I am immensely grateful that in one of his cleaning frenzies, my dad rescued a forgotten artifact from my childhood: a recipe book my mom had begun to create with me when I was in elementary school. We apparently only got as far as three recipes—including French toast for one and chopped liver—but as soon as I flipped to the yellow legal pad page labeled “Brigadeiros,” I knew this was a recipe I was going to resurrect for my dad’s first New Year’s Day brunch in his new apartment. I think it’s safe to say our guests were glad I did.
Brigadeiros, a popular Brazilian chocolate bon bon, brought me right back to the kitchen counter of my grade school days, rolling warm chocolate into balls between my buttered hands and then turning them over on a plate of chocolate sprinkles. After chilling in the fridge and packing in a tin, they were destined to go into school as a holiday present for my teacher or to be served at the traditional holiday party at our house.
In some ways, brigadeiros seem an unlikely recipe for us. My parents were both gourmet cooks, and their creations, including my mom’s desserts, tended to come from fresh wholesome ingredients, not cans of condensed milk, tins of powdered cocoa, and plastic containers of chocolate sprinkles.
My mom liked to bake pies, crisps, and what I used to unkindly refer to as “Bowel Blaster Bran muffins” (which weren’t actually dessert, but my mom’s answer to my dad’s high cholesterol). I didn’t even know about baked vegetable dishes made out of condensed soup and packaged fried onions until I was an adult (and therefore have never felt the vaguest twinge of nostalgia over a green bean casserole.)
Still, it makes a lot of sense that my mom chose this recipe to share with me. For almost two years just before I was born (and four months afterward), my parents lived in Brazil, teaching at universities. This treat must have reminded her of her Brazilian friends and that adventuresome time when she and my dad threw themselves into a new culture and language. Brigadeiros are served at birthday parties and other gatherings across Brazil since the 1940s (as the story goes) when they were popularized by the brigadier and politician Eduardo Gomes.
I imagine my mom would have learned the recipe from their maid, Ercelia, with whom my parents kept in touch for decades after leaving Brazil. Perhaps Ercelia wrote the recipe for her, but my mom was also the kind of person who could watch a simple process like this one and then be able to reproduce it flawlessly.
This recipe is a great choice for kid participation. I have a hunch that my mom also knew that I was not a careful child who could be trusted with high temperature cooking required of most candy making. Maybe she even suspected that as an adult I would steer away from candies and desserts (or any food preparation) requiring precision in measuring, heating, or a long list of specific ingredients. Unlike soup or sauce, there is little wiggle room for improvisation in most candy or pastry, unless you really know what you’re doing. Which, clearly, I do not.
Once this past year, suffering from an unrelenting chocolate craving and having no prepared sweets in the house to appease it, I tried to make an improvised chocolate dessert by melting baking chocolate squares and adding agave syrup (a “healthy” sugar substitute) and vanilla yogurt. I planned to spread my chocolate confection on graham crackers.
The creamy brown result looked a lot like chocolate ganache but tasted like inedibly bitter chocolate paste. I don’t mean 80% dark chocolate bitter; I mean straight quinine bitter, and no amount of added sweet could tone it down. That mixture stayed in the fridge for a couple of weeks before I admitted to myself that nothing I could do to the experimental concoction would ever render it palatable.
Perhaps even when I was still in the early grades Mom already projected that I needed a recipe suited to my imprecise temperament. Later I managed to pass high school chemistry lab with dexterous explanations in my lab reports detailing why my experiments didn’t work. My mom, on the other hand, was once accused by a professor of fudging her results because he didn’t believe such perfect numbers could be achieved in the laboratory. She was just that meticulous, however. I always wondered how I could have ended up with half her genes and still turn out to be such a klutz.
She never judged, though, I reminded myself as I started to roll the first batch of brigadeiros, and found my creations partially balding. I figured out that I’d overcooked them, turning them partly to caramels and making the sprinkles refuse to adhere. For my second batch I stirred the chocolate mixture over lower heat, not allowing it to bubble, until it magically started to turn the rich brown color and thick texture I recalled. As I shaped it into differently sized and not perfectly round balls with buttery hands, I felt the warmth of my mom over my shoulder. She was laughing contentedly.
Based on my mom’s recipe as transcribed by seven-year-old me —and then consulting real recipes and personal experience to correct for transcriber error
- 14 oz can sweetened condensed milk
- 1 TBS unsalted butter
- 2 TBS cocoa powder, dissolved in a little bit of water
- 1 cup chocolate sprinkles, spread onto a plate
- 1 TBS additional butter for your hands to roll the brigadeiros
- Melt the butter in a nonstick pot over medium-low heat
- Scrape out the contents of the can of condensed milk and the liquefied cocoa powder with your rubber scraper into the pot. Stir constantly with a wooden spoon–not even stopping to change the radio station–for about twenty minutes until the mixture has thickened considerably. Keep the heat low enough that the confection doesn’t bubble.
- The mixture will darken and begin to get harder to stir. When the mixture clings to the spoon, but has not turned solid, it is ready. Scrape the velvety chocolate from the pot onto a plate and refrigerate for half an hour.
- Now the fun part! Coat your hands in butter. Take the soft fudge by a small spoonful into the palm of your hand and roll into a small ball. Brigadeiros are very rich, so keep them petite. Now roll the ball in the plate of sprinkles. Repeat until you’ve used up all the chocolate.
- Chill the brigadeiros in the fridge for 15 minutes (you can last another 15 minutes, right?) or longer, until you are ready to serve them.