For chef, owner, and chief sweet officer Maya Zellman, Brigadeiro is more than just dessert. Though a native of Los Angeles, her whole life has been filled with trips to visit her Brazilian family and special memories — such as birthday parties, weddings, family dinners and cafezinho (afternoon coffee breaks) — which were made even sweeter by every bite of her Aunt Marli’s Brigadeiros.
The history of Brigadeiros [bree-gah-de-roh] goes back to the 1940s. During the lean years around World War II, access to fruits and sweets were limited, hence the need to get creative with just a few simple ingredients — cocoa powder, unsalted butter and condensed milk. Thanks to a few ladies in Rio de Janiero, Brigadeiro was born.
They named the candy after Brigadeiro Eduardo Gomes, a revolutionary, failed politician and high ranking member of the Brazilian Air Force. (He held the office of, you guessed it, brigadier.) Gomes might be better remembered for his looks than for his politics, as his failed run for the Brazilian presidency in 1945 — technically the first year women could vote in the country — included the slogan “vote for the brigadier, who’s good-looking and single.”
He was supposedly far more dashing than his opponent, Marechal Eurico Gaspar Dutra, but Gomes’ looks weren’t enough to get him elected. (That said, there’s no candy named after Dutra.)
What makes Brigadeiro most notably distinctive is it’s one-of-a-kind texture. The dessert can best be described as a cross between a caramel and a truffle, but even better. Zellman’s love for this traditional dessert grew quickly, and as soon as she could stir, she was learning the family recipe and adding her own bursts of flavor. When she couldn’t find any sweet that satisfied quite like a Brigadeiro in the United States, she knew she had to start Maya Brigadeiro Brazilian Sweets.
Maya Brigadeiro treats aim to create an out-of-country experience that celebrates the joy of living.
If you were stranded on a deserted island with only one kind of candy, what would it be?
Is it lame to say Brigaderio?!?! I’ve had the business for four years and I still eat it every day, and I think it would help me make the most out of a deserted island situation. Next choice would be gummy bears — naturally.
What’s the last cool thing you saw online?
I just saw that they are testing using sterilized tilapia skin on burn victim patients and it’s working to help them heal. Crazy!
When you were little, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I wanted to be a professional dancer, and I was one! Before starting my company I was touring around the world dancing and working in arts education for 10 years. I still teach college hip hop dance classes; it helps balance out all that Brigadeiro I eat.
What issues concern you most about the confectionery industry and why?
I’m concerned that we are moving away from small-batch, handmade desserts and buying more and more mass-produced confections. There is not a sophisticated enough machine that can put the love and care into their sweets like real humans can.
What’s the last book you’ve read?
“The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” by Marie Kondo, and it did just that, change my life. You should see how organized my sock drawer is.
What is your pet peeve?
I hate it when clothes hangers get tangled, it seriously drives me crazy!
If given the chance to choose anyone, with whom would you like to collaborate?
COOLHAUS Ice Cream! I love that their company has personality, and I think the owners are really cool, smart, hard-working women. To top it off, they serve a phenomenal product.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
“Don’t be a victim.” My Brazilian mother’s most sage advice. She means that life doesn’t happen to you, you make life happen. When things get rough, don’t wallow in self-pity, figure out how to make it better and be proactive in doing so.