Bake

Maida Heatter: 'Happiness Is Baking Cookies. Happiness Is Giving Them Away.'

The "Queen of Cake" lived a life as rich and sweet as her recipes.

by:
June 10, 2019
Photo by Jenny Huang

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.

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.”

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“The biggest thing I learned from Maida Heatter was confidence. My mother was an excellent cook, but not much on collaborating (a trait I share), so I learned some basics from her, but as a young guy in college on my own, I was mostly exposed to such dubious cookbooks as various housemates might own. Someone introduced me to the "Book of Great Desserts" and I was off on the most potentially fattening journey of my life (turned out I was pretty well immune to fat, but it was sorely tested). It was filled with what seemed like an infinity of recipes; you always knew they'd be good, you always knew they'd work, you always knew she'd tell you everything you would need to know, with miraculous concision. You always knew they'd be sweeter than I preferred, but I soon learned to adjust for that. I later became something of a cookbook collector, including dessert books- there were some good ones, but very rarely was there anything in them that she hadn't covered in the most elegant possible way in one of her books, and that continues to this day- everything that comes up seems to have been covered somewhere in there. It is rare indeed to encounter genius in a teacher, but she had it. RIP.”
— Smaug
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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.”

What has Maida Heatter taught you over the years? We’d love to hear your memories and stories in the comments section below.
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Karen Lo

Written by: Karen Lo

lunch lady

7 Comments

RLRL June 13, 2019
Sweet and spicy meringues with ginger and macadamia nuts! Delish! Thanks, Maida for all the recipes you shared!
 
Miriam I. June 11, 2019
Heatter taught me the importance of paying attention to all the directions. Her recipes are complicated but she gives you details and if you follow the rules, it will all work out. Some favorites: Swedish jelly cookies; brownie crisps; various pound cakes and frozen desserts and the chocolate mousse I can make in my sleep.
 
Peg June 11, 2019
I gave the Book of Great Desserts to my first husband shortly after we met. The recipes are almost always successful and delicious. She tells you when the batter will look curdled. My favorite cookie recipe is the unfortunately named Mulatto. Chocolate chocolate chip with coffee. Yum. We have four of her cookbooks.
 
emgoh June 11, 2019
Her brittle peanut bar cookies are still my favorite. Yum!
 
Sandi S. June 10, 2019
ok, call me nutty, but can't find the cookie recipe of the picture posted...anyone help me out?
 
Smaug June 10, 2019
The biggest thing I learned from Maida Heatter was confidence. My mother was an excellent cook, but not much on collaborating (a trait I share), so I learned some basics from her, but as a young guy in college on my own, I was mostly exposed to such dubious cookbooks as various housemates might own. Someone introduced me to the "Book of Great Desserts" and I was off on the most potentially fattening journey of my life (turned out I was pretty well immune to fat, but it was sorely tested). It was filled with what seemed like an infinity of recipes; you always knew they'd be good, you always knew they'd work, you always knew she'd tell you everything you would need to know, with miraculous concision. You always knew they'd be sweeter than I preferred, but I soon learned to adjust for that. I later became something of a cookbook collector, including dessert books- there were some good ones, but very rarely was there anything in them that she hadn't covered in the most elegant possible way in one of her books, and that continues to this day- everything that comes up seems to have been covered somewhere in there. It is rare indeed to encounter genius in a teacher, but she had it. RIP.
 
Joanne June 10, 2019
I have all Maida Heatter’s cookbooks and she is responsible for my love of baking - which I believe is one of the things I do best. So many of her recipes have become regulars to bake for me and expected from family and friends. Just last week I made of 11 cookie trays with 9 different types of cookies, for my daughter’s bridal shower. Rugelach, Viennese almond wafers, chocolate chip biscotti, chocolate spritz, butter cookies with jelly filling- her recipes - were among the ones I made. I’ve been making Maida’s Rugelach recipe for over 20 years and never felt the need to change anything. She really taught me how to bake and brought out the perfectionist in me. My daughter now bakes from her cookbooks, too. I will always treasure mine and just a week ago ordered “Happiness is Baking” even though I already have all the recipes in other cookbooks. I can’t wait to receive it. I hope Maida had a happy life, she deserved it.