NEW YORK – Think of Audrey Hepburn, and your mind will likely conjure up an extraordinarily elegant woman in a boat-necked black dress, huge sunglasses, gloves to the elbow, and a chic updo.
It’s doubtful you’ll picture a woman in jeans and T-shirt settling down in front of the TV with a plate of penne and – gasp! – ketchup.
But that’s the image that her son, Luca Dotti, wants you to get to know. In Audrey at Home, an inviting cookbook filled with intimate family photos and memories, he paints a picture of a woman who was happier at home than on a movie set or, really, anywhere else – even though the press, he says, had a hard time believing that.
“Yes, she was an international star, but she was Mrs. Dotti to me,” says Dotti, a Rome-based graphic designer who is the son of Hepburn and her second husband, Andrea Dotti. “And she loved her home life the most. I wanted to bring these two worlds together, the public perception of her, and the woman that I knew.”
The inspiration for the book came, Dotti says, from a binder he found in his mother’s kitchen, filled with recipes and little notes. “It was from the ’50s when she had just gotten married (to her first husband) and was starting out as a wife,” Dotti says. “They were mostly elaborate and fancy recipes. But in the end, she eventually came to what worked for her and what reflected her style and her life.” Those simpler recipes, he says, form the core of the book.
And so, for example, Dotti begins with hutspot, a nod to Holland, where Hepburn – born in Belgium to a Dutch mother and British father – spent her difficult youth, nearly starving during World War II. (Her final life partner, Robert Wolders, also was Dutch.)
“The Nazis had deprived Holland of all forms of sustainability. My mother had to eat turnips and boiled grass,” Dotti says. Hutspot is a puree of carrots, potatoes and onions, in this case with beef added.
Then there’s the recipe for chocolate cake. Upon liberation, a Dutch soldier gave her seven candy bars, Dotti recounts, and she became sick after devouring them, unused to having a full stomach. But chocolate made her happy for years, and she loved making her cakes for her children. “I always thought cakes were too dry, but this one was moist,” Dotti says.
The point of the cookbook, and of Hepburn’s own cooking, was not to display chef-quality talents. “This wasn’t about excelling in cooking,” Dotti says. “My mother wasn’t really interested in that. She simply liked food as a way to get her family together.” And Hepburn’s friends – among them the famous designer Hubert de Givenchy – knew that if they wanted to see Audrey, they had to visit her at home, Dotti says. (Hepburn, who died in 1993, lived mostly in Rome and Switzerland, where she loved the countryside; she also spent much of her later years travelling for humanitarian work.)
But Hepburn sometimes had trouble making it to her own stove. That’s because, her son relates, she had a cook named Giovanna who was very proud, perhaps too proud. When Hepburn herself wanted to cook, it became a tricky task to get Giovanna to cede the way. “My mother did not want to hurt her pride,” Dotti says. “But there were a lot of struggles with Giovanna, just so my mom could cook!”
If Dotti had to pick only one recipe to symbolize his mother’s life, he says it would be her beloved – and simple – spaghetti al pomodoro (with tomato sauce). “It was her holy grail for happiness,” Dotti says. “It was what she thought of when she was homesick.” One of the book’s family photos shows Hepburn, in a bright yellow ’70s-style shift and those oversized sunglasses, spooning out huge portions of the dish for guests in her garden.
An even simpler dish – and certainly less elegant – was what Italians call pasta al forno, but Americans know as lowly mac and cheese. Dotti and his childhood friends ate it all the time at birthday parties, and the son was surprised to learn as an adult – in a museum cafeteria, no less – that the American version is better, because it’s made with cheddar.
But what of that penne with ketchup?
Dotti suspects it’s the British part of Hepburn that created a fondness for this dish, the ketchup resembling a sauce of baked beans. His mother loved organic vegetables and treasured her own garden, yet still liked to indulge in this “junk food,” as her son calls it.
“It sounds terrible, but actually it’s pretty good!” Dotti says. “We ate it when it was just the two of us, in front of the TV.” His recipe calls for penne, extra virgin olive oil, emmentaler cheese – and some Heinz ketchup.
Had Hepburn herself written a memoir, she might have described scenes like this. But she never wrote one. Dotti says that’s because in order to be sincere, “she’d have to write about the nasty parts of life, too” – and that didn’t appeal to her.
But Dotti, who’s donating proceeds of this book to the Audrey Hepburn Children’s Fund, says he’s by no means his mother’s biographer, just a chronicler of what it was like to live in her home, and her kitchen.
“This is a son writing about someone who was more of a wife and a mother than a celebrity,” he says.
FEGATO ALLA VENEZIANA
“Timing is everything with fegato alla Veneziana. Cook it just a moment too long and the meat becomes tough and inedible,” writes Luca Dotti in his cookbook, “Audrey at Home.” “Preparation of this dish requires abrupt changes in temperature: a very low flame for the onions, a very high flame for the meat. (‘You can’t get far cooking without gas,’ my father warned.) In Switzerland, where electric stoves are the only option, my dad used two pans, one over a low heat for the onions and one over a high heat for searing the liver, before combining everything and quickly cooking until creamy.”
Dotti suggests serving the dish over mashed potatoes or – more traditionally – polenta.
Start to finish: 30 minutes
- 3 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon unsalted butter
- 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 2 medium white onions, peeled and finely chopped
- 1 pinch sugar
- 1 pound calf’s liver, thinly sliced
- Splash sherry vinegar or lemon juice (optional)
In a large skillet over very low heat, melt the butter with the oil. Add the onions and gently cook until translucent, but not browned. It will take about 15 minutes. Once they are ready, add a pinch of sugar and stir until they are caramelized, about another 5 minutes.
Heat a second skillet over high heat. Transfer the caramelized onions and then the liver to the second skillet, stir for a few minutes until the meat is seared but still juicy. If you like extra acidity, add a splash of vinegar or lemon juice and stir, scraping the bits at the bottom of the pan, and serve.
Nutrition information per serving: 510 calories; 370 calories from fat (73 per cent of total calories); 42 g fat (12 g saturated; 0.5 g trans fats); 405 mg cholesterol; 90 mg sodium; 9 g carbohydrate; 1 g fiber; 3 g sugar; 23 g protein.
Recipe adapted from Luca Dotti’s “Audrey at Home,” Harper Design, 2015