The effect Maida Heatter has had on my career as a baker is incalculable, and when I learned she died (she was 102) the day after my story about her lemon buttermilk cake was published in these pages last week, so many happy memories brought her back to life for me.
I remember leafing through her first baking book in a San Francisco bookstore in 1976. I had no idea who Maida was, but I was so attracted to the way she wrote her recipes it made me feel as though she were stranding right next to me, assuring me that if I listened to what she wrote I’d have a great result. In the blink of an eye I decided to make every recipe in her book.
“Maida Heatter’s Book of Great Desserts,” published in 1974, established her as an authority in the baking world. Craig Claiborne, food editor of the New York Times began publishing Maida’s recipes in 1968 after sampling desserts she baked for her husband’s Miami restaurant. Claiborne encouraged Maida to write a book of dessert recipes, and a few years later, armed with his recommendation and her growing presence in print, she was offered a contract by Alfred A. Knopf.
I decided to bake my way through Maida’s book by skipping around, picking recipes from different chapters, a cookie recipe one day, a cake recipe the next. Eighteen months and 260 plus recipes later, my intense and delicious journey ended with candied grapefruit rind.
But all had not been smooth sailing. I had a major glitch at page 107 with Mildred Knopf’s orange puff cake. Did I say, glitch? Here’s what happened. The recipe promises a light, airy orange-flavored sponge cake. Maida said she made the cake at least once a week for her father, Gabriel Heatter, the well-known radio news commentator. She called it Daddy Cake, and he ate a slice of it every day.
After that glowing recommendation, I decided to make Daddy Cake for a dinner party we were having one night. I carefully folded the egg white meringue into the yolky batter, transferred it gently into a tube pan, and put the cake into a preheated oven.
I have to say I love peeking into the oven as things bake. Every so often I’d turn on the light and peer through the glass to see the cake puffing higher and higher. But about 10 minutes before the baking time was up I looked into the oven, and to my horror I couldn’t even see the cake! It had sunk to a level so low that it seemed to be hiding.
What a disaster! I knew I couldn’t serve it, but why did the cake collapse? Did it have something to do with altitude? I wrote to Maida’s publisher, who forwarded my letter to Maida, and she wrote back saying that she was sorry she couldn’t help me because she lived in Miami and had no experience baking at altitude.
Refusing to be stymied by what seemed to be a pretty straightforward recipe, I worked on it on and off, until one day, four years later, I finally got the recipe to work. The main step was to put the cake into a cold oven, and then turn the oven on. The slow heating of the oven assured the bubbles in the cake wouldn’t expand too fast and they’d set at just the right point when the cake achieved its maximum height. This time the cake rose beautifully, an inch above the rim of the pan, and stayed put. Whew! I cooled the cake upside down, as the recipe said, and when completely cool I unmolded it, set it top side up on a cake platter, and brought it proudly to the table.
A few years later, when I was in Florida, I baked the cake as written in Maida’s book, and it turned out perfectly. I decided that it was really a Florida recipe.
Through the years, Maida and I became pen pals, and one day she called to say she and her husband, Ralph Daniels, were in Billings — they were planning to take a few weeks to drive all the way to Alaska — and that they’d be staying in Missoula that night. Could we get together? “How about coming to our home for dinner?” I asked her. My wife, Dorothy, was making sauerbraten that night, and it fed at least six people. And quite by chance, the day before, I had made a refrigerated chocolate dessert, “Abby Mandel’s Boule de Neige (snowball)” from Maida’s chocolate book.
Our animated dinner conversation went all over the place. I think we were star-struck. What a thrill to have Maida in our home, eating together, chatting and just enjoying being in each other’s company. Maida told us she never intended to become a cookbook author. She had trained at New York's Pratt Institute to design and make jewelry, and for many years she made a business of it. She had learned to cook and bake from her mother and always loved “playing” in the kitchen. Ralph had been an airline pilot, away from home a lot, and Maida suggested he stop flying and open a restaurant. She’d make the desserts.
I asked Maida if she would do the honors of decorating the boule de neige by piping rosettes of whipped cream all over the chocolate as her recipe said to do. I just loved the way she handled the pastry bag as she piped the cream with one hand and slowly rotated the desert plate with the other. By the time she was finished, the whole dessert really did look look like a giant white snowball.
After dinner, Maida autographed the three cookbooks she had written up to then. She had just delivered the manuscript of her fourth book to her editor in New York before she and Ralph began driving out west.
Our sons were almost 13 and 15 years old when Maida and Ralph came to dinner. They loved eating all the recipes I made from Maida’s first book. A few days ago, when I asked them what they remembered of that night, nothing specific came up, but Jason, our younger son, said that he loved looking at the outlines of desserts on the book’s flap copy, with a key to their names, because of the delicious promise they represented.
Maida’s first five cookbooks, published from 1974 to 1985 are her masterworks: Maida Heatter’s Book of Great Desserts (1974); Maida Heatter’s Book of Great Cookies (1977); Maida Heatter’s Book of Great Chocolate Desserts (1980); Maida Heatter’s New Book of Great Desserts (1982); and Maida Heatter’s Book of Great American Desserts (1985). If you buy only one of her books, I suggest the 1999 revision of her first book, Maida Heatter’s Book of Great Desserts.
I can’t thank you enough, Maida, for being such a generous mentor, for teaching me so much, and for leaving such a rich legacy of your work for all of today’s bakers and those yet to come. You will always be a part of me.