My own encounter with famed baking book writer Maida Heatter was at the swanky James Beard Foundation Awards in Manhattan in the late 1990s. OK, encounter is a bit of a stretch, as some 1,000 glamorous chefs and other food industry people attended the black-tie event; I was there as an employee of the foundation. Twenty years on, most of the details are a blur, but I clearly remember the white-haired, elegantly dressed Heatter going up on stage to accept her honor, then reaching into her bag to toss a handful of her well-wrapped homemade brownies to the delighted crowd.

Used with permission of Little, Brown and Co.

Those brownies were famous. I was aware of them long before that evening. If you remember the 1970s and you liked to bake, Heatter was, as the subtitle of her new – and last – cookbook says, the Queen of Cake; she died, at 102, earlier this month. Thumbing through “Happiness Is Baking,” I found that I recalled the names and substance of a number of her recipes, including Coffee Buttercrunch Pie (a teenage favorite of mine), Chocolate Mousse Torte and Palm Beach Brownies. Even if you’re not the sort of person to find happiness in baking those treats, chances are good you’ll find happiness in eating them.

The book collects some one hundred of Heatter’s classics. It’s funny to revisit recipes you knew well when you were young. Do they still speak to you? Have you moved on? Does that tattoo you thought at 20 you’d want forever wear well when you are 50? Today, we lard our sweets with miso, tahini, cardamom, whole grains, matcha, bacon (briefly), black sesame seeds, even lard for that matter. We adore all sweets English (lemon posset, sticky toffee pudding, Eton Mess) and all flavors Middle Eastern (rosewater, saffron, pistachio). Can basic recipes for chocolate cupcakes, pecan bars, chocolate pudding and pumpkin loaf hold up? Are they classics – or a tad tame?

Judging by my kitchen tests, I’d say for the most part, they do hold up. The book’s Buttermilk Spice Cake was “a nice old-fashioned snacking cake,” I scribbled on the recipe. The impressive-looking Budapest Coffee Cake (really just a classic sour cream coffee cake) won office plaudits and disappeared in a flash. (I couldn’t resist tampering – I used whole wheat flour in part, toasted the walnuts, and exchanged raisins for dried cranberries.) “Moist and delicious,” one colleague emailed. “Oh my head, it’s so good,” said another.

Florida Lemon Squares, my notes say, “taste like a bake sale, or a lunch box.” Ditto for the Oatmeal Molasses Cookies. Gingerful Biscotti made me wonder why (crunchy, pretty, tasty) biscotti ever fell from favor. The only recipe I tested that I wouldn’t make again – it wasn’t bad, just ho-hum – was Chocolate Gingerbread.

That said, I wouldn’t run out to buy “Happiness Is Baking” for myself. But I might well give it to a novice baker – or possibly an unadventurous one. Heatter’s fastidious instructions are perfect for a baking newbie, and also for those home cooks who appreciate a hand-holding approach. Her recipes are exceedingly thorough and always reliable.

A word on design: “Happiness Is Baking” gets it just right. Instead of photos, there are cheerful, charming illustrations (by Alice Oehr, who doesn’t get as much credit in the book as she ought to) that call to mind Wayne Thiebaud paintings. Bright and nostalgic, they both suit the recipes perfectly and add to the promise of the title.

Gingerful Biscotti

Recipe from Maida Heatter’s “Happiness Is Baking.” Heatter suggests cutting the ginger with scissors rather than chopping it with a knife. I chopped the almonds rather than using them whole because I find doing so makes the biscotti easier to slice. Also, I lined the baking sheets with Silpat rather than foil or parchment paper.

Makes 60-70 biscotti

4 ounces (1 cup loosely packed) crystallized ginger

6 ounces (1 1/4 cups) whole almonds

3 cups sifted unbleached all-purpose flour

3/4 teaspoon baking soda

3/4 teaspoon baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 1/4 teaspoons finely ground white pepper (preferably freshly ground)

1 teaspoon ground ginger

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon ground mustard powder

1/4 teaspoon ground cloves

1/2 cup sugar

3 large eggs

1/2 cup mild honey

Chop the ginger into pea-size pieces. Set aside. Toast the almonds in a shallow pan in a preheated 350-degree oven for 12 to 15 minutes, until lightly colored, stirring once during toasting. Set aside to cool.

Into a large bowl, strain or sift together – just to mix – the flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt, pepper, ground ginger, cinnamon, mustard, cloves and sugar. Stir in the crystallized ginger, then the nuts. In a small bowl, beat the eggs and honey to mix and add to the dry ingredients. Stir (preferably with a large rubber spatula) until the dry ingredients are completely moistened.

Place two 18- to 20-inch lengths of plastic wrap on a work surface. You will form two strips of the dough, one on each piece of plastic wrap. Spoon half of the dough by heaping tablespoonfuls in the middle – down the length – of each piece of plastic wrap, to form strips about 13 inches long. Flatten the tops slightly by dipping a large spoon into the water and pressing down on the dough with the wet spoon. Rewet the spoon often.

Lift the two long sides of one piece of plastic wrap, bring the sides together on top of the dough, and, with your hands, press on the plastic wrap to smooth the dough and shape it into an even strip 13 to 14 inches long, 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 inches wide and about 3/4 inch thick (no thicker). Shape both strips and place them on a cookie sheet.

If there is an air bubble on the dough, pierce a small hole in the plastic wrap with the tip of a sharp knife to allow the air to escape. Then press on the plastic wrap to spread the dough into that space.

Place the cookie sheet with the strips of dough in the freezer for at least an hour or until firm enough to unwrap (or as much longer as you wish).

To bake, adjust two racks to divide the oven into thirds and preheat oven to 300 degrees. Line two large cookie sheets with baking parchment or aluminum foil, shiny side up.

To transfer the strips of dough to the sheets, open the two long sides of plastic wrap on top of one strip of dough and turn the dough upside down onto the lined cookie sheet, placing it diagonally on the sheet. Slowly peel off the plastic wrap. Repeat with the second strip of dough and the second cookie sheet.

Bake for 50 minutes, reversing the sheets top to bottom and front to back once during baking to ensure even baking. These will turn quite dark during baking.

Then reduce the temperature to 275 degrees and remove the sheets from the oven. Immediately – carefully and gently – peel the parchment or foil away from the backs of the strips and place them on a large cutting board. Slice the strips while they are still very hot. Use a pot holder or a folded towel to hold a strip in place. Use a serrated French bread knife. Slice on an angle; the sharper the angle, the longer the cookies, and the more difficult it will be to slice them very thin – but you can do it, and they will be gorgeous. Cut them about 1/4 to 1/3 inch wide.

Place the slices on a cut side, touching each other, on the cookie sheets. Bake at 275 degrees for about 25 minutes, just until dry. (You have to cool one to know if it is crisp.) Do not overbake. Reverse the sheets top to bottom and front to back once during baking.

(If you bake one sheet alone, they will bake in a bit less time. This is true of all cookies, but seems especially noticeable with these.)

Because these are so thin, it is not necessary to turn them over during this second baking; they bake evenly without it. When done, cool and then store them in an airtight container.

To serve, these are especially attractive standing upright in a wide, clear glass.


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