First lady of American desserts goes for simplicity and flavor

The introduction to Maida Heatter's fifth dessert cookbook, ``Maida Heatter's Book of Great American Desserts'' (Knopf, $25), reads like another verse of ``The Star-Spangled Banner.'' In it, Ms. Heatter mentions John F. Kennedy, old quilts, the Pennsylvania Dutch, Pikes Peak, the Grand Canyon, Central Park, mesquite, spatterware, and Manhattan, and ends with a resounding, ``God bless America.''

What would you expect from the first lady of American desserts?

But what is as absent as olives in a chocolate chip cookie from this patriotic prose is the dog-eared clich'e ``as American as apple pie.''

``It's really not the most American dessert, you know,'' says Ms. Heatter. ``Ice cream is. Maybe it used to be apple pie, but certainly more people eat ice cream for dessert these days than apple pie -- or anything else.''

She jokes about a recent newspaper article where she was misquoted as saying the No. 1 dessert was cheesecake. ``That's popular, too, but today ice cream has everything beat.''

Not that apple pie is ignored. That would be treason in a book of American desserts. Ms. Heatter includes a wonderful recipe for ``Apple Pie, USA.''

``Apple pie was often served as a breakfast meal years ago. Thick and juicy, [the pies] were often topped with cheese. And so runny they'd serve a wedge in a large soup bowl and eat it with a spoon,'' Ms. Heatter explains.

Dessert as a meal in itself is nothing new in the Heatter kitchen. ``Many times when I'm working on a new book, I'll make a dessert as our dinner. Many desserts make wonderful meals. Like a bread pudding. It's a wonderful custard with milk, bread, eggs, and raisins. Rice pudding, or apple-pan-dowdy too, are great meals in themselves.'' (A great idea for those of us who like to binge on dessert but not after a filling full-course meal.)

Desserts have evolved over the years, Ms. Heatter explains.

``They've become much more interesting in the past 10 or 20 years. They used to be very specialized. Unless there was a place known for desserts you couldn't count on much.

``Today, any average to good restaurant is serving wonderful, homemade desserts rather than the commercial stuff they used to buy. Interesting things like the wild rice pudding in this book. It's divine! A simple rice pudding but made with wild rice. Very original and very American.

``Another thing,'' she continues, ``some of the finest restaurants in the country are serving desserts that Americans used to consider only something we'd eat at home. Bread pudding is one of the most popular examples.''

But how have American desserts fared in light of the current obsession with ``slim'' or ``spa'' cuisine and Cuisine Minceur?

``My favorite story,'' says Ms. Heatter, ``is one my husband tells:

``We were in a hotel in New York overlooking Central Park. The woman interviewing me asked, `Well, how do you explain all these rich, heavy desserts when everyone is so conscious about fitness and weight and calories?' My husband said, `Miss So and So, would you just look out this window? See all those young people running?'

``Well, they were all running down to the corner to the H"agen-Dazs ice-cream stand. They'd eat their fill of ice cream and then start jogging again.''

Maida Heatter's favorite American dessert? Well, the one she keeps going back to is brownies.

``I keep experimenting and changing them, but no matter what I do, Ralph [her husband] says, `I like the one in your first book the best.' ''

Not too surprising. It was that brownie from Maida's first book that was a Cupid's arrow when they first met. Says Ms. Heatter: ``That brownie was the key to Ralph's heart.''

As Ralph tells it, ``I was at a party in Miami and Maida came around serving these brownies. I took one bite and thought, `This is just wonderful. I wonder what else she can do. Most of the women I had been going around with couldn't bake or anything.' ''

When talking about desserts that go amiss somewhere along the baking route, Ms. Heatter says that the most common piece of equipment overlooked in baking is the oven thermometer. ``People will often blame a recipe if their cake doesn't rise when the problem is likely to be oven temperature.

``No matter how good or new their oven is, everyone should have a portable mercury oven thermometer,'' she advises. ``They cost $6 or $7 and you can get them in hardware stores. I would never dream of putting anything in an oven without one.''

Some desserts may be fancy and beautiful and difficult to make, but in the final analysis Ms. Heatter stresses simplicity, and especially flavor, above all else.

