Breakfast with Bette Davis and the Famous Three Minute Egg

You could assume a lot of things about Bette Davis. Perhaps you’ve watched her movies (all 100+ of them) and you know her characters… smart, complicated, dramatic… and you think, personally, she must have been like that too. Or maybe you’ve read her books and know that her life hasn’t always been charming or easy, and you might think she bravely dealt with a lot of disappointment. Or perhaps you’ve seen her past interviews on television or youtube and witnessed how funny and polished and magnetic she was even in the off hours of her professional life.

All those instances might lead you to assume things about Bette, making you define her as one thing more than another – brassy, smart, privileged, funny, vulnerable, demanding, narcissistic, intense, wise, melodramatic, sincere, even terrifying.  Thanks to Kathryn Sermak’s new book, Miss D & Me, we can put our assumptions aside and know first-hand that Bette was a little bit of all those things. And so much more.

It is always fascinating to me to read about the behind-the-scenes lives of people in the public eye. Especially those stories shared by people who worked closely with a celebrity on a daily, detailed basis. Mostly because it breaks down the perception barrier of thinking that famous lives are so much more different than our own. That somehow fame and notoriety have morphed them into other-worldly figures washed clean from weakness and frailties. We generally only get to see one side of a famous person’s life depending on which part the media chooses to focus on, but with behind-the-scenes stories, you are offered a glimpse into a much more diverse landscape than any two-minute news clip or ten-minute interview could provide.

Ordinary people that work alongside extraordinary people are witness to the three-dimensional side of stardom  – all the good and all the bad wrapped up in one experience.  Like the relationship between Katharine Hepburn and her cook Norah, or Frank Sinatra and his valet George Jacobs or Madonna and her brother Christopher we are offered the chance to understand that the lives of these seemingly mythical creatures are really just fellow human beings, both flawed and fabulous.

When Kathryn Sermak first came to work as Bette’s assistant in 1979, Kathryn was a young, carefree Californian who spelled her name the classic way – Catherine – and had just newly spelled out a dream of one day living in France. Bette was in her 70’s, still working and very much set in her ways. Kathryn thought she was taking a simple summer job that would enable her to fund her way to France – not even really aware of who Bette Davis actually was. In turn, Bette thought she was getting a competent, sophisticated assistant in Kathryn whom would be both professional and perfunctory. Both were in for a very big surprise.

In the early, uncertain days, Kathryn didn’t expect to eventually count Bette as one of her best friends and Bette absolutely never entertained the idea that Kathryn would become like a daughter to her. At first, everything was wrong for both women. On Bette’s side, Kathryn was not enough – she wasn’t cultured, she wasn’t able to anticipate needs, she wasn’t sophisticated, nor groomed for the level of lifestyle that Bette had grown into. On Kathryn’s side Bette was too much… too demanding, too overbearing and too controlling. Both thought they would never last the first week together.

The turn in their relationship from bad to better came down to one simple little thing – an egg. Bette’s breakfast most always consisted of a three-minute egg. The proper cooking of it was her litmus test as to the value of any good assistant’s worth. There’s not much to cooking a three-minute egg. It involves a pan of boiling water, an egg still in its shell and three minutes of simmering.   But Bette added a twist to this simple test. How do you cook a three-minute egg in a hotel room with no stove, no pots and pans and no kitchen? Perplexed, Kathryn had no idea until Bette motioned to the in-room coffee pot. Then hot water was brewed. The egg was placed in the glass coffee carafe and the time was monitored on a wristwatch for 3 minutes exactly. In this small test of skill, it wasn’t that Kathryn failed to quickly and cleverly assess the options of impromptu cooking in a kitchenless room, but instead, it was the trainability of her actions that caught Bette’s attention.

That was the beauty of their relationship and the bud that ultimately bonded them together. The fact that Kathryn was young, fresh and naive while Bette was experienced, opinionated and worldly proved a combination of character traits that formed a tight friendship that lasted the rest of Bette’s life. It wasn’t always easy for these two women learning about life and each other day by day, but by the end the experience was invaluable.

There were outlandish moments, like when Bette insisted Kathryn change the spelling of her name from Catherine to Kathryn so that she would be more memorable (which she did!). There were all the lessons Kathryn had to endure… etiquette, elocution, table manners,  how to walk properly, how to dress effectively, how to eat with decorum and how to hold court at a table full of strangers.

