Cake

Happy (Belated) 100th Birthday, Maida Heatter!

September 20, 2016

You will not find out much about Maida Heatter by looking at her Wikipedia page. You'll learn that she's the daughter of Gabriel Heatter, a popular radio announcer in the 1940s and 50s; that she went to Pratt in New York and became a jewelry designer; and that her cookbooks, which focus on baking and desserts, have won three James Beard Awards. But that's about it.

You will not learn that September 7th is her birthday—and that this past September 7th was her 100th birthday. (Or that, according to a Facebook post from the Director of Baking Programs at the Institute of Culinary Education, Nick Malgieri, she is "alive and well and living in Miami Beach.")

To learn about Maida, and what makes Maida special, you need to read her cookbooks, and bake from them.

Nick's caption on his Facebook post of the two together (the photo itself is a few years old): "Today, September 7, was Maida Heatter's 100th birthday! She is alive and well and living in Miami Beach." Photo by Nick Malgieri/Facebook

Maida, a self-taught cook and baker, has written nine cookbooks over the course of her life—all of them devoted to baking of all sorts, but especially to cakes. Her first (and, forty years later, perhaps still her best-loved) was written at the urging of New York Times food writer Craig Claiborne in 1974: Maida Heatter's Book of Great Desserts showcases many of the desserts she baked for her Miami Beach café-cum-restaurant, Inside, which she owned with her husband. (The two of them had opened it, according to Christy Hobart's wonderful 2002 profile of her in Saveur, on something of a whim upon moving to Florida.)

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Her recipes (and Maida herself) are known for their precision; each step is integral, each ingredient intentional. Her sense of timing and care when it comes to baking are impeccable; take, for example, this vignette from the Saveur profile:

When the Saveur Kitchen team called Maida about a problem it was having with her polka dot cheesecake recipe—the top of our version kept cracking—she offered succinct advice: "Don't overbeat your eggs." She also told us exactly how deep the water in the bain-marie should be (one and a half inches). A new cheesecake went into the oven. Just as it was due to come out, the phone rang. It was Maida. "She wanted to make sure we didn't overbake the cake," explains Kelly Kochendorfer, director of the Saveur Kitchen.

But her precision in recipe writing doesn't preclude a friendly tone; for Maida, baking might be all about accuracy and technique, but it's far from clinical. Instead, her cookbooks are peppered with spunky bits and pieces: Her rum pie, which calls for a good 3/4 cup rum, is "not for sissies," she writes in her Book of Great Desserts. In the same book, of her Dobosh Torte, she writes, "I love to make it. I love to serve it. I love to eat it," with each declaration on its own proud line. It's the kind of thing that makes her cookbooks read almost like novels, the sort of tomes you want to keep by your bedside for half-asleep perusing.

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Top Comment:
“I had asked the editor for the assignment as I had one of her books - Maida Heatter's Greatest Dessert Book Ever, and it literally taught me how to bake. We became fast friends and soon she was offering me a cheesecake pan and a jelly roll board, and wonderful advice on life as well. There are not enough kind things to say about this woman, and I still bake every week and tell my children that we must be thankful for Maida because otherwise we would be eating store bought. I send her flowers every September 7th, and always, this year included, receive a handwritten thank you note a few days later. She no longer writes them, but her signature - strong and bold - is still in her hand. G-d bless Maida, she is a national treasure.”
— Scott T.
Comment

Meanwhile, her Budapest Coffee Cake is superlative, tangy with sour cream, rippled with a spiced nut filling, dribbled with glaze, dense and moist, as coffee cakes should be. I once ate it in a swarming airport on Thanksgiving morning, en route to family, and it delivered exactly the sort of comfort one needs under such a circumstance.

And her recipes, made bulletproof, become heirlooms in other kitchens. Here, in a post on her coffee cake, many Food52 community members wrote in—about the cake, yes, but mostly to recommend other Maida classics, and if you're not familiar with her recipes, their recommendations are a good place to start:

"Best Maida Heatter recipe is definitely the whiskey-soaked chocolate Bundt cake!" wrote Kate Graham. For Merilee Edgar, it's the East 62nd Street Lemon Cake. Naj calls her Triple-Threat Cheesecake, their "family's absolute favorite dessert." ("Also wonderful is the Devil's Food Chocolate Sauce, last page. Many yummy recipes in that book with quite a few cake recipes. Pages are falling out of mine...lots of use.")

