Brownies, alla Nona

Olive-Oil Brownies 

Thank you to everyone who offered sage advice on what to eat in Belgium – unfortunately I only managed to follow a tiny fraction of it! The problem wasn’t availability, or even opportunity – it was my stomach’s stubborn refusal to expand beyond its maximum capacity. I was, you see, on assignment for Food and Travel, and our itinerary was jam-packed – as in eight-o’clock-in-the-morning-until-ten- o’clock-at-night packed – with breakfast, lunch and dinner all pre-planned and lots of tastings in between. The food was all superb – I mean really, truly excellent everywhere; there’s certainly a reason Belgium has more Michelin stars per capita than any other country – but it was by and large innovative, cutting-edge stuff, i.e. not necessarily the stuff you feel you should be tasting on a first trip somewhere. And with three courses the norm for most meals, oof, I didn’t have a lot of space left for extra-curricular munching. I did manage to squeeze in a waffle (a single waffle, I know!)*, and against my better judgment visited a friteur where I ordered a massive pile of thick Belgian-style fries drenched in meaty stoofvlees (aka carbonade flamande) and mayonnaise, of which I managed to eat about one-tenth before admitting defeat. Apart from that I enjoyed some garnaalkroketten (delicious shrimp croquettes that still haunt my dreams), some insanely delicious farmhouse kriek (sour cherry beer), and finally, on our last night, some moules frites, which apparently in Belgium are served by the gallon. There was lots and lots of other great food, but to read about that you’ll just have to wait until October, when the article comes out! 🙂

I know you’re a bit confused, though – what do olive oil brownies have to do with Belgium? Well, nothing, actually. But they have everything to do with Italy, and more specifically, with a name you may have been seeing a lot lately: Faith Heller Willinger. When Ivonne contacted me a few weeks ago about participating in a blog event she was hosting with Cath to celebrate the release of Faith’s latest book, Adventures of an Italian Food Lover, I was overjoyed. I have been a fan of Faith for years, ever since I picked up a copy of her guidebook Eating in Italy for a trip about ten years ago, and her advice (well, that which I could afford to follow at the time – mostly advice on gelato places) never failed me once. The specifics of Ivonne’s request were that I not review the book itself, however, but rather to make a recipe from it and talk about someone dear to me with whom I would share it. While it’s quite hard not to talk about the book, considering how much I enjoyed it (suffice it to say that if you’re planning a food-focused trip to Italy anytime soon, you must have a copy, and even if you’re not, buy it anyway and Faith’s heartfelt, mouthwatering vignettes will have you planning one before you know it!), I was happy to cooperate.

Many people sprang to mind as I pored over Faith’s recipes, but once I had settled on the one I wanted to make – moist, fudgy brownies starring olive oil instead of butter, a chocolate-imbued union of America and Italy – I knew who it had to be: my nona, my maternal grandmother. Now, I don’t have a drop of Italian in me and neither does my nona, being of sturdy Scottish and German stock, but due to a quirk of history she will always be my Italian grandmother because of what we call her. You see, a long time ago, when I was a baby, the people who lived next door to my grandmother were Sicilians, and despite the fact that they spoke barely any English and my grandmother spoke barely any Italian, they became great friends (not surprising, actually, as my nona befriends everybody). They were so delighted for her when I, her first grandchild, was born, that they started calling her nonna, Italian for grandmother, and everybody liked the name so much it stuck, in more or less authentic form. Nona told me once that she much preferred it to other grandmotherly names because it didn’t carry the same connotation of age for her; for her grandchildren, it became the most natural thing in the world to have a nona, and we couldn’t understand why everybody didn’t have one.

Growing up, my nona was the only grandparent I saw regularly, and all I knew about the grandparent-grandchild relationship I learned from her. She lived an hour away from us and so I didn’t get to see her as much as I liked, but we spent nearly every holiday at her house, and several summers I spent a week of my school vacation in her care. One year I spent that week learning how to sew and listening to her stories about her own mother, who was such a talented seamstress she could recreate any piece of clothing she saw. Another year she took my cousin Julia and me to the Midwest to visit her sister, where we spent a week swimming in lakes, fleeing from enormous insects and eating Reese’s Pieces on toast for breakfast (if that isn’t what grandmothers are for, what is?). After we moved to Washington she started visiting us during the summers, and one of those visits happened just after I had received my driving permit and I was only allowed to sit behind the wheel of a car in the company of an adult. Every day she would sit happily beside me as I drove for hours along the county’s rural backroads, listening as she rattled off her endless stories about the night they dropped the first atom bomb outside the Albuquerque airfield where she worked, or her involvement in the civil rights movement in the 1950s that she was certain had put her on Senator Joseph McCarthy’s blacklist. Riveting stuff, I tell you.

