Sharing traditions from Brazilian gardens to Kalamazoo Tables

A two-year-old company using 400-year-old recipes has found its niche among food lovers.  Silvana Quadros Russell, founder of Brazilian Oven tells Zinta Aistars the story of the cheese buns of her native Brazil that Americans are coming to love.
They may be new to Kalamazoo, but the delicious little cheese buns, known as pão de queijo in Brazil, have been on kitchen tables in Brazil, Ecuador, Bolivia, Argentina and Colombia since the 18th century. Silvana Quadros Russell, founder of Brazilian Oven, LLC, has been enjoying the cheese buns of her native land since she was a child.

"My father grew the cassava plant in our garden in San Paulo," says Russell. Cassava plants, also known as the yucca or mandioca plant, are used to make the tapioca flour from which the buns are baked, known for their crusty outsides and the chewy, moist insides. "He’d bring in the cassava root from the garden, peel, and eat. It was organic before anyone called anything organic. We ate cassava like people here eat potato."

Russell was born in Brazil, but came to the United States almost 19 years ago with her American-born husband, whom she met in Brazil, where she had worked in public relations. Here, feeling the language barrier kept her out of the profession for which she was trained, Russell did not resume work in public relations, but stayed at home to raise the couple’s two children, a daughter and son.

"I studied English, but it was British English." Russell laughs.

Instead, her interests developed along with her nostalgia for her favorite foods back in Brazil.

"After moving here and becoming a stay-at-home mom, I decided to embrace the cooking challenge," she says. "With no culinary training, I started to call my mother and friends in Brazil to ask for recipes. I used to call the 1-800 numbers on the packages of flour, sugar, oil and everything I could get a hold of it. At first, I would tell them that I liked their products. Then, I asked for recipes. While my baby was sleeping I was very busy on the phone."

Russell got busy experimenting with her growing collection of recipes. The more time she spent in the kitchen, the more skilled she became. The compliments from impressed friends started to pour in as she brought treats to parties and gatherings.

"There were lots of trials and errors, but I was no longer afraid of the pots and pans," says Russell.

A cooking contest sponsored by the Kalamazoo Gazette in 1997 caught Russell’s attention. Maybe her cooking was good enough? She had to try. Russell submitted an orange cake as her first entry and was a finalist.

"After that, I participated for 10 years in a row," says Russell. "For 10 years, I was a finalist, and in 2002, I won first prize for best dessert with a Brazilian pudding, a kind of flan. In 2009, I won first prize for best main dish with shrimp in coconut sauce."

The result of all those wins was the confidence Russell needed to start a food business. One of the most popular recipes among her friends was the Brazilian cheese bread she frequently made.

"I was making cheese buns for friends’ parties, and I got orders for 50, then 100, then 200 cheese buns," she says. "I got so busy making them that I didn’t have time anymore to make dinner for my husband, so he encouraged me to get licensed and go into production."

Russell took her husband’s advice to heart and hearth. She got in touch with the Can-Do Kitchen at People’s Food Co-op, and in January 2012, she officially began Brazilian Oven, LLC.

"In Brazil, people have as many recipes for cheese bread as people here do for apple pie," Russell says. "I make three flavors: traditional, roasted garlic, and roasted jalapeno. I started with a simple package with a label of ingredients, nutrition facts, and the logo of a Brazilian oven to let people know this is a product you bake yourself."

Russell sells the cheese buns at local farmers markets and a long list of grocery stores and retail shops between Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo. Locations include Sawall Health Foods, Bacchus, People’s Food Co-op, Tiffany’s Wine and Spirit Shoppe, Beer and Skittles, and many others.

At 140 calories per one serving of two cheese buns, naturally gluten-free and with no artificial ingredients or preservatives, the buns are popular with the health-conscious as well as those who simply want to enjoy a cheesy treat. Depending on the retailer, the 12 oz. packages of 16 ready-to-bake rolls are priced $5.99 to $6.49. The buns bake in a 350 degree oven for about 25 minutes.

"Since I started the business, I’ve revamped the package to a stand-up pouch and added a photo so that people can see what the cheese bun should look like when done," says Russell. "I like to do taste samplings, because people sometimes think the buns aren’t ready when they come out of the oven. That’s how something made out of tapioca flour looks," she says, referring to the pale color of the cheese bun.

Over the last year, Russell says, she’s sold 4,700 packages of her cheese buns, and she is now experimenting with a type of cheese bun that could be used as a hamburger or hot dog bun, or a Panini-style bun. She currently employs two part-time helpers, one of whom is her daughter.

"I’m using the Can-Do Kitchen right now, but my goal is to someday have my own building," she says. "And I’d like to get my cheese buns into some of the bigger chains like Whole Foods or D&W. And yes, I’ve thought about putting together a cookbook. Or catering. But right now, I need to focus on one thing at a time."

With all that baking, Russell’s own family has not tired of eating the Brazilian cheese bun, which still finds its way to the family table at least once a day, usually for breakfast.

"It’s my way of bringing Brazilian tradition to Kalamazoo," says Russell. "From our table to yours."

Zinta Aistars is creative director for Z Word, LLC, and editor of the literary magazine, The Smoking Poet. She lives on a farm in Hopkins.

Photos by Erik Holladay.