Katharine Hepburn’s Brownies

I come from a long line of movie buffs. I mean hard core movie lovers from way back.  I went to the movies every Sunday with my Aunt Marge all the years starting from about age 6 growing up in northern New Jersey. My aunt had all the old Dell Publishing Modern Screen and Photoplay movie magazines from the 1930s on up, as well as books written by the movie stars about their lives. Aunt Marge kept the scandalous biographies on the top closet shelf, but I found them. The one about Errol Flynn was the most contraband. I spent many a night pouring over those magazines cover to cover. On the last page, a list of the actors home addresses and phone numbers was included. A far cry from today’s celebrity info. I adored the stars of the 1930s and 40s, like so many people.  The movies had a distinctive character that is just not how movies are anymore.

I loved Katharine Hepburn.  My sister and I used to walk around the house chanting “the calla lilies are in bloom again, dah-ling,” with her characteristic aristocratic accent, a line from one of her earliest films.  I was mesmerized by the movie, The Little Minister, written by the same author who wrote Peter Pan.  Kate was Babbie, the rich girl skulking around in a thick forest masquerading in an over sized paisley gypsy shawl I still buy every time I see one just like it.  As Eleanor of Aquitane in The Lion In Winter, she was bathed in the contradictory pathos of a woman scorned. This was the first role she played after the death of Spencer Tracy. She did it to keep busy.

the love of her life

Kate was the woman who first wore slacks with her short mink coat; a close-to-scandal at the time.  I absolutely adored her when I found out she never squandered her money on expensive jewelry and homes after making it in Hollywood; she kept her first car “just in case her fame didn’t last so she wouldn’t lose it.”  She was the woman many feminists modeled themselves after: self-reliant, independent, honest, opinionated, capable, energetic, intellectual, generous, creatively selfish, and loving all wrapped up into one tall thin tomboy package. She wasn’t classically beautiful, although as I have gotten older, she has gotten more beautiful in my eyes.

Kate obviously didn’t have time for cooking, but kept the same cook/companion for decades (now they are called private home chefs).  Her handed-down family recipe for brownies is somewhat infamous by now.  They are never referred to by any name like Chewy Chocolate Brownies, New England Brownies, One-Bowl Brownies, or Favorite Fudge Brownies; just plain ol’ Katharine Hepburn’s Brownies.  It first appeared in print during the late 1960s mentioned during an interview with the actress.  Over the decades, it has been printed in everything from a woman’s magazines like an August 1975 interview in Ladies’ Home Journal to Gourmet because the charming, now also gone, food writer Laurie Colwin also loved them.

a rare photo of Kate in her homey, marvelously cluttered Connecticut kitchen with her vintage range. This was her family home right on the ocean and her weekend house.

I obtained my copy in the early 1990s from my dessert making buddy Rosmarie, who is a confirmed chocoholic and swears by these brownies. Even timid bakers are successful with this recipe, as brownies from scratch can be fussy. We started making them with plain old Baker’s unsweetened chocolate, which I suspect is the brand originally used in the Hepburn household in Connecticut.  But with all the nice chocolate out today, an artisan brand unsweetened would really give a nice flavor.  This

The former home of Katharine Hepburn at the mouth of the Connecticut River in the Borough of Fenwick in Old Saybrook. Arnold Gold/New Haven Register

original version has walnuts, but you can leave them out if you like plain brownies. My contribution is that you can substitute the all-purpose wheat flour with alternative flours since the proportion is so small. The texture will be slightly different, but still wonderful. I love desserts to eat out of the pan, which you can do with these. They are good with a bowl of sliced strawberries, fruit cocktail, or ice cream.

In the words of Laurie Colwin, “If there were no other reason to admire Katharine Hepburn, this pan of brownies would be enough to make you worship her.” I most certainly agree; they are as elegant, yet no nonsense, as the lady herself.

Katharine Hepburn’s Brownies

moist and chewy with a crackly crust


  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) butter (I’m sure Kate used salted)
  • Two 1-ounce squares unsweetened chocolate
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/4 cup all-purpose flour, white spelt flour, white whole wheat, whole wheat pastry flour, or GF baking mix
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup chopped walnuts (optional)


Preheat the oven to 325º (300º for a Pyrex pan).  Butter the bottom and sides of an 8-inch square pan.

dressed up for gift giving

In the top of a double boiler over simmering water, melt the butter and chocolate.  When melted, take off the heat and cool a little bit.

With a wooden spoon, stir in the sugar, eggs, and vanilla; beat well until nice and smooth.  Stir in the flour and salt, then the walnuts; do not overbeat.

With a spatula, scrape the batter into the prepared pan and bake about 40 minutes, until firm around the edges but still soft and slightly undercooked in the center.  Don’t over bake or they will be too dry at eatin’ time.

Cool on a rack, then cut into squares served casually out of the pan or removed to a fancier serving plate.  Eat with your hands in memory of a great actress.  Makes one 8-inch pan.

Recipe and text copyright Beth Hensperger 2012

Please enjoy the recipe and make it your own. If you copy the recipe and text for internet use, please include my byline and link to my site.