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). 


38 thoughts on “Brownies, alla Nona

  1. Delurking to say – What a lovely tribute to your Nona – I had a lump in my throat at the end. My grandmother used to call me Nina (little girl in Spanish) and since I was a such a little mimic I called her Nina right back and it stuck. Being the first grandchild had it’s privileges, ALL her grandchildren ended up calling her Nina!

  2. A pre-planned jam-packed itinerary? All I can say is {swoon}. Meanwhile, I have just about half a cup left of the fancy olive oil I carted home from Milan, and these brownies sound like the way to finish it off in style!

  3. very nice post about your Nona and what a schedule in Belgium! can’t wait for the article to come out!

  4. What a wonderful relationship – hope you’ll get to see your nona soon!I never felt any particular interest in brownies, the flavour seemed just too obvious. However, this olive oil version gives it an entire new twist – looking forward to giving it a try!

  5. Beautiful post. Will have to try the brownies sometime (don’t have access to a kitchen at the moment, but after I’m back in my own place at the end of the summer…)

  6. What a lovely tribute! I am sure your Nona would be proud. I am not much of a baker, but many years ago I wanted to send a care package of brownies toa group of friends. I bought a package of brownie mix at the store and, because I didn’t have the vegetable oil the recipe called for, I used olive oil. Everyone raved–and the next summer they begged me to send more of my "special brownies." I became famous and was asked repeatedly for my secret recipe. I tried various mixes but always used olive oil and without fail people would say they were the best brownies they had ever tasted.I was too embaressed to tell them the secret, and to this day I still get asked how I made those really great brownies.

  7. How wonderful, I often buy Food & Travel, so will definitely look out for your article!

  8. Lovely stuff, Melissa – both in sentiment and in the recipe! The olive oil sounds a perfect note to balance the earthiness of good chocolate.

  9. Melissa,I love the use of olive oil in sweet baking applications (mostly citrusy things) — it always seems to throw people when you tell them the secret ingredient. I have done some experimenting with using different types of olive oils to see if their unique qualities would translate to the end product, and they do! From peppery to buttery to grassy, they seem to hold on to their essence quite well. When I was in Seattle, I visited an olive oil boutique called O & Co. (I think they’re related to L’Occitane). They had a wonderful selection and let you taste test almost everything. I ended up with a very peppery Spanish oil that day, but have ordered several others from them and never been disappointed.Anyway…what type of oil did you use in the brownies? I’m excited to give the recipe a try when I return home from a mini-vacation!Dominicthe zen kitchen

  10. What a beautiful story! I have a similar memory with my grandma–I was shipped to the farm the summer of my 16th year and also learned to drive on rocky backroads with her by my side. As for the brownies, I’ve only used olive oil in shortbreads, but I can see how it would go grandly with good chocolate.

  11. Due to work commitments, a very disorganized life, not having a laptop for a while, i did not visit your blog much for a while. However, I just start reading your article/post and some amazing transformation takes place in my psyche. It is to do with your subject matter, the power of your workds, the precision of each sentence put are truly inspirational.In every sense. I shall NEVER miss a post again.

  12. Glad to hear you had a great time in my little country. I haven’t lived in Belgium for 6 years now and I don’t miss the general narrow-mindedness at all. But the food, the Belgian food, I do miss… Lovely story about your Nona, hope you get to visit her soon. I know how precious that is, I phone my gran every week and try to see her every three months or so…

  13. Oh, Melissa. Your ability to evoke memories and emotions of people I’ve never known never ceases to amaze me.I think I’ll read this to my mother, I’m pretty sure she’ll appreciate it. regardless, I’m trying to think of a suitable olive oil that will do these brownies justice. emmmm… Aside from the fruitiness, what else is required of an olive oil for this recipe? What other traits should it sport? should it be of the more herbal green charcter of fruity (which characterizes oil pressed of green olives) or the milder, riper fruitiness of a golden oil?

  14. Definetely a must try, I am always looking for ways to replace butter which is not good for me : ( Could you actually taste the olive oil or it just ‘melted’ in the background? I tried olive oil in cakes before (plain sponge cakes, for example) and found that its strong flavour did stand out quite a bit.Melissa! Grand-mother is spelled nonna in Italian : )

  15. Your Nona sounds tremendous, Melissa! And I know she would have loved to share those gorgeous brownies with you. Thanks so much for taking part. And thanks for the description of Belgium – you’ve set my mouth to watering!

  16. Having tried these yesterday, I can vouch for the fact that the olive flavor is not at all strong– at least, not strong enough to overpower 4 oz. of bittersweet chocolate. The oil I used was somewhere between bargain-basement and boutique, for the record; something further toward the boutique end of the spectrum would probably be more self-assertive, but I’m not sure that I’d want that. The oil I used may have contributed an ineffable something to these delightfully under-sweetened brownies, but it’s primary contribution was to the texture. They’ve remained wonderfully moist, without settling into that dense fudginess that one so often expects of slightly underbaked brownies.

