Easy to mess up but delicious when they turn out, brigadeiro are a South American treat worth the risk. Growing up, I was always excited when my mom broke out the brigadeiro recipe from her childhood in Brazil.
My mom described them as “a softer version of caramels,” but I would say brigadeiro are more like a chocolate truffle, only silkier. They have a sticky sweet consistency; they’re chewy without sticking to your teeth, and one is usually rich enough to satisfy the palate. Made from sweetened condensed milk, cocoa powder and butter, they’re not hard to make but take patience.
I can only remember a few times when my mom made them. As a result, they hold a special place in my memory. My mom said “most Brazilians know how to make them.” She herself learned from a neighbor and family friend.
Brigadeiro comes with a presidential past. In 1945, Eduardo Gomes was running for office in Brazil. He was ranked “brigadeiro” (brigadier) in the army and to promote his campaign, his party created a sweet to sell. Milk and sugar were hard to find, so condensed milk, chocolate and butter were used instead. The result: brigadeiro.
Now, the candy is found most often at birthday parties. “Every party had a very similar and typical fare: salgadinhos (salty finger foods) followed by docinhos (sweets) and cake,” my mom said. The docinhos were usually brigadeiro.
“My mother would attempt to make them for our birthday parties, but cooking the candy can be tricky,” my mom informed me. “Undercook the sweetened milk and you end up with a sticky goo that will not roll into a ball but could be used as a spread on toast or graham crackers. Over cook it and you end up with hard marbles no one wants to eat!”
My mom then told me a story about my grandma’s experience making brigadeiro. She made them for a birthday party but overcooked them. When the party was over, my grandma found her brigadeiro in the bathroom trash can.
My mom shared a few tips about making brigadeiro after I’d made my own. She learned from her friend to “tilt the pan on its side. If the liquid rolls away clean then it’s ready. You can also put a small amount in the freezer and test to see if it will roll into a ball.”
When I told my mom I wanted to make brigadeiro for this article, she didn’t hesitate to look for her recipe. It’s handwritten in a notebook, all in Portuguese. Because brigadeiro are something I associate with my mom, I wanted to use her recipe. I don’t speak Portuguese, so I also consulted a few other recipes to make sure I didn’t miss any important steps.
One immediate difficulty I ran into was my stove. My apartment has a finicky stove that does not have markings for different levels of heat. One recipe said to cook the ingredients on a medium-low heat, so I guessed about how much flame to keep under the pan.
Moving past the stove, I first thought the cooking process was not very hard. However, after a few minutes of stirring, it appeared like the cocoa wasn’t mixing in with the milk, and the mixture looked clumpier than I remembered. I waited until the mixture could roll off the bottom of the pan without sticking, then transferred it to a bowl to cool in the fridge. The candy turned out well, despite my concerns in the early stages.
Later in the evening, I offered the completed brigadeiro to my housemates. They were all eager to try them. One housemate, Roxy Gehring thought they were gooier than she expected, but she liked them regardless. She’d been expecting something more like fudge. Another housemate, Taylor Zehr, thought they were very delicious. She’d expected a hard shell on the outside, which didn’t happen.
“If it had a hard shell, I wouldn’t eat more of them, but since they don’t have a hard shell, it’s easier to eat more of them,” said Zehr. She was expecting a cake pop, which usually has a hard coating around the soft center.
I thought it would be interesting to compare my brigadeiro to a bakery’s. Unfortunately, my budget disagreed with me. Since there are no brigadeiro bakeries nearby, my only option would be to buy them online. For some reason, brigadeiro are extremely expensive to order. It’s ironic considering they were created to be a cheaper candy.
My friend, Jonah Yoder, had tried brigadeiro from a bakery before. He determined that the bakery brigadeiro were cakier than mine. I noticed that the recipes I saw online used more cocoa powder than my mom’s recipe. I’m guessing this would make the texture more cake-like.
I’m not sure my brigadeiro turned out exactly like my mom’s, but they taste just like I remember. At the very least, making them gave me the chance to rediscover a childhood favorite. They were also a hit with my housemates, who all agreed that one is plenty to eat at a time.
“I [don’t] make them often but when I [want] a little taste from home, when living in the US, I make a batch,” my mom told me at the end of the interview. “Just thinking about this now makes me want to cook up a batch!”
Making my own batch of brigadeiro reminded me of the excitement I felt when I walked into the kitchen and saw my mom making them. I’m not sure what the occasions were that she made them, making it a surprise when she did break out the cocoa powder and sweetened condensed milk. Being able to eat brigadeiro again has been a small taste of childhood, one that’s just as silky and sticky sweet as I’d remembered.