Book Review

Maida Heatter’s Book of Great Desserts

May 21, 2007

Maida Heatter began her culinary career making desserts for her husband’s Miami Beach restaurant in her home kitchen (a practice now illegal in most states). Her sweets were so well received that Craig Claiborne, the New York Times food writer, persuaded her to compile them in a cookbook: Maida Heatter’s Book of Great Desserts, first published more than three decades ago.

The charm of Heatter’s book is not necessarily in the recipes themselves, many of which are decidedly dated (like the restaurant’s best-selling Raspberry-Strawberry Bavarian, which contains strawberry gelatin, strawberry ice cream, and frozen raspberries and strawberries packed in syrup), but in the directions themselves, which are friendly and conversational. In the aforementioned Bavarian, for example, Heatter writes, “Use a fork to break up the frozen fruit a bit, then use your bare hands until there are no pieces larger than a single piece of fruit. It feels cold, but it does the best job.”

Heatter’s tips come with explanations that sound like they’re coming from a friend, not from a book. Of timers, she writes, “The minute you put the cake into the oven set a timer, if you have one. But even if you do, write down the time that it should be finished. Good insurance.”

When she gives instructions for how to fold together ingredients, she tells how to do so with a rubber spatula, an electric mixer, or “with your bare hand.” And she explains the method to her madness: “If a recipe says to line a cookie sheet with aluminum foil, it is not because I am a fuddy-duddy and care about keeping cookie sheets clean. The foil is essential to keep the cookies from sticking.”

Unfortunately, Heatter seldom offers insights into the origin or development of a dessert. For example, what is so quintessentially “Palm Beach” about Palm Beach Chocolate Layer Cake? What about Palm Beach Chocolate Tube Cake? They must really like chocolate in Palm Beach.

But some of the desserts are classics, and deservedly so; Heatter’s Crème Brûlée and Chocolate Mousse Heatter are both modern and timeless. And with her cookbooks still being reprinted and reissued as recently as 2006, so is she.

Cookbook author Keri Fisher (One Cake, One Hundred Desserts) has written for Saveur, Gastronomica, and Cook’s Illustrated. She lives outside Philadelphia with her husband and two sons.

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