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Maida Heatter

Our First Culinary Patriot

This article is quoted on the back cover.
Maida Heatter (rhymes with "eater") is the recipient of two coveted James Beard awards. She has published seven bestselling books on the subject of chocolate and desserts including Maida Heatter's Book of Great Desserts (1974), Maida Heatter's Brand-New Book of Great Cookies (1995), and Maida Heatter's Book of Great Chocolate Desserts (1980, reprinted 2006), lauded by Amanda Hesser in the May 28, 2006 New York Times Book Review.

But most of all, Maida (we all call her that), is a heroine, a godsend, an angel, to countless home cooks. 

Her style is friendly and funny, thorough and exacting. Maida tells you what size egg to use and she does so to guarantee success. With permission, we share some of her cookie recipes and how tos. But first, read on

When I approached Maida Heatter about starring as our first Culinary Patriot, she admitted that she had no idea about the World Wide Web. So I tried to explain. Have you tried this? It's like explaining television in 1949. She told me how "smart" I sounded! Smart? This a woman who made an industry out of concocting desserts. This is a smart woman. Think of the painful hours of research eating brownies and biscotti and cake. The endless hours of praise from lucky friends commandeered to taste test. The tax write offs. The ten pound chocolate bar slog. Maida Heatter is a genius-- and an absolute delight! I have never had so much fun talking about food. And not just desserts. We pretty much covered black beans, roast peppers and frozen fish sticks, too. But I know you want to read about the sweet stuff. It is with great pleasure that I share with you my great pleasure, a conversation with Maida Heatter.

Joy Rotondi

Your first cookbook was Maida Heatter's Book of Great Desserts.What inspired you to write it?

Long story. How much time have you got? My husband had a restaurant in Miami Beach and I made all the desserts at home for his restaurant. Then, I think it was 1968, the Republican Party was having a convention in Miami Beach to nominate a president. So I said to my husband, "Ralph, the symbol of the Republican Party is an elephant. If you serve an elephant meat omelet in your restaurant, you'll get all kinds of great publicity." And Ralph said, "You're crazy." So I called my daughter who lived in New York and I said, "Would you go to Bloomingdale's and see if they have canned elephant meat, which I had never heard of. And she went and they did and she sent me a can and it was delicious! It was like beef stew with red wine and herbs and it was tender and very nice. It was canned by a company in New Jersey ... I called there and spoke to the president and he told me he had a warehouse in New Jersey full of canned elephant meat that wasn't moving. So he sent cases of it down. (Every time I tell this story I decide to figure out how to do it in less time, but I can't.) William Holden had a restaurant in Africa, in Kenya, called "The Tree House" so I called there and asked to speak to the chef and I asked him ,"If you were going to make an elephant meat omelet, how would you make it?" And he told me and I thanked him and then I called the Explorers' Club (You didn't know you were going to get into this, did you?) in Washington, D.C., and I spoke to the chef and I said, "If you were going to make an elephant meat omelet, how would you make it?" And he told me and I thanked him and then I designed from those two conversations how we made it. Then I called the Miami Herald and I said, "Inside Restaurant, in honor of the Republican Convention, is going to serve an elephant meat omelet." Well, within half an hour, United Press, the Associated Press, Walter Cronkite, everybody called. Everybody wanted the story. It was on the front page of the Washington Post, the Miami Herald; it was in the New York Times. Walter Cronkite sent a camera crew to photograph the chef making it. Everybody was calling and one of the calls was from Craig Claiborne, whom I had never met, but he was the food editor of the New York Times for thirty odd years, and he said that the only news coming out of the convention was the elephant meat omelet. Nothing else was happening. And that he had decided not to bother to come down until he heard about that. But if I would give him an interview, he would come down. So I met him at the airport and brought him home to the house and I had the dining room table covered with all the desserts I had been making for the restaurant and all the things I wanted to show off with and when he saw them he said, "You ought to write a cookbook." So that's the answer to your question. And while I was writing the book, I kept saying, "I don't think Craig Claiborne goes around the country telling everybody he meets to write a cookbook." I hated doing it. I'm uncomfortable writing. I love the recipe part, but the writing is difficult. But because Craig Claiborne said so, I felt I really was supposed to.

What is the quintessential American dessert?
Why change what everyone says? It's apple pie. I think the saying that something is "as easy as pie" is ridiculous. I think pie is the most difficult dessert I know! It's much easier to make a soufflé which people think is difficult but it isn't. A pie is difficult. You have to be awfully good and on top of that you have to be lucky.

I once asked you why the United States is so bonkers over chocolate. And you told me that you didn't understand why other nations WEREN'T bonkers over it! Do you have a theory about what makes it so addictive?
No, I don't know why. It just is, like coffee or wine.

Is there a cure?

Obviously, you haven't been cured...
I haven't tried! I never thought about that because I haven't thought of wanting to stop.

Can you tell anything about a person by his or her chocolate habits?
Well, I don't want to tell everyone that I have a preconceived idea of what they're like! Let's just say that when someone tells me they love chocolate in one of its various forms like ice cream or layer cake, I love them right away!

Let's think of a meal that ends with a rich, chocolate dessert. What's your idea of the best main course for such a meal?
Well, that depends on where I am and when. Right now, it would be stone crabs.

Do you have plans for another cookbook?
My editor thinks I do. He thinks I'm writing it right now. "No, Jason." "Oh, I know you," he says, "you can't fool me. I just wish you'd let me know what it's about!" Well, I bake all the time and I write recipes. Now if it turns into another book in the future, I really don't know. But that's how all the books were.

Have you ever thought about doing a book that wasn't about sweets?
Yes, and I changed my thoughts immediately. I can not get interested in it. I love to cook everything and anything. I've written so much about desserts I feel that people now understand a lot of things about them. But if I was to write a book about soups or broiled chicken, I would have to spend so much time talking about them before I ever wrote down a recipe.

Let's talk more about chocolate. What's your favorite?
I do have a favorite, but you can't buy it. I have a house filled with Callebaut and Valrhona, which is wonderful, but this is better. In fact, I spent the whole day on the phone trying to track some down. It comes in 10 pound bars and it's called Heritage and it's made by Peter's Chocolate and Nestlé puts it out. A man in upstate New York sent it-- I think he was flirting with me. So I've been calling the companies and everyone is giving me the run around. They make a dark and a milk chocolate and both are equally divine. People who don't like dark chocolate try the dark chocolate and like it for the first time and people who don't like milk chocolate try the milk chocolate and say they like it for the first time.

Let me know if you find it and we'll sell it at foodies.
I will.

I understand that your husband once said that you could "hear" chocolate. What does it sound like?
(Laughter and more laughter) It sounds like a lover.

Dear foodie,

Would you like to send a message to Maida ? "In the preface of one of my books," she told me, "I kidded that I was the Chairman of the Board of the Chocolate Lovers Association of the World, or some such thing. You wouldn't believe how many people wrote to me asking me how they could join!" So, please, there is no CLAW, don't inquire about membership, but if you would like to send a message to Maida, email foodies and I will be glad to pass it along. We can't promise a response, but she would be very happy to hear from you.



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