There were awkward moments, when Bette’s insistence on how to appropriately handle certain social situations was so outdated, that Kathryn would bear the brunt of the embarrassment.   This was especially apparent when Bette insisted on dressing Kathryn for a formal dance in Washington DC complete with fur coat, gloves, a designer dress, expensive jewelry and dance lessons only for Kathryn to encounter a room full of denim-clad twenty-somethings casually hanging out in a dance hall.

There were the vulnerable moments when Bette crumpled up in the face of public humiliation as her daughter wrote an unflattering tell-all book, or when Bette threw off her wig in the car one day and embarked on a temper tantrum that was heartbreakingly child-like.  There was oodles of advice about men and relationships and sticking up for oneself in the face of adversity. And there were the laughs and the conversations and the sweet letters that Bette would write to Kathryn expressing all the appreciation she felt for her darling assistant and her close friend. There were silent treatments and long work days, elegant cocktail hours and thoughtful gifts, tears and tenacity, laughter and luxury. There was life, with all its good and all its bad.

And there were eggs – lots of eggs. Bette and Kathryn traveled the world together and ate at many fine restaurants, but the food Bette would choose to make for herself or her family on days off was simple fare that harkened back to her New England roots. Homemade burgers, cucumber salad, cornish game hen, wine spritzers, clam bakes, fresh berries with cold cream… those are the foods that she liked to make. For this post, our breakfast menu inspired by Bette Davis includes the following:

A Bette Davis inspired breakfast!

It’s a simple menu symbolizing all that was Bette Davis – sweet, salty, fresh, traditional, colorful, warm, cool and classic. It takes just a few minutes to make and is so easy it doesn’t even require detailed instruction. Simply boil an egg for 3 minutes.  Slice some homemade bread and slather it with jam.  Bake a potato in the oven for an hour and then finely chop it up with some scallions and salt and pepper and add the mix to a pan with some olive oil and let it cook until it turns brown and crusty. Adorn the plate with fresh fruit. Tah-dah! Breakfast, Bette Davis style, is ready!

Kathryn would be the first person to tell you that life with Bette was extraordinary for her last ten years. That the talented movie star was never far from the actual woman. That there was a glamorous side to her, a practical side, a petulant side and a vulnerable side that made her interesting and unique and ultimately endearing. That she was far from perfect but perfectly real.

“That’s me: an old kazoo with some sparklers, ” Bette once said.

The many faces of Bette Davis throughout her 55-year career.

Cheers to Bette for tackling life head-on,  with grace and style and fortitude and being 100% unique about the whole affair until the very end. Cheers to Kathryn to giving us a very real look into the life of real woman and cheers to three-minute eggs – a new breakfast favorite here in the Vintage Kitchen!

This post is part of a blogathon hosted by In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood featuring the life and film Career of Bette Davis. Read more about this incredible woman and her work in a variety of posts contributed by a dozen different film bloggers here. 

Find the vintage cookbooks that contributed recipes to this post in the shop here.

Find the recipe for homemade brown bread from a previous post here.

Find out more about Kathryn Sermack and her book, Miss D & Me here.

New England Style: Three Vintage Bread Recipes You’ll FALL in Love With

bread2

Now that Autumn is here and the temperatures are cooling and the holidays are coming in close, there is nothing that trumpets the start of the cozy Fall season more than baking homemade bread. This week in the vintage kitchen we are exploring three different types of bread – one quick bread, one muffin recipe and one sandwich bread, all tackled the old-fashioned way. Meaning without a bread machine or any fancy paddling mixers.

Inspiration begins back in the late 1960’s when food writer and cookbook author June Platt was living here…

littlecompton-ri

in the picturesque seaside town of Little Compton, Rhode Island. Tasked with writing a reigional cookbook made up wholly of New England fare, June compiled a list of over 250 recipes that represented the belly and bounty of diverse Northern appetites.

Her recipes were published in 1971 under the title June Platt’s New England Cook Book…

June Platt's New England Cook Book

and contained recipes both historic and modern for all meals of the day including cocktail hour, appetizers, party fare, preserves, homemade wine and the infamous bread featured here in this post. Let’s look at what’s in the oven…

BREAD No. 1

If you are anything like Ms. Jeannie, you find sandwich bread making a bit of a challenge. Usually when Ms. Jeannie attempts such creations her bread comes out weighing 18 pounds and has both the texture and composition of packed clay. Right when the oven door opens and the weighty wonder gets hoisted onto the cooling rack, she knows instantly  that she’ll need not a bread knife but a handsaw to cut into such a terrible beauty of an endeavor.

