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.

Four Little-Known Faces Behind One Big American Icon: The Building of Betty Crocker

97 years ago one of the most famous women in the world was born. She wasn’t a movie star or a political figure or an artistic phenomenon. She wasn’t an athlete or a poet or a musician nor a doctor or a scientist or a spiritualist.  She didn’t even have a face in the beginning – she was just a voice and a pretty, handwritten signature. She called herself Betty and when she signed her name she wrote it out completely… Betty Crocker.

In the 1920’s, Betty came alive as a spokesperson for the Washburn-Crosby Company, a Minnesota-based milling factory that rose to fame for their Gold Medal flour brand.  Betty signed off on letters written into the company asking for baking advice which in turn naturally led to general household advice, quickly establishing herself as an authoritarian presence on all domestic issues.

By the 1930’s, Betty became even more familiar to Americans as her voice was launched into households across the country via the radio. With her program, Gold Medal Home Service Talks (which would eventually be called the Betty Crocker Cooking School of the Air) she discussed various culinary tasks like how to make husband’s favorite dinner or how to whip up homemade lemon pie for 15 people. Here’s a clip from a holiday episode where she features sweet treats that the whole family will enjoy…

Because of her wise words, handwritten signature, and engaging radio personality, everybody believed in Betty. They formed a deep attachment to her as a real champion of the cause for good housekeeping and enjoyable cooking endeavors.

By 1945, Betty became the second most recognized woman in the world trailing just behind Eleanor Roosevelt, and when the  1950’s and 1960’s rolled around Betty was a regular face on television, hosting cooking shows, appearing in commercials and making guest appearances.  To millions of Americans, Betty was a real-life person just like them.

Only she wasn’t.

It was true that in the very beginning Betty was nothing more than a figment of the imagination. A creative marketing concoction whipped up by a Washburn-Crosby executive in order to sell some flour. But behind Betty’s make-believe identity stood some very remarkable real-life women who helped build an authentic character. It was their efforts and their abilities that made Betty the national treasure she became.

Back in the early hand-written signature days, Betty replied to various questions about cracked cake tops, burnt pie crusts, and budget-friendly meal planning.  The real-life woman doling out solutions on behalf of Betty was Marjorie Child Husted, the company’s field rep in home economics. Marjorie established the original writing voice of Betty Crocker… the tone, the phrasing, the kind counsel that made readers feel like Betty truly understood their needs.

Marjorie Child Husted (1892-1986)

Marjorie studied education in college, so she knew how to teach people. She worked as a Red Cross nurse during WWI so she knew how to treat people with an appropriate amount of kindness and compassion and she had experience in business working for a well-known pasta brand before she went to work at Washburn-Crosby, so she knew how to talk to industry consumers.  It was the trifecta of the three T’s – teach, treat and talk – all of which Marjorie creatively instilled in Betty, so that when questions were answered via mail about cracked cake tops it sounded as if Betty herself had experienced a similar issue and had just figured out a crafty yet easy solution to the problem. Soon so many letters with so many questions were coming in daily, Marjorie had to set up a staff of employees to tackle all the correspondence.  America was smitten.

When Betty spoke on the radio, her voice was at first, Marjorie’s voice. But Marjorie had a lot to do – managing the correspondence staff, writing the radio scripts and training workers in Betty’s style of communication. So company home economist and recipe tester Agnes White Tizard stepped in to portray Betty on air and stayed there for 20 years.

Agnes White Tizard portrayed the on-air voice of Betty Crocker for 20 years.

In 1936, celebrated illustrator Neysa McMein gave Betty her first-time face…

The first portrait of Betty Crocker was achieved by combining features of female employees working for General Mills at the time the portrait was commissioned.

From the very beginning, it was decided that Betty was going to be an everywoman – a typical reflection of the values and traditions held in regard by most American women. Betty was friendly and helpful. She was a comforting and reassuring presence in the kitchen and a trusted role model with attainable skills that all women could assimilate if they followed her lead. In order to achieve this everywoman persona visually, Neysa studied the faces of the female employees working at Washburn-Crosby’s newly renamed corporation, General Mills. Combining their features just like you would combine ingredients in a cake, Neysa adapted a little bit of this skin color, a little bit of that eye shape, a pinch of this hairstyle and a smidge of that cheekbone, etc, etc. until the “official” first portrait of Betty Crocker emerged.

