Bibliobites in December: The Pursuit of Happiness

Prolific author and baking guru Maida* Heatter is known as the “Queen of Cake.” No one did more over the last quarter of the 20th century to up our dessert game, for once we’d tried her classic buttery and chocolatey delights, there was no going back. A self-trained baker with a no-nonsense, perfectionist approach, her precise yet luscious recipes inspired many to give baking the time and care it deserved. December’s Bibliobites title, Happiness Is Baking,  was Ms. Heatter’s final book before she died in June 2019 at the age of 102. In her introduction, she says that with all the baked goods she creates, “…we eat an awful lot of them.” Perhaps noshing on cookies and cake confers longevity? Or is it, as the title implies, that it’s the baking and sharing of treats that keeps one happy and healthier? Our group is never shy about rising to any such challenge, and even if you don’t bake much, you’d probably be pulling out the butter and sugar at some point in December! Did we enjoy the ride? Read on to find out.

This book is a somewhat smaller format than many are nowadays, so an oft-repeated complaint was that the book would not stay open on its own. The text is quite readable, and the layout is clear. Chatty headnotes abound, but most weren’t long enough to try one’s patience. The illustrations are just that– drawings (full-color) rather than photographs. The drawings are lovely– homey and friendly, but most of us still wished that there were photos instead. Some in the group commented that they’d seen some of these recipes in another of her books; this title is basically a compilation of “greatest hits.”

Once we’d turned on our ovens, there were ups and downs. Sour cream black-fudge loaf cake had a fantastic texture and big chocolate flavor, “loved it!” Queen mother’s cake , also chocolate, was another winner, a flourless cake that wasn’t too dense and was absolutely delicious. Two of us tried the east 62nd street lemon cake ; one person’s verdict was “just OK,” but for another it was “really good with a nice, fine texture.” California carrot cake sounded positively tantalizing with honey, raisins, pineapple, and walnuts; but the batter was so thin that all the fruit and nuts sank to the bottom, where they burned. Even when this cake tested done, the interior was unpleasantly wet and heavy. One person had a similar flop with chocolate applesauce cake, but two others thought it was marvelous, with a flavor that harmoniously united chocolate cake and spice cake.

Moving on to cookies, chocolate hermits were “good, but I still like regular (non-chocolate) hermits better!” Possibly chocolate doesn’t make everything better? Classic rugelach turned into quite a project for the two who tried them– they were “fussy and messy to make,” and had “so many steps….so many small bowls [for the filling ingredients].” In the end, despite good results, “I wouldn’t make them again.” David’s cookies were also a bit fussy to make, as the directions tell you to remove individual cookies from the sheets as they become done; the logistics of doing this (constantly opening the oven, trying to remove very hot cookies without damaging them or their neighbor) turned a fairly simple cookie recipe into a chore. Best chocolate chip cookies were yummy; these were the crispy type (rather than cakey or chewy– obviously “best” only applies if you prefer crispy!).  Instructions tell you to wet your hands and then roll the dough into balls, but the dough was so soft that this made for a gooey mess.  You are forewarned! But oatmeal molasses cookies were excellent, with a nice “caramelly” flavor. Brownies, a recipe that is closely identified with Maida Heatter, produced one hit and one miss; but both bakers would try them again. Plus, as instructed, “wrapping them individually worked great!”

A few people were ambitious enough to make pies; the apple pie USA was a bit time consuming with its persnickety crust, but “everyone loved the pie!” Key lime pie had a wonderful gingersnap crust, and strawberry tart had a crust that “I use for any fruit tart.”

If you aren’t a Maida Heatter devotee, you wouldn’t have realized at first that all of the recipes in this book are published in her other titles, so if you have her other books you might not want to bother buying this one (you can get it from the library instead!). Despite some difficulties, our group on the whole enjoyed this book, and for those of us who weren’t so familiar with her, it was a nice introduction. But no cookbook is perfect; there were complaints that too many recipes contained walnuts; there was an overabundance of chocolate recipes (some of which seemed a bit too similar to each other), and some of her techniques were a bit unrealistic for us amateurs (beating egg whites by hand on a turkey platter!) Also we thought it odd that a pro like Ms. Heatter doesn’t weigh her ingredients. While it’s true that most American cooks still prefer volume measurements, weighing has made some inroads, and would have been appreciated by those of us who love our kitchen scales.

Our ups and downs were quite evident in our voting: a few at each end and most somewhere in the middle, so we averaged out to a 3.5 (out of 5). Be sure to join us at our next meeting  – (coming right up!) – on Friday, January 31 at 11 AM in the Fireplace Room. We’ll be discussing one of the Chelmsford One Book selections, Ann Hood’s memoir Kitchen Yarns, as well as Bring It! by Ali Rosen. Copies are available at the main desk, all are welcome!


*Pronounced May-da, in case you were wondering.