Maida Heatter. (Bonnie Heatter/Courtesy of Little, Brown and Company)
Heatter named the East 62nd Street Lemon Cake for the street her daughter lives on in Manhattan. For the recipe, see link below. (Justin Tsucalas for the Washington Post/Food styling by Lisa Cherkasky for the Washington Post)
Ironically, as it would turn out, my first impression of Maida Heatter was that she was meek.
At the behest of cooking school owner Peter Kump, I phoned to invite her to come to New York and teach classes. When she answered at her home in Miami, her voice was soft, her tone was questioning. It would be the only time in my experience that Maida was ever hesitant. When I responded in a similarly modulated way, she bellowed through the receiver, “PLEASE TALK LOUDER! I’M VERY HARD OF HEARING!”
Maida, who died June 6 at age 102, never hesitated to give direction. Perhaps all those years of doing so trained her how to write a recipe, for the directions in hers were clear and firm.
Those classes didn’t work out, but I met Maida in person shortly afterward when she judged a baking competition run by the James Beard Foundation. Here was the Maida I would come to know as a friend and mentor over the next 30 years, basking in the applause of an adoring crowd. This was in the early 1990s; later I would discover that she had sustained the double loss of her only daughter and her husband, Ralph, just a few years before. Maida gloried in displays of affection and admiration, but her hunger for the warmth of an adoring crowd went beyond what a public figure might typically need. She required the love of her fans to keep going in those days.
The two of us had dinner that night. Maida was full of the stories that would be her hallmark: coming home in her 20s to find her father, Gabriel, chatting with FDR over martinis; about a friend who had made a special trip to Miami to tell Maida he was gay when she knew it all along; being introduced to Mildred O’Neill, wife of then-U.S. Rep. Tip O’Neill (D-Mass.), who exclaimed upon hearing Maida’s name, “Palm Beach Brownies!” — one of her most popular recipes.
Maida Heatter, getting ready to bake speculoos cookies with pastry chef Nick Malgieri in her Miami home kitchen in 1999. (Nancy Nicholas)
Maida did eventually teach at Peter Kump’s New York Cooking School. Her first demonstration class started with her famous Queen Mother’s Cake, a dense slab of chocolate. Maida explained the steps of the recipes as I executed them. While I was mixing and finishing a batch, she produced a stiff envelope with an engraved flap bearing the words “Clarence House.” It was an answer to Maida’s inquiry about the origin of the cake. A lady in waiting to Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother had written to say that she had “no knowledge of such a cake recipe but Her Majesty does enjoy some chocolate cake with her afternoon tea.”
After Maida and I worked side by side on those classes, I visited her whenever work took me to Florida. In the spring of 1999, we spent a Saturday at her perfect ’50s Danish modern house on Biscayne Bay. After a long day of baking, she liked to relax with a glass of chardonnay, looking through the wall of glass at the expansive view across the bay to the other side of Miami Beach.
I had brought several versions of a speculoos recipe I wanted to use in a book, and Maida wanted to make some langues de chat, the crisp and delicate cat’s-tongue cookies. I was amazed to discover that she used old-fashioned, lightweight cookie sheets that you could easily fold in half, though in retrospect I shouldn’t have been. It can be hard to remember now what baking cookbooks were like when Maida started writing them, in the days before Food Network and an Instagram full of food photos.
The field was sharply cleaved in two back then, and by that I mean there were textbooks for students and professionals, and there were volumes of very homespun items, such as blueberry muffins and chocolate chip cookies. Maida was the first to bridge the divide and suggest that a home baker in a nonprofessional kitchen might want to create something that looked as though it could have come from a bakery. She used typical home equipment to develop and test her recipes, because she knew that was what her readers would be using. It was critical that the recipes work, and work they did.
Such precision was not reserved just for her cookbooks. That afternoon, as we prepared to bake the langues de chat, I filled a pastry bag with dough and began piping some onto a parchment-lined pan when I noticed that Maida was looking on in horror. I handed her the bag. She immediately put it down and slipped a template of evenly spaced horizontal lines under the parchment on another pan. Then Maida slowly piped out the cookie dough, making each one exactly the same length. She didn’t say anything, but the message was clear: Home-baked didn’t mean sloppy. I’ve used the same method ever since.
Like all great teachers, Maida was tough but fair. On one early visit, she quizzed me game-show style. She extracted chocolaty-looking biscotti from one of the glass cookie jars lining the shelves in her kitchen (always full and always with one kind of cookie apiece) and handed one to me. “Taste that and tell me what two kinds of chocolate are in that dough,” she commanded.
My mouth still full of biscotti crumbs, I blurted, “Milk chocolate and cocoa powder.” I was relieved to learn that it was the right answer. I needed her approval just as much as she needed the approval of her fans.
I was surprised to learn that despite her many friends all over the country, she was often lonely in her later years at home in Miami. Maida was thrilled when a local journalist befriended her; when I remarked how she must be besieged with invitations, Maida said, “Oh, the locals think I’m too important to bother with them so they never call or invite me over.”
Maida continued baking every day up to her mid-90s. For the past eight years, her sister-in-law, Connie Heatter, was her caregiver, living with Maida and preparing meals. Now that Maida is gone, I think about a statement she made when she was about 80: “Well, I just had my yearly physical and the doctor told me that I’m in such good health that I don’t need to come back for 20 years!”
She bested his estimate by almost three years.
Malgieri is a retired pastry chef who continues to teach and write about baking. He is the author of 12 books on the subject.
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