Naj made the cheesecake for their daughter's 25th birthday. Perhaps we will make it for Maida's 100th.

Happy birthday, Maida Heatter! Share your own Maida recipe recommendations in the comments below.

24 Comments

Margaret G. October 28, 2018
Happy birthday Maids Heatter!! I discovered her books when I was a young and<br />inexperienced baker, and I credit her with teaching me how to cook. She<br />Will always have a special place in my heart as my first and only teacher and<br />I couldn't be more tickled to know that she's alive and well at 100! May you<br />have many more birthdays and many more goodies to enjoy!
 
Jan February 19, 2018
I am a big fan of Maida Heatter and her dessert cookbooks. For the past 35 years her cookbooks have served as the go-to recipes for every celebration and dessert hankering we’ve had. Every February I host a mushroom meringue making party. We make several batches of the mushrooms and use the egg yolks to make chocolate pots de creme. And we celebrate Maida. Long may she live! <3<3<3
 
leslie September 27, 2017
Maida Heatter's cookie and cake books were central to my childhood; we cooked from them so much that some of the recipes are now almost illegible. I don't remember any Christmas morning without her Budapest Coffee Cake. Now, my children pore over which cheesecake recipe they want for their birthdays - so far, the Triple Threat is their absolute favorite. I have also become a huge fan of the Florida Rum Cake. Thank you, Maida !
 
Claudette M. May 20, 2017
My favorite baker of all time! I have almost every cook book she ever published, and still use them on a regular basis. My children are now in their 30's and STILL remember the joys of eating cake for breakfast! Like Maida's amazing Dobosh Torte...or carrot cake...or cheesecake...or Boston Cream Pie... I could go on and on and on. Happy Birthday to a lady I have admired for years!!
 
Holly C. March 2, 2017
In the late 1970s inherited a necklace made by Maida Heatter. It belonged to my great-grandmother, Stella Morse. When she died, people fought over the jewelry with gemstones and cast away the "costume jewelry" to a child. How fortunate I am that they did not value the piece that is also a work of art!
 
Maryann H. December 30, 2016
I made two key lime pies today using Maida Heatter's recipe, to be served at a Hanukkah party tonight. I am from Florida, and every time I think of key lime pie, I think of her and her wonderful anecdote about making them for a Regan State dinner!
 
Kathy O. December 19, 2016
I have been enjoying entertaining using Maida Heatter'so recipient since I came across her cookbooks in the '70s. I will use these for however long I can keep baking :)
 
Christine S. December 18, 2016
I was making Maida Heather's rugelach today and wondered if she was still alive so I googled her and came across your post about her. I have three of her cookbooks and over the years have regularly made many of her recipes and have never gone wrong. A family fav is her Mississippi mud pie, her hot fudge sauce, and brownies. One of my kids loves her coconut almond pound cake. Maida Heatter is a classic!
 
Linda S. December 1, 2016
I just opened one of my many Maida Heatter cookbooks personally signed by her and wondered if she was still alive. So glad to find out she is! I took some cooking courses in New Jersey many years ago and Maida was one of the teachers there. I truly learned to be a baker because of Maida's perfect recipes and wonderful notes. Happy, happy 100th Maida!
 
Sonia K. November 26, 2016
Dear Maida Heatter,<br /><br />Thank you for making me a terrific baker (according to friends and relatives). It is a pleasure to use your cookbooks and turn out such fabulous creations. I love your comments, and the great results I achieve. <br /><br />Happy birthday to you! You are a fantastic addition to the wonders of this world.<br /><br />Love and best wishes,<br /><br />Sonia Kutzin
 
Scott T. November 3, 2016
I just read this, and it is a wonderful piece. I was lucky enough to meet Maida about twenty years ago (she was about 80) when as a photographer I was asked to shoot a portrait for a magazine. I had asked the editor for the assignment as I had one of her books - Maida Heatter's Greatest Dessert Book Ever, and it literally taught me how to bake. We became fast friends and soon she was offering me a cheesecake pan and a jelly roll board, and wonderful advice on life as well. There are not enough kind things to say about this woman, and I still bake every week and tell my children that we must be thankful for Maida because otherwise we would be eating store bought. I send her flowers every September 7th, and always, this year included, receive a handwritten thank you note a few days later. She no longer writes them, but her signature - strong and bold - is still in her hand. G-d bless Maida, she is a national treasure.
 
