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The Queen of Cakes, That’s Maida Heatter

She mastered the art of cookie diplomacy.

Photo of Maida Heatter
Photography by: Greg Schneider

I like to say that everything I know about baking I learned from Maida Heatter. Sure, there were other outstanding teachers along the way (Martha, Julia, and Dorie among them), but no one taught me as much about how to turn out the most consistently crowd-pleasing sweets than the so-called “Queen of Cakes.” 

 

Heatter is the author of seven dessert cookbooks, published from 1974 until 1995, plus other collections of recipes compiled from her earlier books. Her recipes are long and very detailed. Yet within those long-winded paragraphs are untold numbers of suggestions, admonitions, reassurances, hard-earned bits of wisdom, and other tips designed to make you a competent and more confident baker. It’s as if she’s standing beside you in the kitchen, encouraging you as you go along. She always knows exactly when you might start to doubt yourself and your recipe-following abilities. At just such a moment in a typical Heatter recipe, you will usually read something like this: “The mixture might look curdled -- O.K.” Or  “You may think there is not enough liquid, but there is -- just keep stirring.” Or “Slice on an angle; the sharper the angle, the longer the cookies and the more difficult it will be to slice them very thin -- but you can do it, and they will be gorgeous.” 

 

I love those lengthy recipes, and everything else about Heatter’s books -- the memorable head notes (wherein desserts are not just “gorgeous” but also luxurious or divine or “exciting to make and a thrill to serve”), the simple line drawings by her daughter Toni Evans, and the front-and-back-jacket photos of long tables covered in desserts, with a beaming Maida standing behind them. More than anything, I love how well the recipes work. In fact, there has never been a recipe in the many dozens I’ve tried that I didn’t feel like making again immediately.

 

(MAKE: these Lemon-Date Bars that were inspired by Maida Haetter's recipe)

 

For someone who has been so influential to American home bakers and professional pastry chefs alike, Maida Heatter is not a household name, though she very well should be. (In fact, even among those who are aware of her, many aren’t sure how to pronounce her name  -- for the record, it’s MAY-da HEAT-ter). 

 

There are few published articles about Maida Heatter; even her Wikipedia page feels scant. But bake your way through her books, and you’ll learn as much as there is to know. She’s a Virgo, which she repeats often as justification for her insistence on precision. Her father was a well-known radio personality in the 1940s. She grew up in New York, studied at Pratt Institute, and worked as an illustrator and jewelry designer.  She made a name for herself once she moved to Miami and opened a cafe with her beloved husband, Ralph. She was passionate about baking, and though never classically trained, she made every dessert on the café’s menu. She eventually taught baking classes and developed something of a following. After meeting New York Times food writer Craig Claiborne, she gave him some of her most popular recipes from the restaurant, and he suggested she publish a book. “Maida Heatter's Book of Great Desserts” was published in 1974 and the rest, as they say, is culinary history.

 

In the 20+ years that I’ve been baking from Maida Heatter’s cookbooks, I’ve picked up countless invaluable tricks, and become a passionate baker myself. Among just a few of her tidbits: adding a little espresso powder makes almost any chocolate batter taste more complex; grinding whole almonds along with the flour in a biscotti recipe produces the perfect texture; and carrying cellophane-wrapped brownies in your purse will win you lots of friends (and apparently in Maida’s case, her husband). 

 

(BAKE: Brownies, They're Very Useful for Cookie Diplomacy)

 

She was once asked “What do you do with all the cookies?” Her answer: “I’ve had  a few problems in my life, but what to do with cookies has never been one of them. The answer is that I give them away. And it is magic. It is the original “How to Win Friends.” (It is called cookie diplomacy). It makes people happy and that, in turn, makes me happy. Happiness is baking cookies. Happiness is giving them away.”

 

Maida Heatter turned 100 (!) last September. I’ve never met her, but I did have the pleasure of watching as her Book of Great Desserts, was inducted into the James Beard Foundation’s Cookbook Hall of Fame, in 1998. After collecting her award, she stood on stage and threw cellophane-wrapped brownies from her purse to the very lucky audience. On the acknowledgments page of that same book, she wrote, “My mother taught me that cooking is an act of love -- and a beautiful, mountainous escape.” I feel exactly the same, though I learned that lesson not from my mother, but from Maida.