But things have changed dear readers. Ms. Jeannie can no longer say that baking is dreadful and that light, fluffy sandwich bread eludes her. Thanks to June Platt she has found her perfect sandwich bread. Easy to make, simple to bake.  Success at last! Although it is is yeast bread and therefore takes some hours to fully prepare from start to slice, it is WELL worth it and very simple. You’ll never want to eat any other bread again.

Brown Bread

Like New Englanders themselves, this bread is humble, hardy and versatile. According to June Platt, legend has it that this recipe stemmed from a farmer who was so fed up with his wife’s terrible cooking that he took to the kitchen himself keen on preparing something (anything!) edible. As  Louisa May Alcott (a fellow New Englander) said necessity is the mother of all invention, and so Farmer made his bread and named it after his wife Ana and her (damnable) cooking talents…

Anadama Bread

(makes 2 loaves)

1/2 cup white stone ground cornmeal

2 cups boiling water

3 tablespoons butter

1/2 cup dark molasses

1 rounded teaspoon salt

1 yeast cake dissolved in 1/2 cup warm water

4 cups flour* (see note)

  1. Stir cornmeal very slowly into boiling water, using a wooden spoon.
  2. When thoroughly mixed add the butter, molasses and salt. Try to work out any lumps by flattening them out with the back of the wooden spoon against the side of the bowl or pan.
  3. Cool to lukewarm.
  4. Add the yeast dissolved in the warm water.
  5. Add the flour, one cup at a time, stirring with the wooden spoon, to make smooth dough.
  6. Place on a lightly floured board or canvas and knead well.
  7. Place dough in a well-buttered bowl and cover with a cloth wrung out in hot water.
  8. Allow to rise in a warm place, free from drafts, until more than double its original bulk (or for about 2.5 hours).
  9. Preheat oven to 400 degrees , and butter two 9″inch bread pans.
  10. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured board again, knead lightly and shape into two loaves.
  11. Place dough in the buttered pans , cover with a towel wrung out in hot water , and allow to rise again until doubled in bulk (about one hour).
  12. Place the loaves in the pre-heated oven and bake until they are a deep golden brown (about 45-50 minutes).
  13. Place on a wire rake to cool before removing loaves from pans.

This a fun recipe to work on while you have a whole home day planned. Because it does take some time you may want to double up on the recipe and make four loaves of bread so you can stick some in the freezer for later use.

*Ms. Jeannie followed this recipe and the steps exactly with the exception of the flour. She used 2 cups all purpose flour and two cups of cake flour which is little bit lighter in texture.  This combo may have aided in a slightly fluffier loaf.

Moist, flavorful, easily sliced (no handsaw required!) this sandwich bread is perfect for everyday use in the versatile sandwich department. Hopefully it will become a household staple in your kitchen, like it now is in the land of Ms. Jeannie.

*** Update 10/26/2016***

Another batch of bread was made this time using all-purpose flour (in place of cake flour) and olive oil (in place of butter) and it came out equally as wonderful and delicious. The all-purpose flour makes it the tiniest tiny bit more dense but other than that there are no noticeable differences in either taste or texture, which leads Ms. Jeannie to believe that this just might be the most versatile and easily experimental bread recipe ever. Next time, she’ll try it with a sprinkling of nuts, seeds and/or whole grains to see what happens. Stay tuned on that front or experiment yourself and let Ms. Jeannie know how it all turned out in the comments section below.

BREAD No. 2

Fruit and nut breads are always an instant favorite and an easy go-to for busy morning breakfasts. Ms. Jeannie never passes on homemade banana or berry breads and likes to experiment herself with different flavor combos when it comes to quick breads.  Since we are in the middle of nut season, June Platt’s vintage recipe for Cranberry-Orange-Walnut Bread sounded wonderfully delicious and in-season. Only there was one slight problem. Cranberries.

Ms. Jeannie scoured high and low, store to market to store again. There were no cranberries to be had anywhere in her fair city, fresh frozen or otherwise. A bit too early for Thanksgiving relish season, perhaps, New Englanders must have made this bread in the colder mornings of November instead of October.  Out of season, but not out of spirit Ms. Jeannie substituted. And then substituted again. Dried sour cherries replaced fresh cranberries and almonds replaced walnuts.

