How Writing a Cookbook on Food Gifts Shaped My New Food Life and Sheet Pan Brownies

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Walking around a boisterous tiny Vermont downtown is the sort of indulgence I only allow myself very early on in the summer season or very late, after all the leaf peepers have left for more fiery leaves further south. I am a big fan of Woodstock, Vermont – I now live nearby part-time – but I’m also weary of all the tourists, skeptical of the faux holiday sales (a $100 sweatshirt marked down to a whopping $75), and allergic to the 20-minute wait for a tea at the new local coffee shop (because it’s so new and so good). To keep my sanity, I generally keep my Main Street strolls to May and October, when the wide sidewalks are all mine, mine, mine.

This past weekend on one such stroll, I picked up some supplies at the local general store. With family in tow, we ambled up and down the gift isles, pausing at all the kitchen supplies I know I don’t need and all the cookbooks I want, want, want. Now I’ve been into the general store a thousand times since making Vermont my summer home away from home. I’ve drifted among the cookbooks admiring friend’s books on so many occasions. This time was different.

Around the next corner, my first cookbook, Food Gift Love, was propped up next to stacks of, what else but, food gifts. My mother caught where my eye was directed, smiled and beamed, “Look, it’s your book!” To say that this 130-year-old general store made me look good is an understatement. My mother loves catching that book in the wild, probably more than I do, and proceeded to tell the entire staff that I live nearby and am available for autographs. Oh, mom.

The store’s manager let me know she loved the book and had sold out of their stack over the holidays. After I signed their last copy, she asked if I’d do a cooking demo and book signing over the summer. Of course, I would, but inside, my emotions were a little… complex. You see, Food Gift Love was created with so much tenderness and so many good intentions. I love that little cookbook and feel all sorts of butterflies when I see it in book shops. But it also documented my way to get all the indulgent foods I wanted to make and eat away from my face as quickly as possible. I made all the delicious things, sampled, wrapped them, and then gave them away, stat – only, it didn’t exactly flow like that.

The making of Food Gift Love was one of the best experiences of my life. (If you ever get a chance to write a cookbook, just do it.) I discovered that I love writing stories and developing recipes – and it’s so wonderful when you discover a new thing that you love so hard. But during that year of writing the book, my body ballooned to its largest ever. Making and eating pies, cookies, and cocktails will do a number on you and testing recipes for pies, cookies, and cocktails a zillion times, over and over again, without a tasting strategy, got me.

I gained close to 50 pounds writing that cookbook. And on an already very large frame, it just dragged me down further. I accepted it as a consequence of cookbook writing and, really, as a consequence of being a fat girl. You see, in my very personal experience, being fat has been a state of mind and no matter how many times I tried to lose weight, it never became a long-term thing. In my brain, I was forever a fat girl, no matter the actual weight on the scale. After being bullied by kids for being bigger, after being ignored by boys at all the school dances, after being picked last for every sporting activity, after being told, “You’re pretty for a big girl,” for the thousandth time, I had convinced myself that everyone was right. Being fat wasn’t a state of my body anymore; it was who I was, it became a state of my mind. And gaining even more weight while writing that beautiful cookbook was just acceptable to my fat girl state of mind.

Well, it was until it wasn’t. One day, sometime after turning in the Food Gift Love manuscript, something changed. With the help of some amazing folks and some amazing food (and me, I helped me a whole lot), I began to see myself skinny – you know, not actually skinny but metaphorically skinny. That doesn’t mean I am skinny by popular definitions, because I’m far from a size four. That means, I saw myself skinny in the way that I saw the potential in me to be healthy, to be deserving of a fit physique, to be proud and beautiful in the sort of clothes I wanted to wear. I stopped being disgusted by my skin, stopped thinking the worse of my body, and started really looking at my skin, loving it for what it was and what it could be.

Once I saw myself as something more than a fat girl, I finally began to seriously tackle my weight issues, to understand the reasons why I put food in my mouth, and to ultimately lose some of the weight that I’ve carried all of my life. The journey isn’t over; it will never be. I’ve just finally come to terms with who I am, what I deserve for me, and how I want to love me, at last.

I still love me through food, because decades of patterns don’t re-write themselves over a few years, but I now cook and eat the food I deserve to stay happy and healthy. And that food most definitely includes brownies – I just load them up with some super good ingredients, too, on top of the chocolate. These brownies do have sugar in them – because, of course – but it’s maple sugar (which raises your blood sugar a little slower than cane sugar). Still, I only have one or two each week – and deliver the rest to my husband’s office.

My version of Sheet Pan Brownies are delicious, just a little thinner. But just because they’re not as tall as the brownies you’ve come to know doesn’t make them any less wonderful. They’re rich and chewy and crisp in all the right places. I shared them with a couple of thirteen-year-olds who gave them rave reviews – so adult and kid approved, promise.

Oh, I am doing that book signing for Food Gift Love in Woodstock, Vermont. If you’re around, please come say hello on Friday, July 21, from 2 – 4 pm, at Gillingham’s, 16 Elm Street, Woodstock VT 05091. We can talk all about my first cookbook and all about how I eat and how you eat now. See you then!

(For those of you following, my last blog post got me motivated to buy myself a new food processor. I hope to love it as much as all of you love yours. Thank you for the help and for pushing me to tie up that loose end!)

Sheet-Pan Brownies

This recipe is inspired by a Sheet-Pan Brownie Thin recipe that I stumbled upon on Epicurious. I have adapted it wildly to suit my more wholesome food life where I must have brownies. I promise my version is delicious and scratches that chocolate itch beautifully. To make them gluten-free, try another flour or even ground almonds.

Makes: 20 roughly 3-inch squares

Prep Time: 10 Minutes

Cook Time: 15 Minutes

Total Time: 25 Minutes

Ingredients:

  • 1/2 cup coconut oil (melted) or safflower oil, plus more for greasing
  • 1 cup maple sugar
  • 3/4 up raw cacoa powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon sea salt
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla or almond extract
  • 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup thinly sliced almonds or mini chocolate chips
  • Flaky sea salt, for sprinkling

Directions:

  1. Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat oven to 325 degrees F.
  2. Grease an 18x13-inch rimmed baking sheet with coconut oil. (Do not use parchment.)
  3. Mix sugar, cacao powder, and sea salt in large bowl. Pour in coconut oil and stir until smooth.
  4. Add eggs, one at a time, stirring vigorously after each addition until the batter is thick, shiny, and smooth. Stir in the vanilla extract. Stir in flour until no flour streaks remain. Stir in almonds.
  5. Using a rubber spatula or offset spatula, spread the batter into a thin even layer to the edge and into the corners of the prepared baking sheet. (Don't worry if you don't make it all the way to the corners; do your best.) If you'd like, sprinkle some sea salt on top for a salty kick.
  6. Bake brownies until firm to the touch and a tester inserted into the center comes out with moist crumbs but not runny batter attached. This should take between 10-15 minutes. My convection oven needed 12 minutes.
  7. Remove from oven and let cool until set. Cut into squares and serve.
  8. Brownies can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 5 days.

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