Local Obituaries

Miami’s own ‘Sultana of Sweets,’ dessert cookbook author Maida Heatter, dies at 102

Maida Heatter, often called the country’s foremost and most famous creator of desserts and writer of dessert cookbooks, holds a tray of cookies in this Miami Herald file photo from 1995.
Maida Heatter, often called the country’s foremost and most famous creator of desserts and writer of dessert cookbooks, holds a tray of cookies in this Miami Herald file photo from 1995. Miami Herald File

How would you describe award-winning dessert cookbook author and baking legend Maida Heatter?

A decade ago, a Miami Herald features writer sat with her once in her bayside Normandy Isle home — where she died Thursday at 102 — and put her in context with something not unlike one of Heatter’s own heavenly creations:

“She would be complex and elegant, a layered blend of flavors and textures, a hint of mint, perhaps, a trace of hazelnut, a bit of cream. She would be crunchy on the outside with a deep, soft center, dark and rich, its silky, chocolate caress against the tongue flickering memories and sensations, sweetening the flow of time,” Margaria Fichtner wrote in 2006 when Heatter was 89.

Another, the Herald’s former food editor Kathy Martin, simply summed up Heatter as “Miami’s Sultana of Sweets.”

Or you could call her, as others have, “the queen of chocolate desserts,” as the Los Angeles Times did in its obituary.

Chef’s tributes

James Beard-award winning chef Norman Van Aken, of Norman’s, shared moments in her Miami Beach kitchen — a home she’d known since the 1950s — and thanked Heatter “for making this world a sweeter place, a better place,” he wrote on Instagram Friday.

“You invited us into your Miami home where you served us your miraculous cookies and showed us your meticulously typed recipes as we sipped white wines. You shared your stories and your generous heart as well. I’ll never forget you,” he wrote.

Another James Beard award winner, Michael Schwartz, of Michael’s Genuine fame, also took to Instagram to honor a woman who certainly earned the national treasure designation. He called her an inspiration.

“Today I think about the extraordinary Maida Heatter, who made such a profound impact on my life in so many ways. From recipe writing to life coaching, to the pursuit of excellence. Skinny peanut wafers to Palm Beach brownies and, of course, the definition of the perfect biscotti!

“What a national treasure. You will be missed,” Schwartz wrote.

Cookbooks and honors

Heatter’s cookbooks included her first, the 1974 classic “Maida Heatter’s Book of Great Desserts,” and her latest, published in April, “Happiness Is Baking: Favorite Desserts from the Queen of Cake” (Little Brown & Company).

Happiness is Baking.jpg
The cover of “Happiness Is Baking: Favorite Desserts from the Queen of Cake” by Maida Heater. Published by Little Brown and Company in April 2019. Little Brown and Company

She was a double James Beard Foundation Hall of Famer — including its Cookbook Hall of Fame in 1998 — one of the culinary world’s top honors. South Beach Wine & Food Festival founder and director Lee Brian Schrager honored Heatter with the festival’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006.

“I think she’s done more for chocolate than Godiva,” Schrager told the Miami Herald at the time.

Her friend Chef Wolfgang Puck called her a “culinary icon” and presented her award at the festival’s $150-a-plate brunch at the Loews Miami Beach.

The two had met when Puck was running a cooking school at Ma Maison in Los Angeles. He invited the white-haired and unflappable dynamo to teach some classes and recalled a disaster in the kitchen — of his own making. It was summer, not Miami-hot, but hot anyway. So he turned on some big fans since the school lacked A/C. Heatter had sifted all her flour and cocoa and left it there while she went to get her hair done but, you guessed it, the fans blew all her carefully sifted powders all over the place.

“I had some Italian chef there, too ... and he was bitching and crying, but Maida just said, ‘Oh, we’re just going to start all over and measure everything again.’ ”

Daughter of famous radio commentator

Heatter was born in Freeport, New York, on Sept. 7, 1916, to a mother, Saidie, she later praised as “the Martha Stewart of her day” who was capable of doing it all: baking, knitting, growing flowers and vegetables. “And if the boat sprung a leak, she fixed it.”

Dad Gabriel Heatter was a famous World War II-era American radio commentator whose sign-on, “Ah, there’s good news tonight,” became a nationally known catchphrase. He spent his last years at his daughter’s Miami Beach home until his death at 82 in 1972. House Beautiful once devoted a spread to her immaculately designed home.

Maida Heatter in the kitchen of her Normandy Isle home in this Miami Herald file photo from 1998. Chuck Fadely Miami Herald File

Heatter earned a degree in fashion illustration at New York City’s Pratt Institute, which later honored her with an alumni award, and worked in the New York Herald Tribune’s retail merchandising division. She also turned a jewelry-making hobby into a business that saw lines of her bracelets and scarves sold at Henri Bendel and Saks Fifth Avenue.

She moved to South Florida in the 1940s, where she met her third husband, the late Ralph Daniels. When he opened Inside — a restaurant in Bay Harbor Islands — in the 1960s, of course Heatter made the desserts.

Elephant meat omelet

She first gained international attention when she served up an elephant meat omelet, garnished with chopped peanuts and a split fried banana for the 1968 Republican Convention, which was held at the Miami Beach Convention Center.

New York Times food writer Craig Claiborne flew down to Miami Beach, saw her spread of desserts and that attention-grabbing concoction, and told her she should write a cookbook.

And so she did. Although, it’s possible no one actually ever ate the omelet, she joked in the Miami Herald’s former Sunday magazine, Tropic, in 1998.

“It got us unbelievable publicity,” she said. “And it was delicious. I couldn’t understand why nobody ordered one.”

That’s not a problem Heatter would ever have with her chocolate brownies or Key Lime pies.

Keeping fit

At 81, she once joked with the Herald that she stayed slim by working out on a treadmill and lifting weights — activities she hated. “Nobody’s going to know if I get off and go into the kitchen and have a cookie. But I stay on it.”

She also quipped: “The doctor says, ‘If I didn’t know your age, I’d tell you to come back in three years. But I know your age, so come back in six months — and bring cookies.’ ”

Heatter was predeceased by her daughter, illustrator Toni Evins. She has no immediate survivors.

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Miami Herald Real Time/Breaking News reporter Howard Cohen, a 2017 Media Excellence Awards winner, has covered pop music, theater, health and fitness, obituaries, municipal government and general assignment. He started his career in the Features department at the Miami Herald in 1991.
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