What's inside a cookbook counts, but we still judge a book by its cover. Which is why even those books that should be on everyone's shelves, like Maida Heatter's 1997 classic Cakes (itself a compilation of two 1980s titles by Heatter) really do take on a fresh feel with a design revamp, recipe tune-up, and reissue under the same title. Heatter has simultaneously released the matching -- cover-wise, at least -- book Cookies, a compilation of her best cookie recipes of the past quarter century (more on that later).
In Cakes, we are promised a look at what the baking guru considers her best 175 recipes, an impressive number for most of us who can count the number of memorable cakes we've made on one hand. Here, the category includes muffins, as those sweet breakfast "breads" very well should be among their sweet brethren. There are a handful of ice creams and sauce recipes here, too, including Spago's caramel ice cream. But we know we all really showed up for those cakes.
The cake recipes range from desserts that Heatter has herself developed over the years, such as a chocolate peanut butter banana cake that she whipped up for the inaugural Hershey's Chocolatefest, to those recipes that friends have given her over the years, like that chocolate port cake from a Williams-Sonoma book buyer and pecan sour cream muffins from former Neiman Marcus chef Helen Corbitt. The same charming stories are here, too, including one recalling the recent divorcée who wrote Heatter for a particular cheesecake recipe after his wife made off with all of their cookbooks. We'd mail the guy the recipe, too.
New cover notwithstanding, there is still that distinct 1970s/80s nostalgia feel to the book, with four recipes for banana bread alone -- not counting that Hershey's chocolate cake and another for "banana black cake," a heavily spiced southern recipe that adds walnuts, dates and blackberry jam to the mix. Among the sea of banana breads, there is a traditional whole wheat-pecan version, but also a Cuban variation with bran cereal and walnuts, a banana-carrot hybrid, a pecan-peanut butter-whole wheat version and a peanut-banana loaf. Yet even after one too many slices growing up, we still want to try them all.
Perking up nostalgia with fresh ingredients creatively is precisely the power of Heatter's baking. It isn't too complicated, nor is it so basic that you really don't want to try yet another chocolate layer cake. Sure, you might have a cheesecake recipe you love, as Heatter makes clear she does, too. But then you see another in the book you must try, like that currant version, or maybe just for fun, the "polka dot cheesecake" (a recipe not in the previous editions of the book) that promises to pepper chocolate orbs throughout your cheesecake. There are "Fancy Cakes" here, too, with a Paris-Brest recipe ("This is extra special!") and one for a walnut tart from Saint-Paul-de-Vence ("this is called a tart and is made with pastry, but it is really a very fancy cake") enveloped in their own little chapter.
Why do we need another cake book from Heatter? Well, as she describes in the introduction to that "8-Hour Cheesecake" recipe, "The fun and excitement, the satisfaction, the hoopla of cooking will never fade. On the contrary, for me it gets more so." Better still, in this book, we don't need a single glossy photo or Food Network stamp of approval to be tempted by this Kansas City chocolate pudding cake recipe.
Kansas City Chocolate Dream
From: Maida Heatter's Cakes
Note from Heatter: This cake does not need a thing but a plate and fork. However, if you are serving it for a birthday party or some other festivity, ice cream is wonderful with it.
Serves: 8 to 9
1 cup sifted all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder (preferably Dutch-process)
²⁄3 cup granulated sugar
¾ cup milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 ounce (¼ stick) unsalted butter, melted
½ cup walnuts, broken into medium-size pieces
¹⁄3 cup granulated sugar
6 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder (preferably Dutch-process)
½ cup dark brown sugar, firmly packed
2 teaspoons granular instant coffee
1 cup water
1. Cake: Adjust a rack one-third up from the bottom of the oven and preheat the oven to 350°. Butter a shallow 8-inch square cake pan and set aside.
2. Sift together into the small bowl of an electric mixer the flour, baking powder, salt, cocoa, and sugar. Add the milk, vanilla, and melted butter, and beat until smooth and slightly pale in color. Remove the bowl from the mixer. Stir in the nuts. Turn into the buttered pan and smooth the top. Let stand.
3. Topping: In a small, heavy saucepan combine all the ingredients. Stir over rather high heat until the sugars melt and the mixture comes to a full boil. Gently ladle the boiling hot mixture all over the cake batter.
4. Bake for 40 minutes until a toothpick inserted gently into the cake comes out clean. (During baking the topping will sink to the bottom.) Set aside to cool in the pan. When the cake has cooled, cover with a square or oblong serving plate or a cutting board. Holding them firmly together, turn the pan and the plate over. If the cake does not slide out of the pan easily (and it probably will not), hold the plate and the pan firmly together upside down and tap them on the work surface. Now the cake will come out, and it will be covered with the topping, some of which will still be in the pan; use a rubber spatula to remove it all and put it on the cake. Smooth the top gently or pull the topping up into uneven peaks.
5. Serve immediately or let stand all day or freeze. (If you freeze this do not cover with plastic wrap; the topping never does freeze hard and plastic wrap will stick to it. Just cover the whole thing with an inverted box deep enough so it doesn't touch the cake.) Freezing diminishes the flavor of all foods, especially this. Although this can be served frozen, it has more flavor if it is brought to room temperature.