When Ludmilla Benevides first came to the United States in 1999, she found ways to keep her home country close.
Originally from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Benevides moved to New York with her husband to pursue a career in bossa nova music: a Brazilian genre that translates to “new style.” Whenever Benevides gathered with friends and family, she would bake pão de queijo — a traditional Brazilian cheese bread she grew up making with her grandmother.
“My older son said, ‘Mom, you’re so good at making pão de queijo, why don’t you start a business?’” Benevides recalled.
Looking to create her own business on the side of her music career, Benevides founded Milla’s Puffs in 2016. Today, using her grandmother’s original recipe, she sells homemade pão de queijo dough in grocery stores and at farmers’ markets across the East End of Long Island.
“America is like a melting pot of different nations bringing what they have best,” said Benevides. “This is my way of sharing a piece of Brazil’s rich culture.”
Pão de queijo, or cheese puffs, as Benevides calls them, are crispy on the outside and light and chewy on the inside. These cheese puffs have been a Brazilian staple for nearly 200 years. Made from cassava root (tapioca), the puffs are a culinary invention of enslaved Africans, who first soaked and peeled the root, and then mixed it with eggs and milk to make bread. In the 19th century, cheese was added to the dough to make the modern pão de queijo.
The cheese puffs do not contain wheat flour or yeast, making them naturally gluten free, and technically more of a starch cookie than a bread. Mila rents a private kitchen at the Stony Brook University Incubator at Calverton to prepare her cheese puff dough and avoid any risk of gluten contamination.
There are only six ingredients in Benevides’ pão de queijo (seven, if you count her love). All of these ingredients are locally sourced, with the exception of the Brazilian imported tapioca.
“They’re very versatile,” said Benevides, who prefers her cheese puffs with a bit of butter and jam. Her daughter’s absolute favorite, she says, is a tomato basil-flavored puff that she’s created to have “more of an Italian sort of flair.” While they are traditionally had in Brazil for breakfast and coffee time, Benevides says they can be served at any meal.
At the end of the day, Benevides says that the main ingredient in her cheese puffs really is the love that she puts in them.
“It’s a big hustle,” she said.
Every Monday morning, Benevides drives from East Quogue to her kitchen in Calverton to prepare her ingredients. Her first major task is shredding the cheese for the puffs, which she orders fresh from Mecox Farms in Southampton. On Tuesdays, she usually starts forming her dough. Using a dough divider, she prepares dough for two sizes: cocktail size and dinner roll size. Her machine produces about one thousand puffs per hour, leaving her with roughly eight thousand puffs a day. On Thursdays and Fridays, she focuses on the packing and distribution of her products.
On the North Fork, Milla’s Puffs can be found at IGA in Southold, and she is working on placing her products in stores in Mattituck and Greenport soon. On the South Fork, her frozen cheese puff dough can be found at the East Port General Store, Nurel’s Farm Stand, Community Supermarket & Deli, Provisions in Sag Harbor and Watermill, Serene Green, Village Prime Meats, and Hampton Fruit & Vegetable.
Benevides will also be selling warm, freshly baked cheese puffs at the East End Food Market in Riverhead this fall, along with hot coffee and other refreshments. She also serves her puffs at the Southampton Farmers Market every Sunday from 9 a.m to 3 p.m.
Working a stand at a farmer’s market, Benevides says, is the best way for her to test and promote her products.
“The crowd that goes to the farmers market is my thermometer,” she said. “They taste the products, they love it, and spread the word.”
Most recently, Benevides is experimenting with a new product — a gluten free, cheesy waffle.
“It’s more savory than sweet, but there’s nothing wrong with drizzling tons of real maple syrup or your favorite jam on there,” she said. “You could also do a fried chicken and waffle — there are so many options.”
Thinking long term, Benevides dreams of creating a health-focused franchise where she can sell her Brazilian puffs as well as other regional specialties like Açaí. For now, she is focused on continuing to share her culture with others as she works on growing her reach.
“I’m still learning and growing everyday,” she said. “You want to keep going and show people the best of your culture.”