Cooking With the Stars: Katharine Hepburn’s Brownies

Cooking With the Stars: Katharine Hepburn’s Brownies

Katharine Hepburn Headshot
Katharine Hepburn

Happy summer, classic movie chefs! After months of writing about some incredible stars and recipes for this column, I knew that I wanted to do something truly special to ring in the second half of this year. Following much deliberation, the time finally came for me to write my most requested Old Hollywood star recipe: none other than Katharine Hepburn‘s brownies!

This is a dessert that’s been requested by just about everyone close to me for this column, from dear friends to strangers and fans of Cooking with the Stars alike. Granted, this isn’t exactly the epitome of a summer treat and I know many of you won’t want to turn your ovens on in the midst of July, but after recreating so many delectable main courses, I thought it was high time for me to do some baking for a change and honor one of the most iconic and formidable women to ever grace the silver screen.

Katharine Hepburn as a baby, shown here in the arms of her mother, Katharine Houghton.
Katharine Hepburn as a baby, shown here in the arms of her mother, Katharine Houghton.

Katharine Houghton Hepburn was born on May 12, 1907, in Hartford, Connecticut to Thomas Hepburn, a urologist at the nearby Hartford Hospital, and to Katharine Houghton, a noted suffragette who campaigned for birth control alongside Margaret Sanger. Katharine’s parents raised their six children to be outspoken freethinkers while also encouraging them to test themselves athletically. Kate’s mother invited her young daughter along to women’s suffrage protests while her father taught her sports such as tennis, wrestling, swimming, and especially golf, which became Kate’s favorite pastime. She practiced each day in her youth, soon competing in the semi-final of the Connecticut Young Women’s Golf Championship.

Another hobby of Hepburn’s was going to the movies each week, which inspired her to perform for her family and neighbors. She charged fifty cents per ticket to her homemade shows, which she donated to the Navajo people. However, her jovial childhood came to a screeching halt in the spring of 1921. At age fourteen, Katharine and her brother Tom were staying with a family friend in New York. She discovered Tom’s body on April 3, dead from an apparent suicide. Much is unclear about the specifics of his passing – whether it was a poorly executed hanging trick, taught to him by their father, or whether he deliberately took his own life. Still, Hepburn’s harrowing discovery led to her retreating from others, becoming shy and dropping out of private school.

Katharine Hepburn in The Warrior’s Husband (1932)
Katharine Hepburn in The Warrior’s Husband (1932), one of the most successful plays of her stage career.

For years following the incident, she took Tom’s birthday of November 8 as her own and received private tutoring until she felt confident enough to attend Bryn Mawr College, which she did to satisfy her mother by attending her alma mater. Hepburn initially struggled in her studies due to her extended absence from school, but she received the motivation she needed to excel after being barred from performing in Bryn Mawr’s school plays until her grades were up to par. Kate appeared often in the school’s productions, snagging the lead part in The Woman in the Moon during her senior year. The positive reviews that she received convinced Hepburn to pursue a career on the stage, and the day after her graduation in 1928, she traveled to Baltimore and joined a successful stock theater company. Her first performance with the company was also the first to give her unfavorable reviews, specifically about the shrillness of her voice, so she quickly moved back to New York in order to study with a vocal coach. She spent the following years in and out of various stage productions, and it was obvious that critics were unsure of what to make of this new talent, with some opining that Hepburn was the greatest discovery of the entire profession and others feeling just the opposite. In 1932 she portrayed the lead role in her first widespread success, a Greek fable titled The Warrior’s Husband, where she was spotted by a scout for legendary Hollywood agent Leland Hayward.

Katharine Hepburn alongside John Barrymore in a scene from A Bill of Divorcement (1932)
Katharine Hepburn alongside John Barrymore in a scene from A Bill of Divorcement (1932), her first Hollywood film.

Soon afterward, Hepburn was encouraged to read for the leading part in RKO’s A Bill of Divorcement (1932). Director George Cukor was blown away by her audition, realizing how much potential the actress had to be a great movie star, so he encouraged RKO head, David O. Selznick, to give in to her lofty request of $1,500 a week for the picture. Despite playing opposite a theatrical legend like John Barrymore for her first film, Katharine was unfazed, giving a characterization that the New York Times considered “one of the finest seen on the screen”. However, similarly to Hepburn’s stage work, reviews for each of her pictures were exceedingly mixed at first. She received her first of four Academy Awards the year after for Morning Glory (1933) and continued her success with an iconic portrayal of Jo March in Little Women (1933), but many of her following releases were commercial and critical disappointments, such as The Little Minister (1934), Break of Hearts (1935), and Mary of Scotland (1936). Still, for every feature of Kate’s that flopped, there was one that garnered acclaim, like Alice Adams (1935), which gave her a second Oscar nod, the delightful Stage Door (1937), and the master of screwball comedies, Bringing Up Baby (1938). Despite achieving several victories onscreen, in 1938 the Independent Theatre Owners of America included Katharine Hepburn on a list of actors considered “box office poison”, which threatened to terminate her career for good.

Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, and James Stewart in The Philadelphia Story (1940)
Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, and James Stewart in The Philadelphia Story (1940), the movie that resuscitated Hepburn’s career and earned the actress her third Oscar nomination.

