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.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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.

"It was based very much on my kitchen -- copper bowls, wire whisks, Le Creuset [cookware]. I had gotten them in France, and nobody here knew about them. So I made a list for the buyer, and she went to France. It was very successful, and so were the classes. The president of the store told me that a half an hour before and after my classes, the perfume department and the stocking department did more business than any time during the rest of the year, plus the kitchen department sold a lot. The classes were free, but they did a lot of selling."

Though age is not a subject Maida is particularly interested in discussing (Saveur describes her as "eightysomething"), she is clearly in great shape. To make sure she stays that way, she does 30 minutes on the treadmill each morning -- and keeps her physician well supplied with his favorite filled cookies.

The three-volume Maida Heatter Classic Library contains one book each on cookies, cakes and pies. Most of the recipes come from three early books -- "Great American Desserts," "Great Cookies" and the "New Book of Great Desserts." They were reorganized by Cader Books and retested and in some cases updated by Heatter. The cake volume is available now; the pie and cake books will be out in November. They cost $19.95 each.

Macadamia and milk chocolate biscotti

Makes 24 large biscotti

1 1/2 ounces ( 1/3 cup) blanched almonds

12 ounces milk chocolate

2 cups sifted unbleached flour

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 cup granulated sugar

7 ounces (1 1/2 cups) roasted and salted whole macadamia nuts

2 eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/4 teaspoon almond extract

2 tablespoons whiskey or brandy

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Toast the almonds in a shallow pan in preheated oven for about 15 minutes, shaking the pan a few times, until the nuts are lightly colored and have a delicious smell when you open the oven door. Set aside to cool.

Adjust a rack to the middle of the oven and preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Line a large, flat cookie sheet (preferably 17 by 14 inches) with heavy-duty aluminum foil. Set aside.

To cut the chocolate into chunks I use an ice pick. However you do it, cut the chocolate into uneven pieces no more than about 1/2 -inch wide in any direction. Set aside.

Sift together into a large bowl (preferably one with flared rather than straight sides) the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt -- and sugar.

Place about 1/3 cup of dry ingredients in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal chopping blade. Add the toasted almonds. Process for about 45 seconds, until the nuts are very fine and powdery.

Add the processed mixture to the sifted ingredients in the large bowl. Add the macadamia nuts and the cut-up chocolate. Stir to mix.

In a small bowl beat the eggs, vanilla and almond extracts, and whiskey or brandy, beating until well mixed.

Add the egg mixture to the dry ingredients and stir and stir -- until the dry ingredients are all moistened (I stir with a large rubber spatula, and a lot of patience. Actually, stir and then turn the ingredients over and over and press down on them firmly with the spatula until the dry ingredients are incorporated.)

L Generously spray the lined cookie sheet with nonstick spray.

Turn the dough out onto the sheet. Wet your hands with cold water -- do not dry them -- and with your wet hands press the dough together to form a mound. Then shape it into an oval and flatten it a bit.

With a dough scraper or with a large, metal spatula, cut the dough lengthwise into halves. Continue to wet your hands and shape into two strips, each one about 12 inches long, 3 inches wide, and 1 inch thick, with rounded ends. There should be 2 or 3 inches of space between the two strips and the strips should be pressed firmly so they are compact.

Bake for 28 minutes, reversing the sheet front to back once during baking.

Remove the sheet from the oven and slide the foil off the sheet onto a large cutting board and let stand for 20 minutes.

Reduce the oven temperature to 275 degrees and adjust two racks to divide the oven into thirds. With a wide, metal spatula transfer the baked strips to the cutting board.

To cut into biscotti, you must be careful. Use a serrated bread knife and cut with a sawing motion. (Actually, I find it is best to cut through the top crust with a serrated knife, and then finish the cut with a very sharp, straight-bladed knife. Or, you might use only one knife -- try different knives.)

Cut on an angle; the sharper the angle, the larger the biscotti will be. Cut the biscotti about a scant 3/4 -inch wide.

At this stage, the biscotti are very fragile; use a large metal spatula or pancake turner to carefully transfer them to two unlined cookie sheets, placing them cut side down. Bake the two sheets for 35 minutes. Once during baking, turn the slices upside down and reverse the sheets top to bottom and front to back.

When finished, turn the oven off, open the oven door, and let the biscotti cool in the oven. When they are cool, the chunks of chocolate might still be soft. If so, let the biscotti stand for about an hour, and then store them airtight.

