Sweet talk has paid off for Maida Heatter Career: She caught the attention of the food world when she created elephant omelets in 1968. Now her name is synonymous with extraordinary desserts.

November 05, 1997|By Kathy Martin | Kathy Martin,MIAMI HERALD

The doyenne of desserts, the sultana of sweets, the baroness of biscotti. There's no end to the titles that have been conferred on Maida Heatter over the years, and now there's one more: cover girl. The November issue of the tony food magazine Saveur features a 14-page tribute to the "Queen of Cakes" filled with photos shot in her Miami Beach home. (The cover photo is of her hands, arranging chocolate "cigarettes" on one of her legendary Queen Mother's cakes.) The occasion is the release of Cader Books' "Maida Heatter Classic Library" -- the perfect occasion for a chat.

The only thing better than the perfectly brewed cappuccino and luscious lemon cake at Heatter's kitchen table one recent morning is the conversation. Her boundless exuberance and lusty laugh light up the room. Pour yourself a cup of coffee and join us.

"I am so lucky, I can't tell you. I know women my age who are bored. They have nothing to do. Even if they have family, their families are somewhere else -- their kids, their grandchildren. I really don't [have family]. But I always have so much to do, even if it's that I'm going to go into the kitchen to bake a cake. I'm in seventh heaven -- I'm having so much fun, and it doesn't matter if I give it to the mailman -- it just has nothing to do with it. When you're busy and you're being creative, that's something the outside world can't compete with."

The creation of the polka dot cheesecake featured in the Cakes volume of the new collection is a case in point:

"People say, 'How do you get your ideas?' I don't ever remember trying to get an idea. I always have the feeling that the idea is looking for me. And when it finds me it says, 'Hey, do this.'

"When I was making the cheesecake, I had the white batter in the pan and the chocolate batter in a bowl. I had no idea what I was going to do with it, but something told me to put the chocolate in a pastry bag and squirt it out. So I was standing there with the pastry bag, and my first temptation was to do stripes. But something said, 'No, do circles' [in chocolate on top of the white batter].

"I was sure the chocolate would sink to the bottom or get mixed up inside [the finished cheesecake]. So when I cut into it and saw those perfect chocolate circles, I could not believe it. I was stunned! I've made this two dozen times, and every single time I say to myself, 'OK, it's not going to do that.' But it does. It's so exciting to me, I get a high when I'm doing it! I mean, that's fun."

Convention cookery

It was her sense of fun and flair that set Maida on the serendipitous path to culinary stardom. On the eve of the 1968 Republican Convention in Miami Beach, she and her husband, Ralph Daniels, let it be known that their Bay Harbor Islands restaurant would be serving elephant omelets in honor of the GOP. (Maida had tracked down canned elephant meat in New York and consulted a chef in Kenya on executing her idea.)

The story made newspapers around the United States, and brought famed food writer Craig Claiborne of the New York Times to her door. After sampling the desserts she baked for the restaurant -- and looking over the recipes she had meticulously written out for customers to take home -- he told her she ought to write a cookbook.

"So I started, and I hated it. I'm not a writer, and I was uncomfortable writing. But I kept telling myself, I don't think Craig Claiborne goes around the country telling everybody they ought to write a cookbook, so I've got to respect what he said.

"I didn't mind writing the recipes, but everything about putting it together, making it a book, I just hated. But I kept telling myself I should. So finally, I had all these pages I'd typed -- I'm a two-fingered typist -- and I looked for the name of a publisher. I saw that James Beard and Julia Child were both published by a company named Knopf, so I got the address, put the pages in a box, and sent it to Knopf."

The rest, as they say, is history. Maida's books -- there have been seven, including two James Beard Award winners and several best sellers -- have won her fans and friends far and wide.

"Many years ago, I got a letter from a monk in Spain. He loved to cook, and he cooked once a week for all the brothers. He started writing me, in care of the publisher at first, and we've been writing to each other for 20 years. I don't understand how a monk in a monastery in Spain and I could have so much to talk about, but I guess we do. I address my letters to him, 'Dear FBM' -- favorite Benedictine monk."

Before Craig Claiborne came along, Burdines had recognized her kitchen creativity. In the mid-1960s, the company hired her to design the kitchen department at its downtown store, and then to teach cooking classes.

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