There was the bourbon-infused chocolate cake, the chocolate mousse torte, the East 62nd Street lemon cake, the Budapest coffee cake, and for her own birthday one year, the September 7th cake—“two thin, lightweight, dark layers are filled with white whipped cream and are thickly covered with a wonderful dark coffee-chocolate whipped cream.”
For Maida Heatter, the legendary “Queen of Cake,” there was no such thing as too decadent, too indulgent, or too much chocolate.
“People just love to bake!” she told The New York Times in 1995. Heatter—whose long and sweet culinary career spanned nine cookbooks, a restaurant in Miami Beach, recipes for the Times, and three James Beard Awards—died last Thursday, June 6, at the age of 102.
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Baking genius Maida Heatter, who ruled the dessert world and was known as the Queen of Cakes, passed away at 102. Her last book, “Happiness Is Baking,” with her greatest hits, has an intro by @doriegreenspan; it came out earlier this year. She taught a generation and their sons and daughters to bake. In an article in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, I read that when she was inducted into the James Beard Cookbook Hall of Fame in 1998 for “Maida Heatter’s Book of Great Desserts,” she appeared onstage in a Versace outfit, carrying a Versace shopping bag. After her acceptance speech, she pulled brownies out of the bag and tossed them to the black-tie crowd. Rest In Peace. Obits @washingtonpost and @latimesfood. #maidaheatter #rip #bakingauthor #queenofcakes
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In 1966, Heatter was a jewelry designer living in Miami Beach with her husband, an airline pilot named Ralph Daniels. The story goes that Heatter somehow convinced her husband, newly retired, to open a restaurant called The Inside. "I volunteered to make the desserts,” Heatter said, “which turned out to be a wild success.”
Two years later, Craig Claiborne, the Times’ food editor, used her recipes in a story and told her to write a cookbook. Heatter sent off a handwritten manuscript to Knopf, which became Maida Heatter’s Book of Great Desserts.
To be clear, however, the dish that brought Claiborne to Heatter’s door wasn’t a cake, or even a dessert. It was an elephant dish—an elephant omelet, to be precise—which she added to be playful during the 1968 Republican National Convention. The elephant meat came from New Jersey, and the story traveled north via the Miami Herald, eventually leading Claiborne to the Heatter home. “Craig thought he was coming to my house for an elephant-meat omelet,” she told the Herald. “Instead, I had about 30 cakes on the table—the most impressive things I could arrange.”
After their meeting, Claiborne wrote, “She is hands down the foremost food authority in Florida.” Her recipes began appearing regularly in the Times shortly after.
In each of her books, Maida added precise notes for home cooks built on her own decades of experience, and encouraged plenty of note-taking of one’s own. “Regularly check your oven for accuracy with an oven thermometer, like the one made by Taylor,” Maida advised in her seventh book, Maida Heatter's Brand-New Book of Great Cookies. “Preheat the oven for 20 minutes, and then test with the thermometer in the middle of the oven.”
That was something Heatter herself learned relatively early on in her career, when, just after her first manuscript was accepted, a stove repair person informed her that her oven was about 25 degrees off, requiring her to adjust each recipe.
One year, when her first cookbook was being inducted into the James Beard Foundation Cookbook Hall of Fame, Heatter used her time on stage to throw her now-famous Palm Beach brownies with chocolate-covered mints into the audience.
“The crowd went wild,” Heatter wrote in a later edition of that cookbook. She allegedly used a similar approach to snag her last husband, handing him a brownie from her purse. “That’s what did it for him."
Maida’s final cookbook, Happiness Is Baking: Favorite Desserts From the Queen of Cake, was published just two months ago, featuring all of Heatter’s personal favorite recipes. The title is taken directly from Heatter’s fully hands-on approach to baking and the power of sharing food.
“Happiness is baking cookies," she said. "Happiness is giving them away. And serving them, and eating them, talking about them, reading and writing about them, thinking about them, and sharing them with you.”