If the secret to a long life is happiness and “Happiness is Baking,” as the title of her ninth and final cookbook suggests, then by transitive property Maida Heatter, the “Queen of Cake,” unlocked something very special, and worthy of our attention. Ms. Heatter died yesterday at age 102 following a life of excellence in baking and adoration from the industry’s top brass.
Born in Freeport, N.Y. on September 7, 1916, it did not always seem that Maida Heatter’s (pronounced MAY-da HEAT-er) life was bending in a culinary direction. After graduating from the Pratt Institute with a degree in fashion illustration, Heatter made her living as a successful jewelry designer in Miami with her wares sold in retail giants like Macy’s and Bergdorf Goodman’s. Having tired of the trade, and in a ploy to keep her third husband and pilot, Ralph Daniels, out of the air and closer to home, Heatter convinced Daniels to open a coffee shop in the 1960s for which she would supply cakes and pastry. Heatter took to baking like a fish to water and before long attracted a local cult following, and the attention of powerful editors, including New York Times food critic Craig Claiborne.
As her star rose, Heatter began publishing painstakingly-crafted dessert recipes in the NY Times including a chocolate torte in 1972 that would become the paper’s most requested (today’s equivalent of most-clicked) recipe of the year. Simultaneously she was churning out larger collections and recipe books like the critically-acclaimed “Book of Great Desserts” (1974) and another on chocolate desserts that sold over 100,000 copies in its first year alone.
Heatter was known for her fastidiousness—reported to make a single dessert 20 or more times before deciding on its recipe— but also her eccentricity. In one of her first acts as a chef in 1968, she tracked down the ingredients for and prepared an elephant omelet in honor of the GOP’s impending political convention to be held in Miami that year. Elephant, of course, being the party’s logo, the publicity stunt had its intended effect and buoyed her further into the public eye.
In all, Heatter wrote or co-wrote more than 20 cookbooks, baked for heads of state, collected three James Beard Awards, and received praise from industry titans like Martha Stewart and Saveur Magazine, who dubbed her the “Queen of Cake.” Her last book, “Happiness is Baking: Favorite Desserts From the Queen of Cake,” was published earlier this year and can be found in stores and online.
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Header image by of Greg Schneider