There is a beautiful irony in knowing that all those years Betty Crocker boxed cake mix devotees were strolling the grocery store aisles in a fruitless search of the perfect pre-mixed chocolate birthday centerpiece, home bakers like us had already baked our way through a half dozen seven layer chocolate tortes with Maida Heatter. As we worked up from basic lemon pound cakes to more complex Dobos Tortes architectural feats via her cookbooks (two have recently been re-released), we felt we really got to the true heart of the Queen of Cakes.
And yet even on the eve of the Royal wedding, how can we think of someone so comfortable in the kitchen in such fussy diplomatic terms (“I never have to worry or care who will go to the movies with me if I bake,” she explains)? Yes, even if her Queen Mother's cake recipe is still her favorite. Even her last name (pronounced HEAT-ter, as in to pre-heat the oven), doesn't quite suit, and so in our interview we call her Maida, as she prefers. And the next time you pull out one of her cookbooks, she hopes you will, too. Turn the page for the first part of our interview.
When we contacted Maida's publisher to ask if she would be willing to talk with us, we were told that it might be wise to slug mail several clippings of our work along with a personal note explaining our intentions. Maida doesn't use the computer. (“What's the Internet?”) Just as we pulled out our gifted engraved stationary, we received an email back from the publisher that Maida was ready and waiting. Though like her well-written recipes, Maida had a few important tips for us. (“Please be sure she understands that I am hard of hearing and will have to say what? What? What?”) We love this woman more with every passing decade.
If hard of hearing is all she is at 95-years-old (give or take a few months, her good friend Wolfgang Puck outed her in this November 2008 Washingtonian article), we really hope Maida will consider speaking with the American Dietetic Association about the benefits of a lifetime spent celebrating, not crucifying, homemade dark chocolate brownies and chocolate chip cookies — both of which she baked last week.
Squid Ink: You started out as an artist?
Maida Heatter: Yes I grew up more doing artwork than cooking. I went to the Pratt Institute and studied fashion illustrating.
SI: Do you consider baking an art?
MH: Baking? Oh I definitely consider it an art. There are many similarities.
SI: Why baking rather than, say, cooking?
MH: Can you speak a little louder?
SI: Sorry, of course, yes. Why baking?
MH: Ah, yes. There are a lot of things, a lot of reasons, really. But I like to tell people it's because I never have to worry or care who will go to the movies with me if I bake [laughs]. I always have something that I want to do and it requires no one else. I can do it by myself.
SI: Pretty brilliant self-entertainment that never fades over the years. So do you have a favorite dessert after all these years?
MH: Chocolate! Oh yes, anything chocolate. Chocolate ice cream. Brownies. Those are also very, very popular with other people. The Queen Mother's cake is very popular, too, but I think the brownies are usually the most popular with everyone.
SI: And you like brownies, too?
MH: Oh yes I love brownies. Everyone loves brownies, don't they?
SI: Absolutely. So does that put you in the chewy or cakey brownie camp?
MH: Well, I like them moist. Not dry. There is a recipe for Palm Beach brownies that has a layer of chocolate covered mints. Those are very good.
SI: They sound really, really great. On the recipe list. Is there a secret to a good brownie that you've learned after all these years?
MH: I really don't know any one thing, but you need a good recipe. I completely trust a good recipe.
SI: And you still bake often?
MH: Yes, but not as much as I used to. Not every day, but this week I did. Let's see, well, I baked brownies and chocolate chip cookies. Both of them.
SI: Classics. Always good.
SI: So why cakes and cookies, and not, say, pies?
MH: It just happened, the cakes. Pies, I love those, too. But I just never did as many pies or that kind of baking. I'm not really sure why.
SI: Seems like a good enough reason to us. So do you have a favorite cake these days?
MH: Probably the Queen Mother's Cake. Yes. It was the first flourless chocolate cake that I had heard of. Now you see them everywhere. They usually have ground nuts that take the place of flour, like this one does. It's still my favorite.
SI: The flourless chocolate cakes we've made often collapse shortly after we take them out of the oven. Is there a solution, or is that just what you should expect with a flourless cake that doesn't have as much structure as other cakes?
MH: [Laughs] I don't use the word “collapse.” It does sink a little. But that's just part of that cake.
SI: Ha. Got it. So sunken flourless chocolate cake centers are par for the course. Any true baking disasters over the years?
MH: You know, I can't think of a baking disaster. Wait, hold on. [Pauses, puts down the phone] My sister-in-law, Connie, wants to talk to you.
Check back for part 2 of our interview with Maida, and a recipe.