Ironically, as the artist commissioned to paint Betty’s portrait, Neysa McMein, was anything but typical. She lived a life far removed from the traditional role that most women possessed in the early years of the 20th century.

She was a bohemian in all ways – changing her name from the practical Marjorie Frances to the exotic Neysa, attending art school,  establishing a sought-after creative career, traveling internationally in support of war efforts and women’s rights, developing friendships that swam in prominent literary circles, and  participating in an open marriage with lovers on the side that included Irving Berlin and Charlie Chaplin.

Samplings of Neysa’s cover art for various women’s magazines.

Neysa was a lively conversationalist, a natural gatherer of people and a free spirit known for hosting fun parties with an eclectic mix of guests in her art studio. She was also one of the most well-regarded female illustrators of her generation, working prolifically for her entire career. Neysa was an “it” girl in the art world while Betty was an “it ” girl on the home front. Together the two made an indelible mark.

For 19 years Neysa’s depiction of Betty loomed large over the General Mills brand and was the image that came to mind when people around the world discussed their culinary pal, Betty Crocker. Outliving Neysa by six years, Betty’s image didn’t get an update until 1955 when she was modified by artist Hilda Grossman Taylor (1891-1967)  to reflect the style, attitude and values of a typical mid-century woman…

This was Betty’s official 1955 portrait. Note that her eye color has changed from brown to blue here – a color that would remain with Betty for all her successive portraits up until the latest one in 1996 where her eye color becomes brown again.

But by the time this new image of Betty was introduced, more people knew the face of Adelaide Hawley Cumming than Betty’s updated portrait. Adelaide played television Betty in commercials, featured guests appearances and as a cooking show host from 1949-1964. Here is Adelaide as Betty in a 1950’s cake mix commercial…

Adelaide came from the Vaudeville singing scene and was a popular radio show host before she became the on-screen presence of Betty Crocker. For 15 years, General Mills kept Adelaide and Betty busy, introducing special cooking segments on popular nighttime comedy shows as well as hosting her own cooking programs, The Betty Crocker Show, Bride and Groom and Betty Crocker Star Matinee.

Adelaide Hawley Cumming (1905-1998)

Originally inspired to be an opera singer, Adelaide worked in broadcasting for 35 years focusing particularly on stories surrounding women’s issues and strong female figures of history. Like Marjorie, Neysa and Agnes, Adelaide was an educated career woman who championed female empowerment and education. After she was let go from General Mills in the mid-1960’s, considered no longer a sophisticated enough image to portray Betty, Adelaide went back to school to teach English as a Second Language and continued that career path up until just days before her death at the age of 93.

What is interesting about these four women and their formation of the character that became the famous Betty Crocker, is that they were all incredible, independent role models in their own right before they had a chance to make their mark on an indelible kitchen icon. By the time the opportunity of building Betty came about, their seasoned professionalism enabled them to mold this fictitious character of Betty Crocker just like a wise mentor guides a young protegee. By securing a valid connection between Betty Crocker and her customers they managed a relationship that lived not only through their present generations but then continued into our present generation today. That’s pretty spectacular!

None of these four women were the typical stay-at-home example of happy housewife and perfect domesticity that Betty represented. They were all career women reaching their own dreams and aspirations independent from family, home and husbands. Marjorie and Agnes added their real-life sense of competence and confidence to the voice of Betty, Neysa lent her glamour and sophistication and Adelaide brought professionalism, conviviality, and validity to a spokesperson who could have easily felt outdated as the years progressed.  Betty herself may have been a fantasy but she was built by real people for real products. In the 1940s, when rumors first started to spread that Betty wasn’t a real person, some people felt hoodwinked by the Betty Crocker brand, but most people didn’t care. They loved Betty for what she represented and for the undisputed help she gave them in the kitchen. It’s not important that Betty wasn’t real.  She was raised by real women and that’s really all that matters.

Cheers to our four ladies, Marjorie, Agnes, Neysa and Adelaide for their efforts in building one of the most prolific brands in the history of the American food industry. And to Betty, who continues what these women started.

Betty Crocker – through the years…beginning in the top left corner with Neysa’s portrait  – 1936, 1955, 1965, 1969. Bottom left…1972, 1980, 1986 and 1996.

Interested in learning more about the recipes of Betty Crocker? Find some of her vintage cookbooks, like this one here, in the shop

The 1972 Edition of Betty Crocker’s world famous Picture Cook Book published in 1950.