Cherries seemed fitting on the historic side – George Washington was a fan after all. On the flavor side they are sweet yet tart like a cranberry and the dried version seemed like the next best thing. Just be sure when preparing this recipe you look for pitted sour cherries. Ms. Jeannie found her cherries at the international market inside her local farmers market and they were not pitted. That added a sticky extra 30 minutes in the prep department.

cherry1

Sour Cherry – Orange – Almond Bread

(makes 1 loaf)

2 cups sifted flour

1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1 egg ( well beaten)

Juice of 1 orange (about 1/3 cup)

Freshly grated rind of 1 orange (about 1 heaping teaspoon)

1/4 cup cold water

1 cup granulated cane sugar

1/4 cup melted butter

1 cup dried sour cherries, roughly chopped

1/2 cup whole almonds,  roughly chopped

  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 9″ inch bread pan.
  2. Combine the flour, baking powder, salt and baking soda.
  3. In a separate bowl, combine the beaten egg, orange juice, grated rind, water and sugar.
  4. Add the sifted ingredients and stir just long enough to mix. Stir in the melted butter. Fold in the sour cherries and almonds.
  5. Spoon mixture into the loaf pan and bake for 1 hour (or until inserted toothpick comes out clean). Oven temperatures really vary the timing on this one so keep your eye on it.
  6. Let cool on wire rack.

Because the almonds add a little hearty protein and the cherries mingle tartly with the sweet orange and cane sugars this bread is almost like a soft protein bar. Two slices are very satisfying especially when served warm with a little butter. A lovely alternative to oatmeal on those frosty winter mornings and a great bread for holiday house guests with its fast, festive and easy to freeze attitude, this bread will make holiday entertaining a breeze in the brunch/breakfast department.

Cherry orange almond bread

Bread No. 3

Our final bread comes to us by way of Vermont. June Platt had a special soft spot for the state and especially loved the maple syrup that sweetened all matter of meals in Fall and Winter. Her recipe for Vermont Johnnycake Muffins is ideally suited as a companion for a warm bowl of chili with its dense composition and hint of maple sweetness. Essentially it is a cornbread muffin with a cute name. But as Ms. Jeannie knows living in the South there are two VERY different camps on the subject of cornbread. Northerners like their cornbread sweet, Southerners like their cornbread sour (or non-sweetened if you will). Ms. Jeannie prefers hers a a little on the sweet side but not so sugary that it tastes like cake. This Johnnycake is a hospitable meet-you-in-the-middle between North and South. A cornbread for everyone.

muffins1

Vermont Johnnycake Muffins

(makes 8 muffins)

1 cup sifted all-purpose flour

2 1/4 teaspoons baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup cornmeal

2 eggs, well beaten

1/3 cup milk

1/4 cup maple syrup

6 tablespoons melted butter

  1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
  2. Sift the flour, baking powder and salt together , add the cornmeal and sift again.
  3. Combine the remaining ingredients and add to the dry ingredients, stirring only enough to dampen all the flour.
  4. Pour into well-buttered muffin tins and bake in a hot oven for about 30 minutes or until golden brown.

June suggests serving these handsome guys with Maple cream or Maple Butter. Ms. Jeannie suggests a little bit of jalapeno jelly, a dollop of goat cheese and a drizzle of honey.  Like the other breads above, these muffins freeze well and can fill up a hearty appetite in a half second. Its just the kind of fortitude you need when shoveling snow or battling that freezing wind rolling in off the coast.

Vermont Johnnycake Muffins

Released to great critical acclaim, all the recipes in this cook book re-introduced regional delights that were overlooked and underrated in mid-20th century America.  June helped bring them out of hiding 45 years ago and in turn four decades later, Ms. Jeannie is shining a spotlight on them again today. So whether you are looking for something new to bake-up this season or you are like Ms. Jeannie just trying to bolster up your bread baking abilities look no further than New England dear readers!

To explore more vintage recipes from June Platt’s New England cookbook, including the wonderfully named Beach-Plum Jelly, Rinktum Ditty, Cranberry Troll Cream, Red Flannel Hash and the classics-  Lobster Rolls, New England Clam Chowder, Boston Baked Beans, etc etc etc… visit this link here.

Cheers and happy baking from June, Jeannie and all of New England!