Katharine’s Norah’s Cousin’s Irish Soda Bread: From the Kitchen of the Hepburn Household

If you’ve been a long-time reader of the blog, you’ll know what big fans we are of Katharine Hepburn.  Last Fall, we made her famous Lace Cookies. The ones that were in constant request at both her city house and her country house, so much so, that extra batches were kept on hand either freshly baked or on standby in the freezer. Was Katharine always the one baking away? Sometimes. But mostly it was Norah, Katharine’s longtime personal cook, domestic helper and treasured friend.

Norah Considine. Photo from the book At Home With Kate.

Norah Considine worked for Kate for 30 years, day in and day out, making the kind of food that Katharine loved best – simple, hearty and well-balanced. Sometimes though Norah would sneak-in her own recipes, a combination of food from her Irish heritage and dishes that she made up on the fly to feed her five kids. With guests continuously coming and going from the Turtle Bay city townhouse and from Fenwick, the Hepburn family compound in Connecticut, mealtimes were always eventful and Norah was always up to the task to make them as delicious as possble. Cooking for everyone with equal aplomb, making meals that were thoughtfully prepared and proven to please, Norah was accustomed to feeding an ever-evolving crowd that ranged from household staff to famous celebrities. In turn, she became a little bit famous herself, with returning guests regularly requesting her rum cake, or her beef stew, or her creamed chipped beef on toast.

Katharine Hepburn’s townhouse in the Turtle Bay neighborhood of NYC

Even though Kate liked to run a tight ship, she was generous with her friends and her staff. Every year on St. Patrick’s Day, Kate would leave New York City and head to Fenwick, so that Norah could have the townhouse to herself to entertain her friends and family for St. Patrick’s Day. This party was no small gathering, sometimes counting over 100 people or more.  But no matter what the attendance numbers were, large or small,  Kate always wanted Norah to be the star of the show for her special event, so she’d graciously leave in order to give Norah the run of the place.

For a change, Norah would cook for herself and her friends, and she would relax into the traditional celebrations of her heritage day.  At these parties, you didn’t always know who was going to be attending – friends and family flew in, drove in and walked over from all corners of the city, the country, and the world. There were homemade costumes and contests, musicians and dancers and tables full of traditional food and drinks. One of the edibles Norah always made for these parties was her cousin’s Irish Soda Bread, a recipe that traveled all the way from Ireland.

This was the soda bread recipe that was legendary in Norah’s family and in Katharine’s house. It has fed hundreds of people throughout hundreds of parties and like, Kate’s Lace Cookies, it represents wonderful memories and extraordinary experiences.  Not bad for a humble bread born out of lean economic times.  With a consistency somewhere between a fluffy cake and a crumbly cornbread, Norah’s cousin’s Irish Soda Bread is a decadent little treat both sweet and hearty in a satisfyingly nourishing way. One slice makes you understand how it fortified a country for two and half centuries.

Although technically, not really Irish in origin (the Native Americans were the first to come up with the general idea), Ireland has been proclaiming soda bread a national staple since the 1830’s. Because it contains no yeast, an expensive ingredient in times past, soda bread gets its bulk from baking soda which chemically raises the dough when combined with flour and any acidic property like sour milk, buttermilk, or in Norah’s case, sour cream.  Some people even add a touch of orange juice or lemon rind to their soda bread for an extra dose of certainty that the chemical reaction will yield a tall and fluffy loaf.

That are lots of variations on the traditional soda bread recipe, but Norah’s is interesting because it includes caraway seeds and sour cream and just a little bit more butter. Super fast and easy to put together, this recipe only takes about 15 minutes to prepare and bakes to a crunchy, golden brown within an hour. Norah recommended enjoying it warm, just minutes out of the oven, or if you want to wait a bit,  let it cool to room temperature and toast it with a little butter right before you are ready to serve it. The one drawback of Irish soda bread is that it dries out quickly – so if you are not going to serve it the day you make it, then it is best to freeze it and reheat it when the occasion arises.

