May 20, 2019

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The Simple Lemon Cake That Helped Create a Legend

The Simple Lemon Cake That Helped Create a Legend
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A golden Bundt, scented with lemon zest and painted with a tangy lemon-sugar syrup, Maida Heatter’s East 62nd Street Lemon Cake is a favorite among Times readers.

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Craig Lee for The New York Times

When Craig Claiborne discovered Maida Heatter in 1968, she was already a bit of a Miami Beach celebrity. She and her husband, Ralph Daniels, a former airline pilot, ran a small restaurant, and Ms. Heatter, a jewelry maker, illustrator and self-taught baker, made all the desserts. The locals were crazy about them.

Mr. Claiborne, then the food editor of The New York Times, was in town to cover the culinary side of the Republican National Convention. As a publicity ploy, Ms. Heatter got her hands on some canned elephant meat and developed a recipe for elephant-meat omelets with sautéed bananas and chopped peanuts. No one ordered it, but the stunt got Ms. Heatter the attention she had hoped for. Mr. Claiborne arrived to cover the omelets but left besotted with Ms. Heatter’s desserts.

So much so that in 1970, Mr. Claiborne featured three of Ms. Heatter’s cakes in The New York Times Magazine. One was a recipe for a simple lemon cake that Toni Evins Marks, Ms. Heatter’s daughter, had found. She sent it to her mother, who tinkered with it and renamed it the East 62nd Street Lemon Cake because that’s where Ms. Marks lived. It quickly became a favorite among Times readers. Nancy Reagan and Bill Blass were said to be fans.

Four years later, with encouragement from Mr. Claiborne, Ms. Heatter published her first cookbook, “Maida Heatter’s Book of Great Desserts,” for which she won a James Beard Award. She wrote several more (many included the cake recipe) and earned two more James Beard Awards. At 101, she still lives in Miami Beach (the restaurant sold in 1974), and with a niece, Connie Heatter, she is working on a compilation of her fans’ favorite recipes, to be published in summer 2019.

In late January, the Food section received a reader email urging us to publish Ms. Heatter’s East 62nd Street Lemon Cake on NYT Cooking. We quickly pulled the recipe from our archives, took beautiful new photos and published it online. Almost immediately, enthusiastic reader comments trickled in, like this one from Edna: “This is a favorite in our household. I made it for the first time 40 years ago when I was in the fourth grade! Now with a household of my own, it is a regular!”

The cake itself is a golden Bundt, scented with lemon zest and painted with a tangy lemon-sugar syrup while still warm, an elegant dessert for almost any occasion. Top it with berries and whipped cream, or leave it plain and serve it with tea.



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