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.
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.)
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.
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.