Not as hard as biscotti and not as dense as cornbread, Irish soda bread lands somewhere in the middle as far as form. It pairs beautifully with any salty meat like ham, sausage or brisket for a savory-sweet combo, and would be marvelous with a soft creamy-textured cheese like Brie or goat cheese.  In an adventurous mood, we might even top a toasted slice with cream cheese and bacon and kale for an interesting brunch option or serve it alongside baked apples or a chopped salad of pear and fig.  In the next couple of months, we’ll be experimenting with Norah’s soda bread recipe, trying out some different food pairings. Once we’ve determined our favorites, we’ll post them here on the blog.

In the meantime, we encourage you to try this delicious holiday bread and look forward to hearing your thoughts on it.

Norah’s Cousin’s Irish Soda Bread

4 cups unbleached flour, plus more for dusting

4 teaspoons baking powder

1 cup granulated sugar

2 cups raisins

4 teaspoons caraway seeds

4 eggs

1 pint sour cream (2 cups)

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 1/2 sticks, salted butter, plus more for pan

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. In a large mixing bowl combine the flour, baking powder, sugar, raisins and caraway seeds.

Roughly chop the butter into the flour mixture and combine to the point that the mixture looks like coarse meal. You can do this with the tines of a fork, a wooden spoon or your own two hands. Set aside.

In a small bowl combine the sour cream, eggs and baking soda.

Mix well and then slowly add the liquid mixture to the dry ingredients…

Mix until combined and until the bread is no longer sticky. You might need to add as much as 1/4 cup extra flour to this process, but be careful not to overmix the dough.

Ideally, you want the dough to be just smooth enough so that you can pick up in your fingers and transfer it to a lightly floured cutting board without it sticking to your hands.

On the board, shape the dough and then transfer it to a greased 2-quart baking pan. Keep in mind – the dough expands to fit its baking container and then rises – so if are using something other than a 2-quart dish – just be aware that it will grow in size.

Bake for 1 hour. Cool on a wire rack for a few minutes before removing from the pan and slicing.

However you choose to spend St. Patrick’s Day, whether it be at a big house party like Norah’s, or at a simple celebratory supper for a few (much more Kate Hepburn style) we hope you have a wonderful holiday full of good food, good friends, and good spirits!

Cheers to Kate and to Norah and to Norah’s cousin, whose family recipe has traveled across countries and continents and kitchens and time. Happy St. Patrick’s Day with much love from In The Vintage Kitchen.

That’s Norah (wearing the polka dot blouse) in the midst of her St. Patrick’s Day merrymaking.

Reading While Eating: Nine Favorite Books from 2017

Paris, family, food writing and strong women. Complicated relationships, historical drama, and artistic personalities. That’s the scope of what we loved best in the reading department in 2017.  This past year, we explored an old city with new eyes thanks to David, Janice, Julia and Jessie. We soul searched with India and Diane, cooked with Clementine and Norah, climbed the symbolic lime tree and walked through the literal golden house.

Every year, we keep track of what we read and watch so that we can share our best-of list here on the blog in the hopes that you’ll discover something new yourself. They aren’t all necessarily new books or movies that came out this year, but they all are things that were newly introduced to us within the past 12 months and they follow a common theme of history in some form or another. The oldest one in this batch dates to the 1940’s (Clementine in the Kitchen) but remains as fresh and engaging as this morning’s breakfast.  The youngest in the batch was published just three months ago (The Golden House) but reads like an old-fashioned classic.

Let’s look…

1. Mrs. Bridge – Evan S. Connell (1959)

If you have ever wondered what the everyday inner workings of a mid-century suburban American house were like then you will love Mrs. Bridge. Told in brief vignettes, it is the story of India Bridge… wife… mother… mid-westerner… who is wanting and watching for something more, anything more, extraordinary to happen to her static, routine life.  In-between family meals, housecleaning, entertaining and her own thinly executed attempts to make life interesting, India shares her thoughts on all the details that make up her society prescribed and approved life.  No moment goes unnoticed from how she sets her table, wears her gloves, communicates with her friends, chooses her clothing and handles her family. It is an intimate look into the mind of a woman processing the boundaries of a life selected for her but necessarily by her. We loved it because it is peppered with familiar 1940s/50’s decorating trends and brand references that we come in contact with a lot in the Vintage Kitchen and because India is an interesting character – conforming whole-heartedly to her boxed-in life while questioning a large lot of it.

