Tuesday, July 22, 2008

26. Katharine Hepburn's Brownies (p. 688)

Legend has it that the infamous gossip columnist , Liz Smith, wrestled this brownie recipe from Katharine Hepburn, the irascible star of two of my favorite films, Desk Set and The African Queen. The Book's version of the recipe comes from food writer Laurie Colwin, who got it from a friend. Apparently, the brownies are a (formerly) secret Hepburn family recipe.

But, the recipe is not without controversy. Not long after Ms. Hepburn passed away in June 2003, a flurry of spirited letters to the editor about the recipe appeared in the pages of The New York Times.

The first was Heather Henderson's fond memories of Ms. Hepburn (who was a neighbor) giving her a stern lecture (over tea and brownies) about staying in school. Henderson included a version of this recipe in her letter. Frederick M. Winship wrote to the Times to protest Henderson's inclusion of cocoa(!) instead of chocolate in the recipe. He wrote that Ms. Hepburn "would never have substituted an ingredient as anemic as cocoa for real, unadulterated chocolate." Winship claimed that Ms. Hepburn gave the real recipe (which is identical to the one in The Book) to his wife when the two women acted together. Henderson defended herself with a response to Winship's letter. She claims that she and her father specifically discussed the cocoa/chocolate issue with Ms. Hepburn herself, and the actress agreed that it didn't make any difference. The key to the recipe, Henderson explains, is the small amount of flour, just a 1/4 cup, which produces the fudgy, chewy texture.

Well, whatever the actual source and formula of the recipe, it's beyond dispute that that the brownies are great. They couldn't be easier to make. You start by melting two ounces of unsweetened chocolate (or cocoa if you're in Henderson's camp) and a stick of butter together in a saucepan. Then you take it off the heat and beat in the sugar, eggs and vanilla. Stir in the flour. Finally fold in the chopped walnuts. (The Book says that they're optional, but brownies aren't brownies without nuts.) The best thing about this batter is that you can make it right in the pan. No mixing bowls to clean! Pour it all into a buttered, floured baking pan and cook until a toothpick comes out clean.

These are the quintessential brownies. Nothing special or fancy, no gimmicks. Just pure, rich and fudgy flavor with the chewey texture and that papery-thin, crackled top that all great brownies have. I will never, ever make brownies from a box again!

Just like Katharine Hepburn herself, these brownies are a timeless classic.

Date Cooked: July 19, 2008
Degree of Difficulty: Easy
Rating: A

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