Cookbook topics are born in so many ways. For Shirley Fan, author of The Flying Brownie, it was musing about what to send her nephew for his birthday that got her thinking about care packages. The book is dedicated to recipes that taste as great the moment they come out of the oven as they are when they arrive at their destination, perhaps thousands of miles away. With fall fast approaching and the kids away at school, we thought this was a perfect time to revitalize our care package techniques. Shirley brings an interesting angle to her work – she is both a culinary school graduate as well as a Registered Dietician. We sat down with her to talk about mailing baked goods and her work with food in general.
Bakepedia: Shirley, thank you so much for participating in our Bakepedia Q&A. We can’t wait to chat because you have covered a topic near and dear to our heart – sending food to loved ones!
Shirley Fan: My pleasure, Dede. No one had ever done a book on care packages, which I felt was a topic that should be covered.
When people ask what you do, how do you answer?
Primarily I am a freelance writer, but people don’t understand what I do at all. I write about food and nutrition, I develop recipes, I often develop healthy recipes or lighten up existing ones. Most of the time, I think about what my next project is, and I co-write books as well, mostly within the healthy eating realm. I love co-authoring and I can be very helpful to people who are doing health-related books, since I have both culinary school training as well as being a Registered Dietician.
Where did you go to culinary school?
ICE (Institute of Culinary Education in NYC). In fact, Anne Burell of the Food Network was one of my teachers – this was way before she was a star on the network. I was in college and wanted to go to culinary school but my parents wanted me to finish and “get a real job.” So after college, I worked for CCAP (Ed. Note: The Careers through Culinary Arts Program, which works with underserved high school students for college and career opportunities in the restaurant and hospitality industry) after which I moved to the Food Network working as a producer for the website during the day and going to culinary school at night. Then I completed the circle and went back to school full-time and got my masters in nutrition and my RD license. I’ve had many connections to the Food Network, actually. After I got my degree, I worked behind the scenes with Ellie Krieger on her show, among others, checking for nutritional accuracy, working on recipes, but I also worked for them outside of the nutrition angle. I was also on the team that launched the Food Network magazine.
What is your favorite part of what you do?
Definitely developing recipes. I love thinking about ways to improve something, about how to make it better. I also think about how I can create something so that I will like it! I can spend hours in the supermarket looking at what’s new. Literally, I can spend hours just looking. Inspiration can come from anywhere.
How are you inspired to create recipes?
Definitely by the seasons, what I feel like eating, or I will see a fresh ripe peach at the market. First I see it, then smell it; it draws me in. Sometimes it is what I am reading, so if I’m reading Harry Potter and they mention a candy bar I might start thinking about developing one. What would I want in it? How should it taste? Movies, TV – it’s a lot of what’s around me, whatever the moment brings.
Do you have a moment, event or recipe from your career of which you are most proud?
I have to say the Cherry Crumble Bar in The Flying Brownie; that’s my favorite. I was pregnant when I developed the recipe and the contrast of flavors and textures just spoke to me. It’s an oatmeal cookie crust covered with cherry jam and more crust on top; it’s crispy deliciousness! There’s a tartness and the hint of almond extract, which brings out the cherry flavor and the buttery-ness of the crust. It sings to me! And then, after I had my baby, I still loved it and still do! Love. It.
What are the three most important things that you think the home baker should know?
1. Use an oven thermometer! Ovens can be so temperamental and are often off, but people don’t realize this. I always use one because an accurate temperature makes a huge difference in how your recipes turn out.
2. Always read through a recipe first to make sure you have the ingredients called for. Nothing worse than having to run to the store halfway through, or realizing you had to freeze your ice cream canister overnight first!
3. Gather together everything before you begin baking. In cooking school we are taught about mise en place, which simply means to have everything ready to go. Make sure you have what you need, so you aren’t caught off guard.
The Flying Brownie was your first book. How did it come about?
I was sitting around thinking about my nephew’s birthday. What would he like? What should I send him? And then it occurred to me to send him a care package of baked goods. He loves sweets, so it seemed perfect. I had been co-authoring and my agent (Sharon Bowers) had been asking me for an idea for a book of my own. I pitched the idea to her and she said well, it’s a niche idea, but let’s shop it around! Dan Rosenberg from Harvard Common Press loved it and then it all came together.
What did you put in that first care package?
Oh, cookies and brownies and I threw in toys; it was great but I did learn that there was much more to learn about packaging. I should have known because I had gone to boarding school, so I was familiar with care packages. Students would get them all the time and you would see what other people got, then they would share and you would get to taste all these different homemade treats. I got a lot of inspiration from there.
What are your three top tips for care packages?
1. Choose the recipes carefully! A good recipe is one that is sturdy and won’t spoil very quickly. They must be able to withstand the rigors of shipping. Pay attention to shelf life. You want something that can keep for a week – baking day to delivery day – without refrigeration.
2. Think about your container. It should be large enough so that the inner tins or boxes have 2 inches of space all the way around from the outer box and also from one another, if you have packed multiple items. As far as what is insulating the small inner packages, I sometimes use crumbled newspaper or packing peanuts, even clothes (which can be part of the care package). I don’t recommend using actual popcorn, as it can become heavy and also attract vermin. I often shop sales at places like The Container Store and stock up on pretty but functional packaging for future use.
3. The method of shipping is very important. Use the quickest method you can afford. Bake in the morning, cool, pack and ship that same day.
Do you like to package each baked item separately?
Oh yes! A brownie in one container, cookies in another. Be cautious, because if you package different items together you will get a transfer of flavor and believe me, you don’t want your peppermint items and gingerbread items to co-mingle! Sometimes I will even individually wrap items for really special occasions.
Was there an item that worked out well for shipping that surprised you?
Yes, I was surprised I could ship kale chips. They are so brittle and crunchy and fragile, but they worked! I placed them in a container, then gently shook the container to make sure they didn’t move around within the packaging very much. It is as important not to under-pack as it is not to over-pack. That goes for anything you are shipping.
Tell us about some of the savory items in the book.
A sriracha party mix is a favorite, the kale chips as I mentioned and several nut mixes. There’s a nut recipe with Old Bay seasoning that I just love. I like to mix sweet and savory items in the same care package for variety.
Tell us about what you are doing currently.
I am co-writing another book that I cannot really disclose yet, and then there is a healthy pregnancy cookbook called Full Belly.
What do you hope to do next?
I like co-writing books because there are always so many different topics. I thrive on having new projects. It’s completely different from having a full-time office job where you have the same thing to do over and over again. My freelancing allows me to pursue the development of new ideas. I like being on my toes!
Shirley, thank you so much for your time. We have a whole new outlook on creating care packages and friends and loved-ones are going to have you to thank.
Well, thank you! And I know you are going to love that Cherry Crumble Bar.