2. The Woman I Wanted To Be – Diane Von Furstenberg (2015)

Diane Von Furstenberg invented the wrap dress in the 1970’s which launched her into iconic status in the fashion industry because it is the dress, the only dress, that looks flattering on any and every female body shape regardless of height, weight, age or ethnicity. But before Diane became famous in the American fashion industry she was an everywoman, born in Belgium with artistic interests and a desire to build an authentic life. She didn’t know what she wanted to do or how to go about doing it, so she followed intuition, using her natural abilities and talents, likes and dislikes as a guide to figure out her skillset and herself.   She didn’t always get things right but every experience, good or bad led to fine-tuning and deeper understanding.

Diane (center) in 1976 in wearing her famous wrap dress.

The Woman I Wanted To Be spans seven decades of her life but pays particular attention to the years she struggled to define herself – the years before she designed the famous dress and the years after she designed the famous dress. She talks about how lifestyle choices and personal circumstances led to the actual physical creation of her famous piece of clothing, she talks about launching an American business as a foreign woman, she talks about the emptiness she felt as a creative artist following the success of the dress and she talks about being true to herself in an industry that prefers cookie-cutter beauty and constant re-invention.

3. A Paris Year – Janice Macleod (2017)

Newly arrived… A Paris Year

You can never have too much Paris or too much Janice. In her second book about the beautiful city, writer and painter Janice MacLeod takes us on a daily artistic tour of everything that makes Paris perfect from the food to the culture to the climate. Not unlike Diane Von Furstenberg, Janice followed her own inklings of intuition by leaving her unfulfilling corporate life in California and moving to Paris solely based on the hunch that she just might love it. That was the subject of her first book Paris Letters, which details how she made the big move step-by-step. The follow-up, A Paris Year shows us in pictures and words how rewarding that big move proved to be.  In June,  we wrote an in-depth post about the book, including pictures and artwork from the book.  If you are new to the blog, catch up on that post here.

4. A Taste of Paris – David Downie (2017)

Author David Downie wrote a whole entire book about the history of food in France. We featured his phenomenal work here.

We were on a real Paris kick this past year and were lucky enough to be able to review two books about the great city. After reading A Taste of Paris, we were completely blown away by its scope of content and enormous subject matter – the history of food in Paris. Such a noble undertaking! David Downie has an incredible ability to boil this big subject down into an interesting and engaging timeline that will keep you captivated from beginning to end.  Covering the cuisine, the culture and the characters that have contributed to the French food scene since the very beginning, reading this book felt like taking a master history class peppered with fascinating foodie fun facts.  Last September, we discussed our favorite parts of the book. If you missed that post, catch up here.

5. The Golden House – Salman Rushdie (2017)

We aren’t quite finished with this book yet – but we loved it so much we included it here because it is a marvelous treat for any fiction lover. Centering around a New York City neighborhood and the arrival of a mysterious foreign family – Nero Golden and his three grown sons – The Golden House begins with the neighbors’ speculation on all aspects of the newcomers’ lives.  Salman’s writing style is in incredible, particularly the way in which he describes his characters…

“He dressed expensively but there was a loud, animal quality to him which made one think of the Beast of folktale, uneasy in human finery.”

Some critics have compared the character of Nero Golden to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby as a misunderstood modern day man attempting to reinvent himself in a new environment. We’ll come back to this thought once we finish, but in the meantime, if you have a few days off and want to dive into a meaty read, beautifully told and full of layered storylines and fresh characters than this is the book for you. You’ll be enthralled from the first page, we promise!

6. Lime Tree Can’t Bear Orange – Amanda Smyth (2009)

In part due to its gorgeous title and exotic tropical setting (the Caribbean island of Tobago), Lime Tree Can’t Bear Orange is the fictional story of Celia and her entanglement with three men each of whom dramatically alter the course of her life. Poetic, lyrical and lush in detail, Amanda Smyth blends together seductive elements of nature writing with romantic storytelling for a perfect mid-winter read that will make you feel like you’ve visited the Caribbean without ever leaving home. Similiar to Love In The Time of Cholera, it is packed full of symbolism and romantic themes, so if you like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, you’ll enjoy Amanda Smyth as well.

