The Story of Bolo Souza Leão

Do you like a nice slice of pound cake from time to time? Or do you prefer custard when it’s time for dessert? Brazilians have solved this timeless and universal dilemma by creating a hybrid sweet that is half cake, half custard. It’s called Bolo Souza Leão (Souza Leão Cake) and this is its story.

The cake bears the name of one of the oldest families in the north-eastern Brazilian state of Pernambuco. This eponymous cake was created by someone working in the kitchen of one of the family’s eleven sugar plantations during the 19th century. No one seems to be exactly sure on which plantation it occurred or who created the cake, but it’s a safe assumption that it was a very inventive kitchen slave, as cooks and kitchen workers on sugar plantations during that period were invariably slaves. It’s not really surprising, however, that the cake was named after the plantation owners and not the kitchen slave who created it.

Whoever she was, she created a cake that has become one of the favourite cakes of present-day Brazil, eaten all over the country and at all types of occasions from christenings and wedding receptions to wakes. It’s available in most commercial cake shops, where it’s often sold by weight or by the slice, as a whole cake is quite large and very rich.

The cake is made with a batter that has much more liquid than most batters, with the liquid employed being a mix of water and coconut milk. The recipe calls for an enormous number of egg yolks, the traditional number being 16, 2 pounds of granulated sugar and half a pound of butter. It’s a seriously rich cake. The flour used is not wheat flour – instead the batter is based on a dough of fermented manioc (called puba in Portuguese).

The batter is cooked in a bain-marie, as custards are, for a long period of time, 50 minutes to one hour. The resulting cake has none of the crumbly texture of a traditional wheat cake. It has a smooth and creamy texture, like a custard might, only thicker and more substantial. If you’ve ever eaten the French dessert clafouti, which is made of a flour-thickened custard, you’ll get the idea. Just imagine a clafouti going one step further towards cakedom and you’ll have the texture and consistency of Souza Leão Cake. It’s ambrosial and incredibly rich and filling.

Seeing that the recipe for this cake requires fermented manioc, a process that takes more than a week once you’ve sourced your manioc – not an easy task in and of itself – it’s unlikely you’ll be making Souza Leão Cake for your next dinner party. But if you find yourself in Brazil one day, do yourself a favour and try a slice. You’ll likely fall in love.

Certainly, the present-day members of the Souza Leão clan have never lost their taste for this treat. This photo shows matriarch of the family, Dona Rita de Souza Leão Barreto Coutinho with two of her younger relatives, all just about to tuck into a nice piece of the Souza Leão Cake laid out before them on the table. They seem to be quite happy about the prospect; no surprise to anyone who’s eaten Souza Leão Cake!

by James Pearce, who runs the fantastic Flavors of Brazil blog – a great place to learn more about the foods of Brazil.

Check out our Food & Drink section to learn more about Brazilian food and other Latin American cuisine.


  1. It tends to be a little heavy, but you must try it! I love it.

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