Maida Heatter, whose cookbooks with recipes for star-spangled banana cake, brown sugar icing and other dessert fare earned her the nickname “the Queen of Cake,” died Thursday at her home in Miami Beach. She was 102.
Her sister-in-law, Constance Heatter, who had been caring for her in recent years, confirmed her death.
Heatter (pronounced HEAT-er) had an early career as a fashion illustrator and jewelry designer before she opened a cafe, called the Inside, in Miami Beach in the 1960s. She drew the attention of Craig Claiborne, a food editor for The New York Times.
“She is hands down the foremost food authority in Florida,” Claiborne wrote in a 1968 article. The Times began featuring her recipes.
In 1974 she published “Maida Heatter’s Book of Great Desserts,” the first of a string of titles that included “Happiness Is Baking: Favorite Desserts From the Queen of Cake,” published just two months ago.
If her recipes were sinfully rich and calorie-filled, she was unapologetic. She even saw the health benefits in desserts.
“A few days ago I heard a doctor talking on television about the dangers of stress,” she wrote in “Maida Heatter’s Cookies” (1997). “It can kill you. It can cause a heart attack or a stroke. The doctor listed ways of coping with stress. Exercise. Diet. Yoga. Take a walk. I yelled, ‘Bake cookies.’
“Baking cookies is a great escape,” she added. “It’s fun. It’s happiness. It’s creative. It’s good for your health. It reduces stress.”
Maida Heatter was born Sept. 7, 1916, in Baldwin, New York, to Gabriel and Saidie (Hermalin) Heatter. Her father was a well-known radio broadcaster. Her mother instilled in her a love of cooking. She was, Heatter told Claiborne, “a most unusual woman who could do anything in the world, but cooking was her No. 1 love.”
Maida Heatter studied fashion and design at Pratt Institute in New York and saw a connection between that area of interest and cooking.
“I definitely consider it an art,” she told L.A. Weekly in 2011. “There are many similarities.”
The switch from designing to baking came in 1966, soon after she had married Ralph Daniels, her third husband.
“Just after we were married, Ralph retired and decided to open a restaurant in Miami Beach, where we were living,” she told The Times in 1995. “I volunteered to make the desserts, which turned out to be a wild success.”
She was not a culinary professional, which she thought worked to her advantage.
“I had no training, so I wasn’t bound by any rules,” she said. “But I did think that every problem had a solution.”
The catalyst for her cookbook-writing career may have not been a dessert but an omelet. In 1968, the Republican National Convention was held in Miami Beach, and Heatter had the idea of offering an elephant omelet (with actual elephant meat) as a promotional stunt. That seems to have been what drew Claiborne to her restaurant. His 1968 article started out talking about the omelet, but by its end he was focusing on her bittersweet chocolate mousse and her signature Queen Mother Cake.
It was Claiborne who eventually urged her to collect her recipes into a cookbook — although, as he noted in 1974, when “The Book of Great Desserts” came out, a last-minute glitch had Heatter scrambling.
“Shortly after receiving a letter of acceptance from her publisher,” Claiborne wrote, “a stove‐repair man arrived at Maida’s home and discovered that the oven temperature was almost 25 degrees awry.” She had tested her recipes on that stove; she had to redo her handwritten manuscript to adjust the numbers.
Heatter’s books were full of tips as well as recipes.
“Glass or plastic measuring cups with the measurements marked on the side and the 1-cup line below the top are only for measuring liquids,” she wrote in “Maida Heatter’s Book of Great Chocolate Desserts,” first published in 1980. “Do not use them for flour or sugar.”
That book included a recipe for what she called “September 7th Cake.”