7. Clementine In The Kitchen – Samuel Chamberlain (1943)

First published in 1943 under the pen name Phineas Beck, Clementine in the Kitchen tells the true story of the Chamberlain family’s French cook, Clementine, whom the family first meets while living in a small village just outside of Paris. When the Chamberlain’s get transferred to Massachusetts, Clementine is invited to move with them – a big decision for the petite woman who has never left her birthplace. Clementine is a natural in the kitchen in France and the family cannot help but rave about her cuisine to everyone they know. In America though, she is a fish out of water, not understanding the language or the shopping style of her new country. Ingredients are different, convenience foods are popular and daily outdoor market shopping is replaced with weekly trips to that strange place called the indoor supermarket.

How does Clementine cope with all this change? We don’t want to spoil it for you, so you have to read it to find out.  But what we can say is that this book is funny and charming and filled with recipes. The surprise ending, cinematic storyline and ever engaging character of Clementine makes it seem like a perfect candidate for movie adaptation and it offers the added benefit of learning some of the basics of French cooking.  All around an engaging and highly original read that we thoroughly enjoyed. Later this year, we will be featuring a few recipes from this book, so stay tuned.

8. Bon Appetit – Jessie Hartland (2012)

Joie de vivre is a term often associated with the French culture that defines their eternal zest and enthusiasm for life. If ever a book captured that phrase, it would be this one, Bon Appetit by Jessie Hartland. At first glance, you’ll think this is a kids book meant just for the enjoyment of little ones. But don’t be fooled. It is wonderfully inspiring and whimsical for adults as well. Detailing the entire life story of Julia Child in just 45 pages of colorful illustrations and clever text, Jessie Hartland has managed to capture the enigmatic and infectious personality of America’s best-loved cook. You’ll read the whole thing in a jiffy but its infectious positivity will stick with you forever.

9. At Home With Kate – Eileen Considine-Meara (2007)

Norah Considine was Katharine Hepburn’s cook, friend and all around helper for 30 years. At Home with Kate shares, the intimate details of day-to-day life in Kate’s household as Norah prepared meals and planned parties in both her NYC residence and the Hepburn family compound in Connecticut during the last three decades of Kate’s life. Written by Norah’s daughter, Eileen, who first met Kate when she was a teenager helping her mom serve meals during Kate’s dinner parties,  At Home with Kate is an entertaining conglomeration of memoir, biographical sketch and thoughtful retrospection on three women who shared an extraordinary experience.

Norah with her celebrity crush – Robert Wagner, taken in the kitchen of Kate’s Manhattan townhouse. Photo from At Home with Kate by Eileen Considine-Meara.

For all the glamour, independence and mystery surrounding the Old Hollywood film star, Eileen shows us that Katharine Hepburn, in real-life, was a thrifty homebody with a taste for simple foods and quiet dinner parties. We loved that it contained a handful of Kate’s recipes along with the memories too. It was interesting to see that the dishes Kate enjoyed most reflected her unfussy philosophy towards food – meatloaf, brownies, stew, rum cake, steak and a variety of soups.  And it was interesting to learn that it wasn’t all about cooking for Norah – her responsibilities ran the gamut as far as tasks required of her (errands, gardening, cleaning and on-loan cook for some of Kate’s friends, as well) all while Norah was raising five kids of her own and working a minimum of 10 hours a day at Kate’s. In October, we featured Kate’s famous lace cookies, the recipe most often requested by house guests and always kept in constant supply in Kate’s kitchen. Find that recipe here.

Each of the books we listed above have nourished us in one way or another whether it be through imagination, introspection or edibles. Hope our reading while eating selections prove to be equally engaging for you as well. If you have discovered some new favorite books from last year too, please share them with us in the comments section below. We are always on the lookout for something fun to read.

In the meantime, cheers to cozy winter days and culinary creativity!