  17. Liz – Now isn’t that funny? A little substitution of Spanish for Italian and we’ve almost got the same story!Tea – Of course, being one of the converted now myself that doesn’t surprise me one bit! I only wish I could figure out what exactly the olive oil does to make them so insanely good…Dominic – I know O&Co well. Their olive oils are extraordinary, but my favorite product of theirs is the olive jam. I’ve got a post about it somewhere in the archives if you’re interested. Oh, and I used the olive oil I had on hand, which was some slightly unremarkable Australian brand I’d never bought before (I already threw away the bottle and I don’t remember the name!). Dharshi – Wow, high praise indeed! Thank you 🙂 How are things, by the way?Lisa – Ah yes, what are grandmothers for? I think it was the perfect arrangement: I had someone to keep an eye on my driving, and she had a captive audience for her stories. I think we both came out on top.Valentina – Your comments are always such a pick-me-up. Thank you! :)Inne – Belgium was exactly my kind of country; everyone seemed as food-crazy as me! From chefs to shop-owners to stall-holders, everyone I spoke to just radiated an infectious enthusiasm and passion for quality. I’m not surprised you miss the food – I do too!Malka – So many questions! Having only made these once, I don’t think I can give you a definitive answer, but I do think it’s worth experimenting. The oil I used was of the mild & mellow variety, but I’m curious what effect a younger, brasher oil would have. If you try some, let me know!Ales – Its character was definitely a background rather than foreground feature (though that may partly depend on the strength of the oil you use). What was most striking to me was how ‘clean’ it made the chocolate flavor taste – a strange description, but the best I can come up with! p.s. I know it’s nonna, but that’s what I meant by ‘more or less authentic form’ :)Ivonne – Thank you for such a lovely event, and for inviting me to participate!Mdvlist – Well described, and I’m glad you liked them!And of course to Sylee, Kat, Eva, Ellen, Kitt, Kavey, Poonam, Andrea, Myriam, Leonine, and Kevin: thank you too!

  18. hey Melissa! I made the brownies today, and they´re as good as you said they were. the only things I´d change are basically somewhat my mistakes: I would toast the hazelnuts (forgot to toast them), and perhaps use finer salt instead of the coarse salt I used.the recipe makes a very small batch, which surprised me, I thought it would make more batter. but it’s all good, it’s a rich little piece of goodness so you don’t need much. it’s true that the olive oil makes it lighter on the stomach.My dad wasn’t too thrilled by the combination of olive oil and chocolate, and said he’d use nut oil instead, hazelnut oil, and even suggested replacing the olive oil with regular oil + a dash of dark sesame oil. I said only if he added some fresh ginger to it too.I don’t think it would work, but I would LOVE to try vosges "black pearl" chocolate (the one with black sesame ginger and wasabi). I may be proven wrong.Anyways, I think it’s worth experimenting with different types of oil and chocolate.

  19. How nice to read about your nonna and looking forward to reading more about your Belgium trip. Your brownies do look "elegant!"Paz

  20. How lucky for you that you have a nonna even though she wasn’t technically one 😉 I was very close to my (Italian) grandmother as well, and I always love reading about other similar relationships.And this recipe is one after my own heart–here in southern Italy the butter leaves a lot to be desired so I really only use in baking…but now I don’t have to 😉

  21. Lordy lordy, these brownies are something else! I’m quite the fan of salty chocolate — for years my mom would buy me chocolate-covered potato chips on Valentine’s Day, which you oughtn’t knock till you’ve tried them! — and this is, in its way, a grown-up version. I made these a couple days ago and love the way the salt and the oil dance delicately on my tongue behind the chocolate. And, as my sweetie has no sweet tooth, I’m forced to work through the whole pan on my own. Life’s a bear sometimes, ain’t it?Thanks so much for this recipe —

  22. Malka – Yes, it is quite a small batch, though I imagine it can be easily doubled. And very interesting idea to use nut oils! Hmmm, I can imagine almond or hazelnut would be divine…Hi Paz! I’ll try to scan the article after it comes out if you’re interested in reading more about my Belgian adventures.Sognatrice – After the success of these brownies I’m revved up to try olive oil in all kinds of baking! Have you tried making cakes with it? That’s next on my list. If only I had anywhere near the quality of oil you must have access to down there!Lisa – So glad you liked them! And you know, chocolate-covered potato chips actually don’t sound half bad…

  23. Wow! Who would’ve thunk that olive oil brownies would be so delish. I have to say you’ve got me interested and I’ll try to make these bad boys this week. Thanks for the great post.

  24. Those brownies looks absolutely delicious, I will defintely have to give them a try, and not without a glass of milk. Brownies and cold milk have always reminded me of what I beleive to be the perfect American snack.. or what I believed it to be from my native

  25. second batch! the hazelnuts have been roasted, I used fine table salt mixed in with the flour, and less salt than last time.the batter tastes divine, and it´s in the oven now…I’m baking it today in order to serve on Friday evening. mmmm… and I think I’ll bake something else, something savoury tomorrow. Any suggestions for non-dairy savory stuff that’s portable enough to bring to a radio studio? I’ll be on the local station with other listeners of the latin music show… good food, good music, good people! yaaa 😀

  26. just adding that my dad walked in as I took the cake out of the oven, I’m afraid to leave this cake alone. the smell made him all swoony.

  27. these were one of the greatest brownis that i have ever made! they really were, they were light and moist, and after a couple of days they were at the very best.thanks!

  28. Such a beautiful tribute to a wonderful woman… and the best chocolate concoction I ever ate/made: Nothing but the chocolate and the olive oil together were a revelation. Thank you!

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