``There's a gingersnap cookie in this book that I'd put up against any cookie in the world,'' she says. It's the same recipe Ms. Heatter's mother served to her husband, Gabriel, during the many years he did radio news broadcasts from their home. My Mother's Gingersnaps 1/2 cup candied ginger, loosely packed 2 cups unsifted all-purpose flour 1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda 3/4 teaspoon salt 3/4 teaspoon finely ground fresh black pepper 1 1/2 teaspoons ground ginger 1/2 pound (two sticks) unsalted butter 1 cup granulated sugar 3/4 cup dark molasses 1 large egg 1 1/4 teaspoons cider vinegar 1 cup unsifted whole wheat flour

Cut ginger into pieces 1/4 inch or less and set aside.

Sift together all-purpose flour, baking soda, salt, pepper, and ground ginger. Set aside.

In large bowl of electric mixer, beat butter until soft. Add sugar and beat to mix. Beat in molasses, egg, and vinegar (it may look curdled, but that's OK). Then beat in cut candied ginger. Add sifted dry ingredients and whole wheat flour and beat on low speed until incorporated.

Spread out three lengths of wax paper or foil. Place one-third of dough on each paper. Wrap and refrigerate overnight. If you can't wait, freeze the packages for about an hour.

Before baking, adjust two racks to divide the oven into thirds. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Line cookie sheets (preferably the kind with only one raised rim) with aluminum foil, shiny side up.

To roll dough, generously flour a pastry cloth and rolling pin. Place one piece of chilled dough on cloth and press down on it a few times with rolling pin. Turn dough over to flour both sides and roll out dough to 1/4-inch thickness. Work quickly. Dough becomes sticky if allowed to reach room temperature. Reflour cloth and pin as necessary.

With round cookie cutter measuring 3 1/8 inches in diameter (or any other size), cut out cookies. Reserve scraps and press together. Wrap and rechill.

With wide metal spatula, quickly transfer cookies to foil-lined sheets, placing them 2 inches apart.

Bake two sheets at a time, reversing the sheets top to bottom and front to back once during baking to ensure even baking. As they bake, cookies will rise and then settle down into thin waferlike cookies. They will take about 15 minutes to bake; if you bake only one sheet, use a rack in the middle of the oven -- one sheet might bake in slightly less time.

When cookies are done, remove sheets from oven and let stand until just barely cool. (If you have used sheets with only one raised rim, slide foil off sheet and slide sheet -- which may be hot -- under another piece of foil already prepared with cookies on it and continue baking.)

Lift cookies away from foil or transfer them with a wide metal spatula. (If the backs of cookies stick to foil, return them to the oven for more baking).

Place cookies on racks to finish cooling or just turn them over to allow the bottoms to dry.

Store in airtight containers. Makes about 35 cookies. Apple Pie, USA 3 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon unsifted flour 3/4 cup granulated sugar 1 teaspoon cinnamon 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg 1/4 teaspoon salt 3 pounds Granny Smith, Jonathan, Winesap, or Cortland apples 1 ounce (1/4 stick) unsalted butter, cut in pieces and refrigerated

Prepare a double amount of pie pastry for a 9-inch pie. Divide in half, shape into slightly flattened ball, flour lightly, wrap in plastic wrap, and refrigerate several hours.

Place one ball of dough on lightly floured pastry cloth. Pound lightly with floured rolling pin. Roll out dough to 12 inches and of even thickness, keeping everything well floured.

Place dough on bottom of pie plate, shape, and trim to 1/4 inch overlap.

Place 1 teaspoon flour in the crust and brush evenly on dough. Refrigerate pie plate with bottom crust in place. Lightly reflour pastry cloth and roll out second piece of dough. Place a flat-rimmed cookie sheet under pastry cloth and transfer cloth and dough to refrigerator.

Adjust rack one-third up from bottom of oven. Preheat to 450 degrees F.

In a small bowl, mix together remaining 3 tablespoons of flour with sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, and salt. Set aside.

With vegetable parer peel apples, cut them into quarters, remove cores, and slice quarters into four slices.

Measure 8 to 9 cups of apples and place in a large bowl. Add sugar and flour mixture and toss. Turn mixture into bottom crust. Scatter pieces of butter on top.

Place top crust over apples. With floured finger tips, press rim of top crust against wet bottom rim and trim overlap with scissors.

With small knife cut 8 1-inch slits in top of crust. Brush top with milk and sprinkle with sugar. Place pie on cookie sheet or foil to catch bubbling juices.

Bake for 15 minutes, then reduce heat to 425 degrees F. and bake an additional 45 minutes.

Cool on rack and serve when barely cooled to room temperature.

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