Maida Heatter, the spirited self-taught baker and cookbook author who handed out meticulously wrapped brownies as business cards and won the admiration of home bakers and famous chefs alike, died Thursday at her home in Miami Beach. She was 102.
"I had no training, so I wasn't bound by any rules," Heatter once said. But she was a perfectionist. She tested recipes 15 to 20 times and retested every recipe in her first book after discovering that her oven was off by 35 degrees.
So solid were her recipes that titles such as The Best Damn Lemon Cake, Positively-the-Absolute-Best-Chocolate-Chip-Cookies and Four-Star French Chocolate Ice Cream were accepted as fact. Saveur magazine called her the Queen of Cake. Chefs and home cooks admired her.
"Whenever someone tells me they want to learn to bake, I tell them to start with Maida Heatter's books. That's what I did," said cookbook author Dorie Greenspan, who wrote the foreword to Heatter's most recent book, published in April. "She wrote recipes that made you feel she was there with you, helping you at every step and cheering you on. And those recipes could always be trusted. She was called 'Queen of Cake,' but in my house I thought of her as a kitchen god."
Before her public breakthrough in the 1970s, she went about the business of making desserts for her husband's coffee shop-turned-restaurant in Miami Beach. One noteworthy promotional gimmick had nothing to do with baking, and it led to a lifelong friendship with the late New York Times food critic Craig Claiborne.
Once Heatter learned that the 1968 Republican National Convention was to be held in Miami Beach, she dreamed up the elephant omelet. Initially a joke she thought up over drinks, she grew determined to serve it at the restaurant, which was owned by her third husband, Ralph Daniels.
She tracked down a distributor of canned elephant meat and contacted experts in Kenya for the best way to prepare it. The dish got widespread media attention even though only a single order was served.
Claiborne was drawn in, coming away impressed by the desserts that Heatter was making for the restaurant and by the recipes she handed out. Daniels encouraged her to write them comprehensively, which became Heatter's hallmark.
Claiborne urged her to do a cookbook and championed her in print, calling her "the foremost food authority in Florida." Five years later, Heatter shipped a typed manuscript to Alfred A. Knopf in New York. She figured that if the publishing house was good enough for Julia Child, it would do for her as well.
Based on the strength of Heatter's well-constructed recipes, Knopf published the "Book of Great Desserts" in 1974 yet did not promote it. Word spread through newspaper food sections and wire services, then Woman's Day magazine bought the rights to the book.
By the time Heatter produced a third cookbook, on chocolate desserts, Knopf sent her on a 15-city tour. The book sold 100,000 copies in its first year.
In 1983, she was asked to make dessert — her beloved Key lime pie — for a heads-of-state dinner at President Reagan's Economic Summit Conference in Williamsburg. Va. Heatter had to find a source for the fruit, which was not commercially grown at the time. The 15 pies never made it to the table; they were dropped by the Secret Service, whose security detail included tasting the dessert.
Maida Heatter was born Sept. 7, 1916, in Freeport, N.Y., the older of two children of the former Saidie Hermalin and Gabriel Heatter, the famed radio broadcaster.