Photo by Christina Holmes
It’s hard to believe that in just five days my debut cookbook, Feast By Firelight, hits shelves worldwide. Not only was this a long-time dream, but also a three-year process to produce. It required a village.
One of the most invaluable people on my team was Tess Le Moing, who I first met through a food writing class at Ithaca College in 2015. She asked if I had any work for an intern, and at the time, I didn’t. In anticipation of our first baby, I was scaling back significantly in all realms. I did happen to mention that I was working on a promising cookbook proposal and that if I got a deal, I would need a kitchen assistant.
Mind you, I’d lost count of how many proposals I’d written over the past decade, and though this one seemed promising, I’d learned not to set my expectations too high.
A year later, Tess emailed again, “How about now?”
I likely read her email while nursing Ayla, and it turned out I had indeed just got word that the offer for the proposal was imminent! A few weeks later I got the deal and Tess packed her bags to move back to Ithaca.
I had never written a cookbook before, nor had to plan a meticulous schedule for mastering 75+ recipes under a deadline. So on our first date in the kitchen, I said, “Let’s start with a couple of easy recipes so we can enjoy ourselves and get to know each other a bit more. You’ll also be able to familiarize yourself with my kitchen and the recipe testing process.”
In between chatting and listening to music, it took us an hour to prepare the first recipe for Divine Fig, Walnut, and Sea Salt Brownies. As soon as we put the brownies in the oven, Tess turned around and moaned, “Oh no! We forgot to stir in the flour!” The flour. Yes. We were so carried away with connecting and embarking on this incredible journey – a first for both of us! – that we had completely botched the recipe.
We couldn’t help collapsing with laughter, and got to it again, perfectly high on chocolate by the end of the day. We also learned that while this was a great “getting-to-know-you” day, the next year of recipe testing would require much more focus and light music, if any.
Still, no matter how much we honed in our attention on these brownies, we didn’t nail the recipe until a week before the manuscript was due. We were standing in the kitchen, a fresh batch on the cooling rack and another bowl of batter ready to doctor up if the first test didn’t satisfy. We sliced squares and each took one, tapping them together in an honorary “here we go” toast, and sank our teeth in. I closed my eyes and reeled with happiness. At last, we’d achieved brownie perfection.
Left with the bowl of batter, I decided to make orange cup brownies for our staff at Firelight Camps that evening, a classic campfire dessert. Of course, these would be no ordinary brownie cups, because we had the perfect batter!
From the moment I nestled the foil-wrapped brownie cups in the coals, I had to fend off our staff and their family members like a swarm of flies. They couldn’t wait to try one. The children begged, “Are they done, are they done?” When I pulled them out, chocolate oozing from seams in the foil, I had to remind everyone they were scorching hot. When they were cool enough to handle, there was a frenzy of hands scooping treats and spoons. That’s when a light went off in my head! The other brownies must go from the book! These were much more appropriate, fun, and novel!
After all that hard work, it was painful to cut the original oven-baked brownies from the book, so I’ve made sure they’re immortalized here!
And I promise, you can find an equally indulgent recipe in the chapter for Sweet Endings in Feast By Firelight: Molten Lava Campfire Brownies in Orange cups.
So what are you waiting for, order your cookbook today! 🙂
With love and firelight,
The first time I sank my teeth into one of these brownies, I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. I was visiting my childhood best friend, Katie Giannone, at her beach house rental in New Hampshire, and had arrived in the late afternoon. Katie met me on the front porch with a fresh pot of coffee and a plate of brownies, which we nearly demolished while catching up and taking in the ocean view. When I asked her about the recipe, she said it came from her mother’s well-worn copy of The Moosewood Cookbook, from the iconic restaurant that just celebrated its fortieth anniversary in my current hometown of Ithaca, New York. This variation is even fudgier, with extra cocoa powder and the blissful combination of dried figs, walnuts, and coarse sea salt. The purist can leave out the embellishments, but I recommend keeping the salt. For true chocoholics, increase the cocoa powder from 2 tablespoons to 1?2 cup.
- 5 ounces semisweet chocolate chips or squares
- 1 cup unbleached all-purposeflour, plus 1 pinch
- 2 tablespoons unsweetened Dutch-processed cocoa powder
- 1 cup finely chopped dried figs
- 1 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
- 13/4 cups organic cane sugar
- 4 eggs
- 11/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- 3/4 cup walnuts, toasted and finely chopped
- 1 teaspoon coarse sea salt (my favorite is sel gris)
- Preheat the oven to 350ºF. Line a 9 by 13-inch baking pan with aluminum foil shiny-side down and grease the foil. (This will make it easy to lift the brownies straight out of the pan once you get to camp. Otherwise, simply grease the pan and then transfer the baked brownies to an airtight container.)
- Put the chocolate chips in a heatproof bowl and set in the middle of a 12-inch sauté or frying pan. Fill the pan with 1 inch of water and bring to a simmer over medium-low heat (the bowl will begin to rattle). Turn off the heat and let the pan and chocolate sit on the burner, stirring a few times, until the chocolate is melted, 5 to 7 minutes. Let cool. (If you have a double boiler, you can use it instead to melt the chocolate.)
- In a medium bowl, stir together the 1 cup flour and cocoa powder with a fork. In a small bowl, using your fingers, toss the figs with the pinch of flour so the pieces don’t stick together and will stay suspended in the batter.
- In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine the butter and sugar and beat on low speed, gradually increasing to medium, until fully incorporated and the texture is light and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Alternatively, combine the butter and sugar in a large bowl and incorporate together with your hands. Then, switch to a fork (be prepared to use some elbow grease) and beat until light and fluffy, 5 to 7 minutes.
- Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Stir in the vanilla, followed by the melted chocolate, and mix on low speed, or with a spatula, until combined.
- Fold the flour mixture into the chocolate mixture until the batter is thoroughly blended. Fold in the walnuts and figs. Pour the batter into the prepared baking pan and sprinkle the salt evenly over the top.
- Bake until the batter sets, 30 to 35 minutes. To test for doneness, jiggle the pan; there shouldn’t be any wobble, or a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean. While still warm, cut the brownies into 24 squares and let cool completely.
- Store at ambient temperature for up to 4 days, or cover each brownie individually with plastic wrap or aluminum foil, transfer to a ziplock freezer bag, and freeze for up to 4 months. (Bring to camp frozen; they will double as cooler ice and be a refreshing, chocolate treat.)
How to toast walnuts: Preheat the oven to 350°F. Spread an even layer on a rimmed baking sheet. Bake for 8 to 10 minutes, until the nuts are dark brown, stirring once halfway through. Transfer immediately to a heatproof dish to cool.