Robin April 8, 2017
I believe I have the right address for Maida as my card never came back...she is such a treasure and is one year older than my father who will be celebrating his 100th in a month! What a great idea to send her flowers! Do you have an email address so I could connect with you, or me provide you mine so you could connect with me??
 
Marguerite T. October 8, 2016
It is nice to hear about Maida. I am a huge fan of her cookbooks. I owe my baking skills to her masterful teaching. I only wish more chefs would acknowledge her. I notice that many of the recipes you read are from her cookbooks.<br />Maida...Thanks for sharing your talent with others', and Happy Belated Birthday.<br />Marguerite
 
Amy F. September 27, 2016
It was such a treat to see this! Maida's books were, by a wide margin, my first favorite baking books. I used many of Maida's recipes in my very first job in the food industry in the early 80's. I started baking at a young age- as soon as I was allowed to- and went on to marry another pastry chef, not as famous as Maida, but every bit as particular, my late husband, chef Bo Friberg. I became his coauthor, writing pastry and baking books along with him for over 25 years, howing that you never know where life is going to take you. And I remember making that sour cream coffee cake dozens of times!<br />Amy Friberg
 
Amy F. September 27, 2016
Supposed to say "showing," not "howing," which I don't believe is a word. Perhaps there's an edit feature that I don't see? Ah the irony.
 
Nancy September 26, 2016
Oh Maida, how I love thee, let me count the ways! Maida started my love of cookbooks with her Book of Great Cookies not long after I had graduated from college and my love for her has not waned or even wavered once. So many of my favorite recipes come from her but if I had to narrow it down to 2, it would be her 62nd Street Lemon Poundcake and her Whoopie Pies. There are many more though! Happy Birthday to you, Maida!
 
kittyfood September 21, 2016
I nominate the Queen Mother's Cake, a flourless chocolate cake that I have made for many occasions. http://www.saveur.com/article/Recipes/Queen-Mothers-Cake-
 
jamcook September 24, 2016
I second your nomination. Always my husband's choice for a Birthday cake.
 
creamtea September 20, 2016
Such a coincidence! I opened one of her cookbooks just last week to prepare for my daughter's birthday....didn't even know it was around Maida's birthday
 
danielle_centoni September 20, 2016
I adore Maida Heatter's cookbooks and think she deserves a full-on revival. Everything Caroline says is spot-on: Maida's recipes are delicious, the instructions precise, the tone engaging and witty. I inherited my books from my great-aunt, who left all sorts of wonderful notes in the margins, making the books kind of a two-fer for me. One of my favorite recipes is for "Dolly's Crisp Toffee Bars." So easy and so good. I posted the recipe here: https://roux44.com/2015/12/08/vintage-chocolate-chip-cookie-recipe/
 
Smaug September 20, 2016
To me, maybe the best cookbook writer ever. The recipes always contain all the information you could need (and not a lot of clutter), and very good bits of history and anecdote to boot.
 
Maureen M. September 20, 2016
One of the first cookbooks I ever owned! Still think the blueberry coffee cake is the best ... but her Book of Great Cookies was my first and still my favorite - just ordered a new copy! Happy Birthday Maida
 
Fresh T. February 10, 2017
I agree completely! This coffeecake has worked miracles on people for me!
 
jpriddy September 20, 2016
Thank you so much for this! I had no idea she was still alive. I learned to love baking and cookbooks thanks to Maida Heatter. Too few people know who she is or what she has done. I have most (all?) of her books—among the first cookbooks I know of (after Cross Creek Cookery) worth reading just for fun.