Source: "Maida Heatter's Cookies" (Cader Books).

Per serving: 224 calories, 5 grams protein, 24 grams carbohydrate, 13 grams fat, 50 percent calories as fat, 1 gram fiber, 18 milligrams cholesterol, 62 milligrams sodium.

If possible, make this a day ahead and refrigerate it overnight.

Polka dot cheesecake

Serves 12

2 ounces unsweetened chocolate, chopped

2 pounds cream cheese

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/4 teaspoon almond extract

1 3/4 cups granulated sugar

4 eggs

1/3 cup graham cracker crumbs (to be used after the cake is baked and cooled)

Adjust a rack to the lowest position and preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter an 8-by-3-inch one-piece cheesecake pan all the way up to the rim and including the inside of the rim itself. You will also need a larger pan (for hot water) to place the cake pan in while baking; the larger pan must not be deeper than the cheesecake pan. Set aside.

In the top of a small double boiler over hot water on low heat, melt the chocolate and set aside.

In the large bowl of an electric mixer, beat the cheese until it is completely smooth. During the beating, frequently scrape the sides and bottom of the bowl with a rubber spatula. When the cheese is smooth, beat in the vanilla and almond extracts and sugar. Beat well and add the eggs one at a time. After adding the eggs, do not beat any more than necessary.

Remove the bowl from the mixer. Place one-third of the batter (2 cups) in the small bowl of the electric mixer. Add the melted chocolate and beat until smooth.

Spray the buttered cake pan with nonstick spray, and then pour in the light-colored mixture.

Fit a large (about 16-inch) pastry bag with a plain No. 6 ( 1/2 -inch) tube. Fold down a deep cuff on the outside of the bag, and twist the tube end of the bag to prevent the mixture from running out. Place the chocolate mixture in the bag.

Now, work at table height, not counter height (you will have better control at table height). Place the cake pan on the table. Unfold the cuff on the pastry bag. Untwist the tube end of the bag. Place the tip of the tube in the center of the top of the cake, inserting it 1/4 to 1/2 inch into the cake. Squeeze out some of the chocolate mixture. It will form a perfectly round ball about 2 inches wide on top of the cake.

Using the same procedure, squeeze out six smaller balls around the rim. In order to space the six balls evenly, place the first one at 12 o'clock (straight up), the next at six o'clock (straight down). Then two on each side. The balls around the rim should be smaller than the one in the center, and they should not touch each other or the center ball. If you have some chocolate mixture left over, add it to the center ball; if you still have some left over add a bit to each of the balls.

The top of the cake will not be smooth, but it will level itself during baking. When baked, the polka dot in the center will be about 2 1/2 inches wide, the dots around the rim will be about 1 1/2 inches wide.

Place the cake pan into the larger pan. Place it in the oven and pour hot water into the larger pan about 1 1/2 inches deep. (If the larger pan is aluminum, add about a teaspoon cream of tartar to prevent the water from discoloring the pan.)

Bake for 1 1/2 hours. The top of the cake will become golden brown and it will feel dry to the touch, but the cake will still be very soft inside (it will become firm when it has cooled and been refrigerated).

Lift the cake pan out of the water and place it on a cake rack. Cool the cake in the pan for 2 1/2 hours. (Do not cool it in the refrigerator or the butter will harden and the cake will stick to the pan.)

Cover the pan with a piece of plastic wrap. Place a flat plate or small board upside down over the pan and turn the pan and the plate or board upside down. Carefully remove the pan.

Evenly sprinkle the graham cracker crumbs over the bottom of the cake. Gently place another flat plate or small board upside down over the cake and carefully turn it all upside down again (without squashing the cake), leaving the cake right side up. Remove the plastic wrap.

Refrigerate for several hours or overnight.

To serve, dip a sharp knife in very hot water or hold it under running hot water before making each cut, shake off the water but do not dry the blade. Make the first cut through the middle of one of the smaller dots and the second cut (the one that will release the first portion) between two of the smaller dots.

Source: "Maida Heatter's Cakes" (Cader Books).

Per serving: 431 calories, 9 grams protein, 34 grams carbohydrate, 31 grams fat, 62 percent calories as fat, 0.1 gram fiber, 155 milligrams cholesterol, 260 milligrams sodium.

Pub Date: 11/05/97

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