I could smell the cocada before I spotted a towering pile of them at Sao Paulo's Mercada Municipal. These palm-sized sweets are everything a coconut lover could ask for—strips of burnt, roasted coconut are cooked down and fused together. With its toasty coconut flavor, sweet coconut smell, and a delightful chewy texture, cocada needs no further adornment.
Pudim de Tapioca at Mocotó
I long associated tapioca with those individual snack pack sized puddings, whose jiggly appearance was enough to scare me off. If only I'd encountered the pudim de tapioca at Mocotó sooner! The tapioca balls are dense and chewy, and lent some serious sweetness and flavor after cooking in coconut milk. This would be delicious on its own, but the pudim is then topped with a dark, sticky caramel and shreds of burnt coconut. Talk about serious flavor—my bad tapioca memories are forever banished.
Rapadura at Mocotó
I'm not looking to one up maple syrup, but radadura gives my favorite pancake topper a run for its money. Sold in bricks, rapadura is sugar cane cooked down to molasses then dried to a solid, somewhat crumbly block. Chef Rodrigo Olivera of Mocotó serves it in sorvete (ice cream), giving the ice cream a delicious mapley flavor, with the addition of full chunks of rapadura that melt on your tongue.
Sagú at Coffee Lab
Sagú can be found in many varieties around Sao Paulo, and after trying Coffee Lab's version, I wish I could eat it every day. The dessert consists of manioc tapioca balls, which are usually soaked in wine or fruit juice. Coffee Lab uses excellent quality French press coffee instead, and adds a layer of rich vanilla cream on top and a slice of lemon sponge cake on the bottom. The texture of the tapioca is the perfect balance between firm and chewy, and the flavor combination of coffee, vanilla, and lemon is addictive.
Mil e Uma Noites at Tenda Do Nilo
"It's not from Lebanon, it's not from Brazil, it's just from here!" exclaimed Olinda, one of the owners of Tenda do Nilo, a wonderful Lebanese cafe nestled on a quiet Sao Paulo corner. She's referring to Mil e Uma Noites (or 1001 Nights), the house specialty dessert. The base of the dish is fine-grain semolina, soaked in honey and orange flower essence. The grain is browned on the bottom and evokes the flavor of baklava, but with a dense, bread pudding-like texture. To make things even better, it's topped with a thick layer of nata—dense, heavy cream. A sprinkle of chopped pistachios provides a nice crunchy contrasting texture.
Brazil Nut Cake at D.O.M.
I encountered Brazil nuts in many forms in Sao Paulo&mdsh;in oil, cream, and cake—but none were quite so interesting as the dessert served at Alex Atala's D.O.M. The Brazil nuts were used in a delicious, moist cake with a rich flavor falling somewhere between almond and coconut. This was topped with a scoop of boozy Jack Daniel's ice cream, and a rich, bitter dark chocolate sauce spiced with curry. The most surprising addition was a sprinkling of arugula leaves, which added a vegetal bitterness which somehow accentuated the richness of the chocolate and the depth of the curry.
Zona da Mata at Clandestino
Clandestino's Zona da Mata (called Brazilian Tutti-Frutti on the English-language menu) is a serious fruit lover's dream. It features 14 different Brazilian fruits in all a manner of preparations—ice cream, farofa, cake, gel, pearls, compote, and simple chunks. While even the Brazilians at the table had a tough time identifying all (or even most) of the fruits presented, we all agreed that the combination of acids and creams, all accentuating the natural sweetness of the fruits, was as exciting as it was delicious.
Upstairs at Dui Restaurante, Alameda Franca, 1590, São Paulo, 01422-001, Brazil (map)
Pudim de Queijo da Serra da Canastra at Maní
I really appreciate Brazilian chefs' tendency to put cheese in, well, just about everything. Like this dessert courtesy of Maní: a custardy flan made of Canastra cheese, served with dulce de leche syrup, farinha, and a guava sorbet. Similar to Quiejo-de-Coalho, a Northeastern cheese often served fried with a sweet dipping sauce, the cheese was creamier than most flan and firmer than creme brulee. Its subtle savory flavor paired wonderfully with the dulce de leche—talk about a perfect salty-sweet combination. The farinha (made of manioc, and tasting of crushed shortbread cookies) lent a nice textural contrast to the creamy cheese, while the cooling tang of the guava sorbet balanced the rich sweetness of the dulce de leche. Overall, it was a thoughtful, flavorful, well-balanced dessert.