When Natalia Pereira was a girl in Minas Gerais, Brazil, her mother, Francisca, gave her a few bricks and some empty, washed-out sardine cans to build herself a toy kitchen. Pereira loved it. She played by cooking rice and beans over hot coals, while her mother worked at the wood stove, simmering meat and bones for broth, or warming up water for bath time. “We were poor, but we had chickens, and we knew how to make everything,” Pereira says. “My mother’s hair always smelled like the fireplace.”
Francisca cooked every meal, every day, at home — stews, cornbread, potpies and, on special occasions like Pereira’s birthday, candy. Francisca would reduce milk until it became thick and creamy, adding sugar and cocoa powder. She would then shape the mixture by hand, rolling each bonbon in cocoa powder. “It wasn’t fancy,” Pereira says. “And it wasn’t the most brilliant shape, but it was exquisite.” Pereira remembers the fudgy candies as somewhere between chewy and soft, between bittersweet and sweet. Brigadeiros are said to be named for an Air Force brigadier who ran for president of Brazil in the 1940s, and they became a popular national sweet as shelf-stable condensed milk became more widely available. Home cooks in a hurry could make a luxurious treat with little more than a knob of butter, canned sweetened condensed milk and cocoa.
“It’s about doing it with what you have,” says Pereira, who left home in her 20s and came to the United States, where she eventually started earning money by cooking the Brazilian food she learned to make from Francisca. She worked as a private chef and later opened her restaurant, Woodspoon, in Los Angeles. Pereira may be a professional, but she still makes brigadeiros the way she learned as a child. Sometimes she uses canned milk, and sometimes she makes her own sweetened condensed milk, simmering whole milk with sugar until it’s shiny and yellow. Pereira dissolves cocoa powder into the milk, then turns up the heat, stirring and stirring until the texture of the mass starts to change. “You can see the shine, the long lines and the beautiful body,” she says. “It makes little peaks and pulls in a certain way.” The chocolate mix starts to move as a whole, slipping away from the bottom of the pot, and when that happens, it’s just about ready.
Pastry chefs might use a thermometer to find this moment, but Francisca never did, and neither does Pereira. “You see and feel the texture change, and you just know,” she says. (If in doubt, you can also take a small spoonful of the mix and run it under cold water to help determine where it’s at. When it’s cool enough to touch, it should hold its shape when you squish it, just like a soft caramel.)
Off the heat, Pereira shapes the finished mix into little balls or rough cubes, using buttered palms and fingertips. Like Francisca, she rolls them in cocoa, or shaved bittersweet chocolate, to offset the sweetness of the candy, though sometimes she’ll cover them in colorful sprinkles, dried coconut or finely crushed nuts. Francisca taught her something else: to scrape any remaining chocolate out of the pot with a wooden spoon and then clean the pot and spoon a second time with a rinse of hot milk, making a delicious hot chocolate in the process — washing the sides of the pot, getting to any remaining brigadeiro mix, wasting nothing, extracting every last bit of sweetness.
Working in the United States, using all of the lessons she gleaned from Francisca, Pereira saved up enough to build her mother a small house in Brazil, complete with all the luxuries they didn’t have when she was growing up — running water, electricity, a modern kitchen. But on Pereira’s way back to Brazil to surprise her mother with the gift, Francisca died. Now, for Pereira, making brigadeiros is a way to remember Francisca again and again — her ingenuity, her sweetness, her patience. “She was my model for what a woman, a mother, a person should be,” says Pereira, who always keeps brigadeiros in the freezer, ready anytime she needs something sweet. “For me, it’s paradise, knowing they’re there. It’s a little bit of home.”