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Remembering Maida Heatter

(This article appeared in the Fall 2019 issue of Pastry Arts Magazine)

Throughout the thirty-odd years that Maida Heatter was a friend and mentor to me, she freely shared reminiscences of her life that included stories about her family and many friends, sources for her recipe ideas, and tasty observations about the state of baking and bakers in the United States.

Maida learned to love cooking and baking at her mother’s side, but fresh out of art school, her first professional project was painting silk scarves and selling them to Fifth Avenue department stores. She would set up to do this on the family’s dining room table while her mother looked on, cringing at the thought that some paint might drip onto the room’s white carpet.

Her early life with a mother who loved to cook and bake and her training and practice as an artist all contributed to her ability to bake wonderfully and to begin creating recipes of her own. Writing came naturally to the Heatters: her father was a radio journalist and she and her younger brother, Basil, would both become authors.

Twice divorced, Maida never shared any details about her first two marriages, although she frequently mentioned her third husband, Ralph Daniels. Her first marriage gave Maida her adored daughter, Toni; her second left Maida with an ultra-chic 1950s Danish modern house on the shore of Biscayne Bay in Miami Beach. Permanently on the coffee table was the issue of House Beautiful in which the house appeared in August, 1956. The magazine’s editor had a reputation for being difficult, and Maida breathed a sigh of relief when she answered the door and the editor threw her arms around Maida, exclaiming that anyone who had an antique cookie mold of a cat and dog hanging next to her front door was exactly right for the magazine. Aside from photos of the rooms and details of the furnishings, the article included a small photo of a croquembouche, a French conical pyramid of caramel-coated cream puffs, made by Maida.

The article brought Maida assignments to write about decorating, and her reputation as a hostess who actually prepared the food she served to her guests propelled her to celebrity chef status in the Miami area. She was soon teaching monthly demonstration-style classes at a Miami department store. Writing recipes for these classes prompted the development of her thorough and meticulous writing style.

A lifelong cookbook collector, she drew inspiration from her collection for her recipes, yet transformed and revamped any recipe she tried so it became truly her own. A chance connection with the New York Times food editor in 1968 introduced Maida to a national audience, and she would soon become a household name across the country.

Maida and I first met at a Miami area function where she was a judge for a baking competition. After the event, we sat in the hotel lobby and sipped white wine while we talked about baking recipes, as bakers always do. We also discussed her impending visit to teach at the old Peter Kump’s Cooking School on East 92nd Street in Manhattan. Unfortunately an accidental injury prevented Maida from making that trip, but she returned several years later to new facilities in a demonstration room that seated close to 100 people. Maida was in rare form during the class – while I was mixing and finishing a batch of Queen Mother’s Cake, she produced a stiff envelope whose flap was engraved with the words Clarence House. It was an answer to Maida’s inquiry about the origin of the cake. A lady in waiting to Queen Mother Elizabeth 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.” We did several other classes like that one, with Maida explaining the steps of the recipes while I executed them.

After those first few classes I visited Maida whenever work took me to Florida. Sometimes we baked together, and during a visit in the spring of 1999 we spent a Saturday trying out recipes. I had brought several versions of a speculaas recipe I wanted to use in a book, and Maida wanted to make some langues de chat, or crisp, delicate cat’s tongue cookies. We tried the speculaas molds I had brought, and then Maida suggested we try making a giant one using the wooden speculaas mold that hung next to the front door. The first attempt was a disaster, but the second unmolded and baked beautifully. Next came the cat’s tongue cookies. I was amazed that Maida used old-fashioned lightweight cookie sheets that you could easily fold in half. I filled a pastry bag with the dough and began piping some on a parchment-covered pan when I noticed that Maida was looking on in horror. I handed her the bag and she put it down and slipped a template of evenly spaced horizontal lines under the parchment on another pan. Then Maida slowly piped out the cookies making each one exactly the same length. Back then, Maida’s kitchen always featured a lineup of identical glass cookie jars, each containing a single type of cookie or biscotti.

Maida Heatter was never a pastry chef, but her books inspired several generations of professional bakers as well as home cooks. Maida continued baking every day up to her mid-nineties. 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 years old: “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 the doctor’s estimate by almost three years.

Nick Malgieri
Nick Malgieri
Nick Malgieri is the author of 12 pastry and baking cookbooks, and the founder of the baking program at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City.