Maida still spends the better part of almost every day in her kitchen. "I wake up and force myself to spend 30 minutes on the treadmill before I set foot in the kitchen," she says, "because I know that once I'm in there, I never want to leave." On the day I visit her, as it happens, all the ingredients for Queen Mother's cake are neatly lined up on one counter. "I made ten desserts every day for Ralph's restaurant, and this was always one of them," she says. "I never tire of it. Everyone loves it." (They sold the restaurant in 1974; Ralph died in 1991.)
Like most of Maida's desserts, Queen Mother's cake has a story: Apparently an old Austrian classic, it was "discovered" by the pianist Jan Smeterlin in the 1950s. He passed it on to a friend, who reputedly served it at a tea at which England's Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother was a guest. She loved it and asked for the recipe. Maida found that recipe in the New York Herald Tribune in 1962, then worked her magic on it—putting it into her own words, describing every step along the way, gently urging readers to "handle with care"—and included it in her first cookbook. It is delicious and impressive, and, perhaps because it is foolproof (as my early experience proved), the cake's recipe went on to become her most popular.
With an ice pick, Maida chips chunks from a huge block of Callebaut chocolate, on top of a large sheet of parchment paper. She then lifts the paper and funnels the chocolate onto the scale. "I always work on parchment paper," she says. "It's so neat and easy." Next, she weighs the chocolate. "If a recipe calls for six ounces," she counsels, "use six ounces. I'm a Virgo, so all this precision comes naturally to me, but I know that it can be aggravating for others."
Maida's goal is a perfect dessert every time—and she wants those who follow her recipes to achieve the same end. If the recipe doesn't deliver, she wants to know why. A stranger from the Miami area once looked Maida up in the phone book and called her for help with a recipe that she just couldn't make work. "I may have been crazy, but I invited her over to show her how to make it." (It turned out that the lady had been using margarine instead of butter and omitting the sugar, Maida recalls—still sounding a bit annoyed.) On another occasion, the New York Times test kitchen was having problems with one of her pound cake recipes. "I told Ralph about it, and next thing I knew, we were on a plane on our way to New York. We wanted to make sure that recipe worked."
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.
Maida now pours her chunks of chocolate into the top of a double boiler and covers it. "I just use the cover to get the melting started. If you leave it on for too long, it will steam and the moisture will ruin your chocolate." She gives the mixture a stir, then adds coquettishly, "And chocolate has to like you. We love each other." She drops butter into the bowl of her ten-year-old Sunbeam Mixmaster. "This isn't a glamorous mixer," she says, patting the machine, "and it's not considered very chic, but I prefer it to the professional mixers. The bowl is off-center, which lets me scrape down the sides or add ingredients while the machine is running." She swirls in the chocolate and tosses in ground almonds. In another bowl, she beats egg whites. "Wolfgang Puck taught me to add lemon juice to keep the egg whites strong," she says—though she is still careful when folding them into the batter. "Don't worry if the whites aren't completely incorporated. It's better than overworking and deflating them." She gently pours the mixture into a round springform pan.
"Everyone who loves to bake should have plenty of friends who like desserts, and a friendly neighborhood restaurant," Maida says, as she jiggles the pan to evenly distribute the batter. When her friends Michael Schwartz and Miles Chefetz of Nemo—her favorite restaurant in Miami's trendy South Beach—fired their pastry chef suddenly and found themselves without desserts one evening, they called Maida. "I told them not to worry; I rushed over with all sorts of chocolate desserts that I had in my freezer. The customers loooooved them!" And, she adds, "I got my freezer back." Still in her freezer, however, since she won first prize for originality at the International Cooking Olympics held at the Miami Beach Convention Center in 1966, are the little fish that she made out of pie crust dough and filled—she thinks—with sardine paste. "I don't know why I've kept them all this time," she says.
She checks her oven's temperature and gingerly slides the pan inside. "If a recipe calls for a 350°F oven, you'd better be sure your oven is really at 350°F," she warns. "I double-check with two thermometers. And once your food is in there, try to open the oven door as little as possible." While the cake bakes, Maida offers me a glass of Grgich Hills chardonnay, one of her favorites, and tells me about the letters she gets from people who bake from her books. "A few are from people who have problems with recipes, or with their lives, but mostly I get mail about their successes, sometimes with proof. I've seen so many pictures of beautiful mushroom meringues [from her first book]! That just thrills me. I thought it was a pretty tough recipe to master. But so many have!" We continue chatting until the timer buzzes, a brief hour and ten minutes later.
Maida lifts the cake out of the oven and sets it on a damp towel. "The original recipe calls for the towel and I don't know why. But I do it anyway—if it ain't broke, don't fix it!" When the cake has cooled, Maida flips it onto a rotating cake stand, heats heavy cream, chopped chocolate, and Medaglia D'Oro instant espresso powder together into a rich icing, and pours it over the perfectly browned creation. "You really need a cake turner to get that smooth yumminess," she says as she rotates the cake, spreading and smoothing the chocolate icing over it with a metal spatula. "It's gorgeous!" she exclaims. "Glorious!"
My cakes never turn out quite that well—but they're beautiful and they taste great. Maybe it's my oven. Next time, I'll beat the egg whites with lemon juice and check the temperature with two thermometers. I might even buy a cake turner. And when my cake is just perfect, I'll take a picture of it and send it to Maida, to add to her collection.