While this list effectively ended the onscreen presence of some of Hollywood’s finest stars like Greta Garbo and Norma Shearer, Kate was determined to keep her head above water. After RKO offered her a role in the B-movie Mother Carey’s Chickens (1938), she made an unthinkable move for the time and bought out her own contract for $75,000, determined to work as an independent in films and plays outside of the studio’s protection and influence. Her next move was to star in the expertly written play The Philadelphia Story in 1939. Howard Hughes, who was seeing Hepburn at the time, understood that the work would make a ripe screen comeback for Kate, bought the film rights and subsequently gave them to Hepburn. From there, studios came knocking on her door for the chance to adapt The Philadelphia Story, and she ended up giving the chance to number-one studio MGM under the condition that she would not only star but have her choice of director and co-stars. The film was a monumental success and became the fifth-highest grossing picture of the year, earning Hepburn her third Academy Award nomination and cementing her status as a beloved actress in Hollywood.

Katharine Hepburn on the set of The African Queen (1951)
Katharine Hepburn on the set of The African Queen (1951)

Her next significant onscreen success was Woman of the Year (1942), her first of nine pictures with Spencer Tracy, who would become the love of her life. While the two never wed due to Tracy’s existing marriage, they remained together for twenty-six years, their partnership resulting in hit films like Adam’s Rib (1949), Desk Set (1957), and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967). Hepburn’s success continued through the decades outside of her on-and-offscreen romance as well, with The African Queen (1951), Summertime (1955), and Suddenly, Last Summer (1959) all resulting in Oscar nomination for the actress. She would receive twelve nominations in total throughout her career and win three more in addition to her prior win for Morning Glory (1933), for Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967), The Lion in Winter (1968), and On Golden Pond (1981). She continued to act well into the 1990s before eventually passing away on June 29, 2003, at the age of 96.

Katharine Hepburn’s Brownies

  • ½ cup cocoa or 2 ounces unsweetened baker’s chocolate
  • 1 stick unsalted butter
  • 1 cup of sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • ¼ cup flour
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • Pinch of salt
  • 1 cup roughly chopped walnuts or pecans
  • 1 8×8 inch baking dish

  1. Melt the butter with the cocoa or chocolate together in a heavy saucepan over medium-low heat, whisking constantly until blended.
  2. Remove from heat and stir in sugar.
  3. Whisk in the eggs and vanilla.
  4. Stir in the flour, salt, and walnuts. Mix well and pour into a well buttered 8×8 inch baking pan.
  5. Bake at 325 degrees for 40 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool completely and cut into squares.

Serves 9

Katharine Hepburn's Brownie Recipe
My version of Katharine Hepburn’s Brownies


I want to mention first and foremost that I’m a brownie kind of gal. I’m not sure why, but pies, cakes, and tarts haven’t been my favorites as opposed to brownies, cookies, and especially ice cream. While we’re on the subject of ice cream, I couldn’t imagine a better pair for Katharine Hepburn’s brownies than a generous scoop of vanilla to make this dessert a brownie a la mode, perfect for the summer months.

Katharine’s brownies are extremely fudgy, which I actually prefer brownies to be, and they’re not overly sweet due to the inclusion of unsweetened chocolate. However, I do have to admit that this recipe has a couple of flaws in my book. For one thing, the method that Kate uses to incorporate the ingredients together requires way too much mixing. Once I pulled my finished dessert from the oven, I noticed tons of tiny bubbles on the surface, even after I had attempted to tap some of them out before baking. Mixing each individual ingredient in as you make the batter almost guarantees that the end result will be overmixed, so I suggest adding a few ingredients at a time and mixing very minimally.

On top of that, I was also stunned that these brownies call for a whole cup of chopped nuts, the same amount as the sugar! I don’t mind a few nuts in my brownies, but I suspected before I even added the walnuts to the mixture that they would overpower the other components of the treat, and sure enough, they did. While the actual brownie batter was a winner, the texture was so smooth that it melted in my mouth, leaving the walnuts awkwardly hanging instead of going down as one cohesive dish.

Overall these definitely were tasty brownies, but in this instance,  I think the curiosity surrounding one of Katharine Hepburn’s recipes is the reason why her version has withstood the test of time. I think there are better brownie recipes out there, so I personally give this dessert three out of five Vincents. However, if you’re a fan of Kate and you want to try these out for yourself, the simplicity of this recipe combined with the taste makes Katharine Hepburn’s brownie recipe one that you won’t feel sorry for trying.

Three Vincent Price Rating
Hepburn’s Brownies get a Three-Vincent rating!

–Samantha Ellis for Classic Movie Hub

Samantha resides in West Chester, Pennsylvania and is the author of Musings of a Classic Film Addict, a blog that sheds light on Hollywood films and filmmakers from the 1930s through the 1960s. Her favorite column that she pens for her blog is Cooking with the Stars, for which she tests and reviews the personal recipes of stars from Hollywood’s golden age. When she isn’t in the kitchen, Samantha also lends her voice and classic film knowledge as cohost of the Ticklish Business podcast alongside Kristen Lopez and Drea Clark, and proudly serves as President of TCM Backlot’s Philadelphia Chapter. You can catch up with her work by following her @classicfilmgeek on Twitter.

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One Response to Cooking With the Stars: Katharine Hepburn’s Brownies

  1. Lisa Bartholow says:

    Serves 9… hahahahaha! I have used her recipe for years and they’re yummy!

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