When I was just finding my way around the kitchen, cooking and baking in every free minute I had, there were a few books in my kitchen that I turned to with confidence and delight. Craig Claiborne’s New York Times Cookbook was one of them, although, as I look at it now, I wonder how a newbie, which was what I was, managed to succeed with the recipes that now seem to me to be written in a shorthand intelligible only to the initiated. I dog-eared Claiborne’s books, clipped his recipes from what was then called The New York Times Living Section and, every Sunday, when his column would appear in the centerfold of The New York Times Magazine, I’d start a shopping list, because I knew that sometime during the week, I’d make that recipe, no matter how elaborate it might be. This is how I made coulibiac of salmon … once. It’s also how I discovered Maida Heatter.
Claiborne is credited with encouraging Maida Heatter to write a cookbook and she followed his advice. Her first book, Maida Heatter’s Book of Great Desserts, appeared in 1974 and I, and every other home baker I knew, bought it, baked from it and referred to it as a bible. I always said that Maida Heatter taught me to bake and recently Martha Stewart said the same thing. Maida was our teacher, our guide, our Queen of Cakes, as she came to be called.
I have all of Maida’s books and most of them look as battered as my copy of her first book:
I was thrilled when Kristen Miglore, better known as Madame Genius Recipe at Food 52, asked me to write about my favorite Maida Heatter recipe and then to bake it with her for a Genius Recipe Video. I always love working with Kristen and Food 52, but this time was particularly special because I got to make a recipe that has meant a lot to me for many years, Maida Heatter’s Lemon Buttermilk Cake (here’s the recipe) and to talk about my hero.
If reading about Maida Heatter and watching the video inspire you to bake from her books, let me point you to her newest: Happiness is Baking, a compilation of some of her most beloved recipes. It’s a wonderful book and I was so touched to be able to write the foreword to it. It’s not often that you get to tell your heroes how much they’ve meant to you. Writing the foreword gave me the opportunity not only to introduce Maida to a new generation of bakers, but say thank you to her. Sweet in every way.
Pictures of the Lemon-Buttermilk Cake are by Rocky Luten.