My first attempt at making a cake (from a boxed mix) was a flop. I never figured out why, but it smoldered rather than rose. I was 16 years old and, right there and then, I swore off baking. But one day, when I was in college, I was asked to bring dessert to a party, and I thought I might at least be able to manage some cookies. A friend lent me a well-thumbed copy of something called Maida Heatter's Book of Great Desserts; I flipped it open and found myself engrossed. "The rule is TLC—tender loving care," writes Heatter in her introduction to the chapter on cookies. "Do not just put cookies in the oven, set the timer, and walk away until the bell rings. You must watch them...and baby them." Elsewhere, she recommends using Philadelphia Brand Cream Cheese, adding, "Other brands… do not all work the same. (I learned this the hard way.)" I quickly realized that this wasn't some scary culinary textbook. The author didn't assume that I was a master of fancy cooking techniques nor did she demand leaps of faith from those following her recipes. She somehow made me believe that if I—even I—actually followed her instructions,the ingredients called for would somehow transform themselves into legitimate cookies, pies, or even cakes. Heck, I thought, if I'm going to try baking again, I might as well go all the way. So instead of cookies, I made a Maida Heatter signature dessert—her Queen Mother's cake, a flourless chocolate cake made with eggs and ground almonds—a concoction of which the author writes, "If there could be only one cake in the whole world, this would be my choice." It worked. It was a huge success, in fact. I was hooked, not just on Queen Mother's cake or on baking, but on Maida Heatter.
More than a dozen years after I first encountered Great Desserts, I have the chance to meet its author and to watch her bake in her own kitchen in Miami Beach. As I approach the front door of her sleek, single-story house on Biscayne Bay, it swings open and Maida Heatter herself appears—a tall, elegant, perfectly coiffed eighty-something, dressed in a navy blue silk shirt and crisp white slacks. "Welcome!" she calls to me. "Come in!" As I reach the threshold, she embraces me, then leads me straight into her airy open kitchen, with its large center island, glass-doored twin ovens, and wall covered with reddish orange Le Creuset pots and pans—her favorites. "I want you to see something," she says. "I just created this." She points past stacks of her cellophane-wrapped brownies and tall jars filled with her biscotti at a smooth, shiny cheesecake spotted with huge brown polka dots.
"I've made a lot of different cheesecakes," she continues, "usually variations on Craig Claiborne's basic recipe. I really don't know how I came up with this one. I just put some chocolate batter into a pastry bag, and voilà! The way the dots formed on the surface surprised me, but the real surprise came when I cut into it. Look!" She slices into it with a big chef's knife and lifts out a wedge. A perfect chocolate circle floats in the middle of the cut side, just like the one on top—seeming to defy culinary geometry. "Every time I cut into this cake," she says, "I get so excited. Whenever I make it, I'm always afraid that this time it won't work, but it always does. It's gorgeous! Diamonds, jewelry, furs—they don't mean anything. Nothing gives me as much pleasure as cutting into this cake!"
For more than a quarter of a century, Maida Heatter—known to everyone as Maida—has, with her books and classes, been influencing the way America prepares (and eats) desserts. She didn't set out to become a culinary legend, however. She never attended cooking school or apprenticed at a fancy French pâtisserie. Everything she knows about baking, Maida says, comes from her mother ("a wonderful cook"), from other cookbooks (one of her favorites is Mildred Knopf's The Perfect Hostess Cook Book), or from trial and error. ("I'll do whatever it takes to make a recipe work!") She has always liked to cook, she adds—but baking has become her passion. When compared to baking, she says, cooking "is like a baseball player warming up for a game."
Maida was born on Long Island and brought up there and in Manhattan. Her mother was a former grade school English teacher; her father was Gabriel Heatter, probably America's most celebrated radio commentator of the 1940s and '50s—famous for opening his wartime broadcasts with the phrase "Ah, there's good news tonight," followed by any bit of good news he could find. After high school, Maida enrolled at New York's Pratt Institute, where she earned a degree in fashion illustration. Shortly after graduation, she
began a successful career working as an illustrator for the New York Herald Tribune Retail-Merchandising Service. She left that when her hobby of making hand-worked silver rings turned into a full-time occupation, and she began toiling around the clock to fulfill orders for an expanded line of fashionable jewelry (and, later, hand-painted scarves and ties) for Macy's. In the late 1940s, she moved to Miami Beach, where she met a National Airlines pilot named Ralph Daniels at a friend's party. "I had some cellophane-wrapped brownies in my pocketbook, as I always do," she tells me, "so that I can give them to people, and when Ralph asked me to dance, I offered him one. He always said that that did it for him." The couple were married in Miami about two years afterward.
In the early 1960s, the recently widowed and seriously ill Gabriel Heatter moved in with Maida and Ralph. Maida urged her husband to find a job that didn't require traveling, and the two of them came up with the idea of opening a little coffee shop in Bay Harbor Islands, a chic Miami Beach neighborhood. "Neither of us knew anything about restaurants," Maida remembers, "but I had just returned from a trip to New York, where I went to a coffee bar that served espresso and cappuccino, and saw a handsome man behind the counter reading the New York Times. It looked like fun to have a little shop like that, so we did it." They called the place Inside ("It was an offbeat name for a restaurant, and we liked that," she says). It was a hit, and soon became a full-scale restaurant.
Maida gave up designing jewelry to bake for the restaurant, and she never looked back. "I've sold my jewelry to many people, and I'm happy to know that they're wearing it," she says, "but I never got the connection that I get when I give someone a favorite recipe or something I've baked." Anyway, she adds, her careers aren't as disparate as they may seem. "It might sound strange," she says, "but the same rule of design that applies to artwork or to a nice dress applies to a brownie: You want to keep it simple."
At the request of restaurant customers, Maida started giving baking classes in her home. When the crowds grew too large, Burdine's, a local department store, began hosting the sessions. But Maida's career really took off in 1968, when the Republican Party held its presidential convention in Miami. Maida thought that she'd drum up a little publicity for Inside by putting elephant meat on the menu in honor of the city's guests. Having tracked down about ten cases of canned elephant meat, she and her husband, adapting a recipe from a friend's restaurant in Kenya, served elephant meat omelettes, with sautéed bananas and chopped peanuts on the side. Not one person ordered it—but the stunt did receive plenty of press. Even Craig Claiborne, then food editor of the New York Times, came by to get the story. What he went away raving about, though, was the amazing array of desserts Maida was serving. She offered him copies of the handwritten recipes that she'd been giving out to the restaurant's customers for years; Claiborne was so impressed by them that he suggested she write a cookbook. She did, and the result was Maida Heatter's Book of Great Desserts (originally published by Knopf in 1974).
Maida's first book became a best-seller, and six more volumes followed over the next 23 years (all of them illustrated by her daughter, Toni Evins, who is now deceased). This November, Cader Books/Andrews McMeel is issuing three compilation volumes—Maida Heatter's Cookies, Maida Heatter's Pies and Tarts, and Maida Heatter's Cakes. Along the way, her work attracted an impressive roster of fans, among them not only Claiborne but Nancy Silverton of the La Brea Bakery and Campanile, Jacques Pépin (who calls Maida's recipes "solid stuff, the best of what's done in America"), and Wolfgang Puck. Maida and Puck became fast friends in 1976, when she taught baking classes at the cooking school attached to the now-defunct Ma Maison restaurant in Los Angeles, where Puck was chef. "She never complained about anything," Puck remembers, in a tone suggesting that certain other instructors did complain, "even when the air-conditioning wasn't working. She just wanted to teach."