Although she was not, admittedly, a formidable talent in the kitchen, don’t let that fool you; she has always been a most formidable talent at the table. While she certainly always loved food, in her later years – once the financial burden of being a single parent of four children had eased – her palate expanded exponentially and she embraced foreign cuisines like they were going out of style. She bought strange things like olive oil and pine nuts long before they became household staples for the rest of us, and at an age when most other grandmothers were perfecting their backstitch, she was cultivating an astonishingly prolific organic vegetable plot in her backyard. She also became a dedicated vegetarian after reading about the ethical and environmental failings of the modern meat industry, something none of my friends – most of whose own meat-and-potatoes grandparents had never even heard the ‘v’ word – could fathom. Her delight in all things edible was infectious, and surely one of the strongest motivators I had when learning to cook was her unbridled curiosity and enthusiasm; she would have barely stepped off the plane on one of her visits when she would turn to me, her eyes bright with anticipation, and say "what are you making for dinner?" It didn’t matter what I said, she would clap her hands loudly and exclaim: "that sounds positively elegant!"

For many years I took pleasure in telling whoever would listen abou
t what a motivated, independent woman my nona was. She kept working, after all, well into her eighties, as a home teacher for high school students who were unable to attend school for medical reasons. She loved the work; "working with young people keeps me young," she used to say whenever anyone asked about retirement, and she cultivated friendships with her students so strong they would still visit her decades later. I think most of us assumed she would just keep on working and living exactly how she chose until the day she died, but unfortunately life had other plans; first a broken hip, then a devastating car accident took their toll, and in the space of a few short months she not only lost her job, her house and her independence, but the old age she had been so assiduously avoiding finally began to catch up with her.

In September it will be three years since I last saw my nona. She lives in Colorado now, in the care of my aunt, and though it breaks my heart to hear the frailty in her voice each time we speak, it can’t completely mask the feisty, fiercely intelligent woman still lurking underneath. It’s been an equally long time since I’ve cooked anything for her, but if there’s one thing about her I can trust hasn’t changed, it’s her love of food, and I know with absolute certainty that she would love these brownies. In fact, I can just see the way her eyes would dance as I tell her it’s olive oil giving them that slight peppery finish and clean, intense flavor. And of course I know just what she’d say after tasting one.

"Oh, these are elegant!" 

Indeed they are. 

Olive-Oil Brownies

I’ll admit, when I spied these in Faith’s book, my first thought was ‘gimmick’. Not that I didn’t think they’d be good, I just didn’t think anything could top chocolate and butter together, and I’d tried chocolate and olive oil combinations in other things and been left less than impressed. The longer I looked at the recipe, however, the more curious I got, and when I finally made them I couldn’t have been more surprised – they are really quite extraordinary. Light as air yet deliciously moist, these melt on the tongue with a pure, intense chocolate flavor that gives way to only the slightest fruity nuance; if I didn’t know better I wouldn’t have been able to guess that olive oil was responsible for their mystery. They also seem gentler on the stomach than a typical brownie, almost as if they vanish into a poof of air on their way down. Which I’m really hoping they did, considering how many I ate!

Source: adapted from Adventures of an Italian Food Lover by Faith Heller Willinger
Yield: 16 modestly-sized brownies 

4 ounces (115g) finest quality bittersweet chocolate (at least 70% cocoa), chopped
1/3 cup (80ml) fruity extra virgin olive oil
1/2 cup (70g) all-purpose/plain flour (Faith prefers using a soft flour like Italian type 00 or White Lily; if you go this route add an extra tablespoon)
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
2 large eggs, at room temperature
3/4 cup (150g) superfine/caster sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2/3 cup (70g) lightly toasted hazelnuts, chopped (Faith uses walnuts)
whipped cream, for serving (optional)

Preheat the oven to 350F/175C. Line an 8-inch (20cm) square baking pan with a lightly oiled and floured piece of parchment paper that overhangs the pan on two sides (this aids in removal later).

Melt the chocolate over low heat on the stovetop or in the microwave and whisk in the oil. Let cool.

Mix the flour and salt together in a small bowl. In a large bowl, beat the eggs and sugar until pale, thickened and billowy, about five minutes. Fold in the vanilla and the cooled chocolate mixture, then fold in the flour and optional nuts, stirring just until everything is combined. Pour into the prepared pan and distribute evenly.

Bake for 22-26 minutes (I would recommend checking earlier to avoid overbaking – mine were just on the verge after 22 minutes). The top will be dry and crackly, though a toothpick inserted in the center should emerge still a little wet. Cool completely, then cut into squares. Serve with whipped cream, if desired.

*It was a Brussels-style waffle instead of the kind from Liège, just in case you’re wondering, and to answer Stephanie’s question, I’m obviously still no expert, but the main differences between real Belgian waffles and their impostors elsewhere seems to be that in Belgium a) waffles are eaten exclusively as an afternoon snack and are most often either sprinkled with powdered sugar, drizzled with chocolate or dolloped with whipped cream (never doused in syrup!), and b) they are always yeast-raised (or so I was told).