca, flour. The unprocessed root of the manioc plant is usually called yuca. To make basic cheese buns, the manioc flour is combined with milk, eggs, butter or oil, and crumbled cheese. The mixture is kneaded into a dough for baking in an oven.
In Brazil, the most commonly used cheese is called minas cheese, named for the agriculturally fertile region of Minas Gerais. It is a white, well-matured cow cheese with a mildly bitter taste. Feta cheese, cheddar, mozzarella and parmesan are other cheeses which can be used.
The cheese bun does not contain gluten, the proteins in grass grains like wheat which hold their starches together. Cassava starch, however, has the similar characteristic of gluten’s elasticity, coming from the starch’s ability to absorb a lot of moisture. Air gets trapped in the dough, and the baked bread rolls are consequently lightly textured. They are unleavened — containing no yeast, baking soda or other agent to introduce air into the dough.
Fresh out of the oven, a cheese bun is typically small, perfectly round with a slightly flattened bottom. Pale gold in color, its crisp crust will be paper thin with perhaps flecks of lightly charred cheese. The interior, also called the bread’s crumb, is soft, somewhat pasty and chewy from the melted cheese. They are made anywhere from bite size to 6 inches (15cm) in diameter. It is especially popular for breakfast, perhaps served with fruit and coffee.
Cheese buns are quite easy to bake and a staple of many Brazilian home kitchens, but they are even more central to Brazilian cuisine and culture. Bakeries abound, selling them by the dozens. Markets offer them as frozen dough balls, ready to bake. Restaurants called tapiocarias exclusively serve these cheese breads, and other dishes made from tapioca flour. Many street vendors sell them as savory, candy-like snacks to pedestrians.
Throughout much of South America, the cheese bread is very similar. There may be some regional, or national, differences in shapes, ingredients and flavors. The country of Paraguay may bake them with corn flour into small donut shapes, called chipás. Corn flour might also be an additional ingredient in the buns of Bolivia and Columbia, called cuñapé and pandebono respectively.