I PROMISED MY younger kids we could bake together, handed each one a reliable cookbook and figured I’d break the tie vote. Unexpectedly, the 9-year-old on the couch browsing Kristen Miglore’s collection of “Genius Desserts” by various authors bookmarked the same recipe as the 13-year-old on the carpet looking through Maida Heatter’s “Happiness is Baking.”
We mixed ingredients for their selection, Heatter’s East 62nd Street Lemon Cake, baked it in a Bundt pan (it came out cleanly, thanks to the advance dusting of breadcrumbs), and glazed it with what felt like vast soaking quantities of lemon juice and sugar. Then we became about the last people in America’s kitchen to discover it is a fabulous dessert.
Craig Claiborne, a major Heatter champion who called her “one of the world’s best home dessert cooks,” had featured the recipe in The New York Times in 1970. In the half-century since, it has worked its way up to the status of “timeless classic,” and was an obvious pick for Miglore’s collection.
Heatter has more than one of those classics. “Happiness is Baking” was a compilation of best-loved recipes from the woman dubbed the “Queen of Cake”; other megahits include Palm Beach Brownies and Queen Mother’s Cake and Budapest Coffee Cake. The East 62nd Street recipe was sent to Heatter by her daughter, who illustrated her books, and was named for her daughter’s New York address. It surpassed even Heatter’s theoretically unsurpassable “Best Damn Lemon Cake,” also reprinted in the book.
When Heatter died last year at age 102, shortly after the collection was published, its editor, Michael Szczerban, wrote on Epicurious.com that he had learned what good recipe writing was from reading Heatter, and had long hoped to bring her books back into print.
By nature, a lot of the recipes I experiment with come from living cooks and new cookbooks. I’ve encountered several Heatter recipes, but it’s only luck (and Szczerban’s efforts and Miglore’s genius) that brought this particular 50-year-old gem to my modern repertoire.
It made me wonder what other classic books or superstar recipes are hanging out in the out-of-print shelves.
The answers could fill a bookstore, but reference librarian Alison Danyer at Seattle Public Library wrote that she’s always delighted when a patron asks to see library copies of “Foods of the World” (which some cookbook lovers just call “The Time-Life Books,” a series produced from 1968 through the 1970s).
“It revealed worldwide cuisine to Americans at a time when travel to far-flung places was unusual. It was an ambitious project researched and written by cookbook icons of the time, including M.F.K. Fisher and Craig Claiborne,” she wrote. “The Good Cook series is similar — well-produced and an excellent resource — maybe not as well-known.”
In the bigger picture, Toni Tipton-Martin brought history to an award-winning new light when she showcased two centuries of African American cookbooks in “The Jemima Code” (2015) and recipes in “Jubilee” (2019).
I asked my friend Judy Amster, a longtime cookbook consultant (and Time-Life fan), what other treasures were ripe for rediscovery. Again, the list was long, including:
• Helen Witty’s “Fancy Pantry,” first published in 1986 (updated in 1997 as “The Good Stuff Cookbook”), an ahead-of-its-time book of preserving, and recipes that use preserved foods.
• British author Jane Grigson’s “The Mushroom Feast,” originally published in 1975.
• Marian Morash’s “The Victory Garden Cookbook,” from 1982, linked to a PBS series.
• Jacques Pepin’s books are generally well-known, but not the 1967 book he co-authored with Helen McCully, “The Other Half of the Egg.”
• Molly O’Neill’s 1992 “New York Cookbook.”
One other thing Amster has noticed: Most of the books people want republished do eventually get republished — and often don’t sell as well as expected. In some cases, as with Alice Medrich’s classic “Cocolat” cookbook (published in 1990, reprinted in 2017), I’d argue that it’s a marketing problem more than an audience issue. If people don’t know a book’s available, or don’t learn how good it is, it’ll be buried in the onslaught of new releases.
Possibilities are bright if you’re looking for old treasures. Beyond used bookstores, Danyer wrote that the library has “good coverage of cookbooks from the past in our reference collection, most of which, due to the space constraints of our building, and the fragility of many of these materials, must be shelved in our compact storage — or ‘in the back.’ ”
Some of Heatter’s books are available in that collection; others are normally on the shelves (all were checked out when we spoke). Also, there are two newly published collections of old Heatter recipes on library order: “Chocolate is Forever” and “Cookies are Magic,” ready for still more new fans.
East 62nd Street Lemon Cake
3 cups sifted unbleached all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
8 ounces (2 sticks) unsalted butter
2 cups sugar
4 large eggs
1 cup milk
Finely grated zest of 2 large lemons
1/3 cup lemon juice
2/3 cup sugar
1. Adjust an oven rack one-third up from the bottom of the oven.
2. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
3. Butter a plain or fancy tube pan with an 11- to 12-cup capacity, and dust it lightly with fine, dry breadcrumbs.
4. Sift together flour, baking powder and salt, and set aside.
5. In large bowl of electric mixer, beat the butter to soften it a bit. Add the sugar, and beat for 2 to 3 minutes. Beat in the eggs individually, scraping the bowl as necessary with a rubber spatula to keep mixture smooth.
6. On lowest speed, alternately add the dry ingredients in three additions and the milk in two additions, scraping the bowl with the rubber spatula as necessary and beating only until incorporated after each addition.
7. Remove the bowl from the mixer. Stir in lemon zest.
8. Turn the batter into prepared pan. Level the top by rotating the pan briskly back and forth. Bake for 1 hour and 5 to 10 minutes, until a cake tester comes out dry.
9. Let cake stand in the pan for about 5 minutes, and then cover with a rack and invert. Place over a large piece of aluminum foil or wax paper.
For the glaze: The glaze should be used immediately after it is mixed: Stir the lemon juice and sugar together, and brush all over the hot cake until it’s absorbed. Let the cake cool completely. Use two wide metal pancake turners or a cookie sheet to transfer it to a cake plate. Do not cut for at least several hours.
— From “Happiness is Baking”