All hail the queen of cake

Maida Heatter’s cookbook is a keeper thanks to the decadent recipes, including zingy gingerful biscotti and ethereal orange puff cake.

Courtesy of Little, Brown and Co.
‘Happiness is Baking’ by Maida Heatter, Little, Brown and Co., 288 pp.

I’m an avid home baker, self-taught – though not really: Maida Heatter was my teacher. Beginning in the mid-1970s and into the 1990s, she was to baking what Craig Claiborne was to cooking: first stop on a recipe search. 

My mother didn’t bake (too fattening) and my grandmother was pretty much a one-trick pony (amazingly dainty crescent-shaped rugelach). I, on the other hand, derive a perhaps deluded sense of well-being from having fresh home-baked cookies on hand at all times. 

Heatter’s prolific output of classic titles – “Great Desserts,” “Great Cookies,” “Great Chocolate Desserts,” “New Greats,” “Great American Desserts,” and “Best Dessert Book Ever” – assured that our taste buds would never atrophy from boredom.

Most of these books have been out of print for years, which makes “Happiness Is Baking,” a greatest hits collection of more than 100 favorite recipes, cause for celebration. It’s high time to introduce the queen of cake, as Saveur magazine dubbed her, to a new generation of bakers. Heatter, now a centenarian, reminds us in her introduction that baking cookies is a great way to relax.  

Before there were food blogs and online comments, my friends and I greeted each new Maida Heatter book of treats with an avidity usually reserved for shoe sales. 

We baked and baked and then compared notes over phones that were still tethered to kitchen walls. Heatter extols us to mark up cookbooks like textbooks. My original editions are adorned with penciled comments like “Peggy’s favorite” (Budapest coffee cake) and “Superb!” (spicy sponge roll, still one of my holiday staples).

Heatter’s instructions are meticulous and fool-proof, down to how to line a pan with aluminum foil. But it’s her enthusiastic, texture-specific descriptions of the results you can expect if you follow her recipes to a T that inspired a whole generation of bakers to pull out their measuring cups. 

Who can resist yet another brownie recipe (Palm Beach brownies) when they’re introduced as “the biggest, thickest, gooiest, chewiest, darkest, sweetest, mostest-of-the-most chocolate bars with an almost wet middle and crisp-crunchy top”? 

I’m happy to report that many of my go-to recipes, including gingerful biscotti and chocolate mousse torte, have made the cut for her new collection. 

The book is prefaced by a brief tribute by Dorie Greenspan, a Heatter protégée. It has an updated, contemporary look, with bold, bright illustrations by Alice Oehr. But rest assured that none of the recipes have been tampered with – not even to translate measurements into weights (which would have been nice), or to increase the salt to accommodate modern tastes.

Courtesy of Little, Brown and Co.
Illustration from ‘Happiness is Baking’ © 2019 by Maida Heatter. Used with permission of Little, Brown and Co., New York. All rights reserved.

You won’t want to change a thing about gingerful biscotti, which zing with an inspired combination of crystallized ginger, ground ginger, white pepper, mustard powder, cinnamon, and cloves. But you may quibble with her call to mix dry and wet ingredients with a spatula. I can assure you that a stand mixer produces excellent results with greater ease – although I wonder whether the physical exertion plays a role in Heatter’s longevity. 

The publication of this retrospective inspired me to try a recipe I’ve eyed over the years but always considered too time-consuming: orange puff cake.  

Heatter writes that she made it at least once a week for her father. Nice daughter. To prepare this orange-zested chiffon cake as instructed – hand-whisking 10 egg whites in a wide shallow platter or bowl – is a labor of love. I did it, though it required my husband’s help, especially with the step that calls for dribbling a thin stream of scalding sugar syrup into the beaten whites while continuing to hand-whisk. 

Was it worth the trouble? The cake was ethereal. Like most of the recipes in this book, it’s a keeper. Though next time, I’ll be using a stand mixer.

• Heller McAlpin reviewed fiction and nonfiction for former Books Editor Marjorie Kehe for years before they discovered a shared passion for baking. With Marjorie’s encouragement, she began writing cookbook roundups in 2011. 

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