An Interview With the Author of “The Flying Brownie”

Have you ever wanted to be one of those people who sends glorious care packages to friends/loved ones/the troops, stuffed with magically non-crumbly cookies and surprisingly moist brownies? Or, perhaps, do you just want to spend more time around the sort of people who DO send them and would like to know where they hang out? We spoke to Shirley Fan, dietician, young person, Food Network Kitchens veteran, and the author of the upcoming cookbook “The Flying Brownie” (Goodreads | Amazon) for the dirt on all things chewy and spattery.

My father-in-law mailed cookies for Christmas, two weeks BEFORE Christmas, so I froze them, and he was PISSED about it and kept saying “sorry, these would have been better if Nicole hadn’t frozen them.” Holidays! Which of us was right? No pressure.

Not sure if I want to get involved in a family feud, but I think you were onto something good when you froze them. Freezing is better than leaving cookies out because it slows aging. They’ll stay fresh for longer, extending the life of the cookies, and allowing you to enjoy them for many weeks beyond Christmas.

What is the easiest thing for a novice to make and ship?

For a first-timer, I would definitely start with brownies and cookies. They’re super easy to make and the recipient will LOVE you for it, even if they come in crumbly bits (but of course, that won’t happen if you pack them right!) If you’re totally new to baking, try a simple recipe like chocolate chip cookies or plain brownies. Once baked, transfer the cookies to a food-safe container or resealable plastic bag and then pack them in a box filled with cushioning. The same goes with brownies. I would stay away from pies. They are high in moisture and can spoil easily. They’re also not very sturdy.

What’s the most unusual and delicious thing you’ve ever concocted?

Oh man, this is a toughie, but I developed these treats called Happy Hours (Ed.: recipe to follow!) for my book. I basically took things you’d find in a bar — beer and pretzels and peanuts — and made them into a sweet. I’m not quite sure what inspired me at the time, but I took an India Pale Ale, cooked it down and then added the reduced liquid to a caramel mixture. The hoppy flavor cut down the sweetness of the caramel and gave it a more complex, bitter flavor. I then transferred the mixture to a pan to cook and topped it with pretzel twists and peanuts to give it crunch and saltiness.

Do you ever get frustrated when you have to develop, say, the 30th macaroni and cheese recipe of your career? Is it considered half-assy to just throw a new herb in there and call it a “new dish” or is there some unspoken understanding in the recipe world that it’s all been made before?

I actually don’t get sick of working on recipes like mac & cheese over and over again. I’m often given different parameters each time from clients so I see them as new challenges. When I develop the recipes, I often ask myself how I can make the dishes better and then go from there.

Honestly, I’d have to say that there aren’t many recipes that are totally unique. As a recipe developer, I think throwing in an herb or adding a touch of hot sauce to a recipe and calling it new would be phoning it in. There’s a process that I go through when developing. First, there’s conceptualization. I think about the dish. Is it a main dish or a side? What’s the difficulty level? Who’s the audience? Should it be healthy? Then, I think about the ingredients and flavor combinations. After that, I’ll write a draft of a recipe. If there’s a dish that I’m inspired by, I’ll take a look at the recipe and think of ways to improve or put a different spin on it. After I draft out a recipe, then I start testing and tasting. I can usually complete a recipe in 2–3 passes, but it really depends on the client and recipe.

What’s the grossest thing you’ve ever had to publish?

Without giving too much away, a few years back a client had me develop a healthy dessert that called for black beans and a sugar substitute. At first, I was totally excited to make it — I grew up with Asian bean desserts — but the combination of beans and sugar substitute just didn’t work. There was this bitter taste that lingered in my mouth whenever I had to try to recipe.

Do you get jealous when celebrity chefs get to take credit for recipes you’ve created for them?

No, not at all. I think it’s kind of like being a ghostwriter. It’s an accepted part of the job.

One time Jane’s mom sent her popcorn balls in the mail and when she got them they were ant infested, even though she had wrapped and Ziplocked them. What could she have done?

Did the ants eat their way through the plastic wrap and Ziploc bag? This makes me wonder when the ants first got to the popcorn balls. Was it at her mom’s house or during transit? Next time, she could try putting the balls in a glass jar with a tight seal.

What are some of the challenges of writing a cookbook?

Developing 100 recipes in the span of three months was a serious challenge. At one point, I was making six different recipes a day and tasting them all. I was about 7 months pregnant at the time and was completely terrified that I was going to get gestational diabetes. Luckily I didn’t, but making and tasting hundreds of cookies, brownies, and bars was not as fun as it sounds. Oh, and I was on my feet all day, which made it more unpleasant.

OH, can you tell us a cooking disaster story? I love knowing they happen to real cooks too.

A few years ago I decided to roast my own turkey for Thanksgiving. I had always had Thanksgiving at my parents or other peoples’ homes so I never had the opportunity to make my own. I was pretty excited. I planned far in advanced by ordering a fancy heritage turkey, checked out tons of recipes, and wrote out a schedule for the big day. Everything went according to plan — the turkey was cooked all the way through, it had a nice golden color, and looked delicious. But during dinner, my sister sliced into the bird and pulled out the PLASTIC bag of giblets. Luckily, the bag didn’t melt, but I was horrified. As a food writer, I had written articles about avoiding holiday kitchen disasters, and here I was committing one of the most common mistakes at Thanksgiving.

I totally just did that at Thanksgiving, because I took out ONE bag of gross things and missed the second. You give me hope. What do you like to cook when it’s just you and your family for a quiet meal at home? What’s your comforting standby?

We’re mostly vegetarian in the house because of Chad (ovo-lacto vegetarian) so our typical stand-by is pasta with kale and white beans. I take curly or Tuscan kale and saute it in olive oil, garlic, and red pepper flakes. When the greens soften, I add some canned beans and then cook for another minute or two, and then serve it on top of pasta. I like a generous sprinkle of parmesan cheese too.

Thanks so much, Shirley! We’re excited to learn how to make Happy Hours next week!