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Recipe: Cookbook author’s inventive torte lives on as dessert classic

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Maida Heatter’s chocolate mousse torte. This triple-layer chocolate torte, the New York Times’ most requested dessert in 1972, was just one of the recipes developed by the legendary author, who died on June 6 at 102.

Maida Heatter made her chocolate mousse torte 20 times before she deemed it good enough to be published in The New York Times in May 1972.

At the time, Heatter, who died June 6 at her home in Miami Beach at age 102, was not yet the successful cookbook author she soon would become. Her toil was well worth the trouble: Readers called and wrote letters to the editor, eager to get their hands on a recipe for the dreamy chocolate dessert they had heard about or tasted at so-and-so’s the weekend before. It was later reported that the torte had been the newspaper’s most requested dessert recipe of the year.

The Times published several of Heatter’s recipes, including a tender lemon Bundt cake; her 86-proof chocolate cake infused with bourbon and her chocolate cheesecake brownies. But none ever surpassed the torte.

It’s not hard to see why: It’s a groan-inducing glory of a dessert, with a dense chocolate base topped with frothy chocolate mousse and crowned with whipped cream. It was a clever trick that Heatter landed upon during all of those recipe tryouts: Make a batch of chocolate mousse, and bake half of it in a pie pan. Once it has cooled, the baked mousse sinks in the center, transforming into a dense chocolate cake “crust” that’s ideal for filling with the remaining unbaked mousse.

“Maida Heatter’s Book of Great Desserts” was published in 1974, and if you were a home baker in the 1970s and ’80s, you likely had a dog-eared, butter-stained, flour-dusted copy on your kitchen shelf.

Devotees still swear by her cookbooks, often scouring the internet to replace their battle-worn editions, but many Instagram-era cooks have never heard of the woman who wrote nine cookbooks, won three James Beard Foundation Awards and counted Martha Stewart and Nancy Silverton as fans.

The recent release of “Happiness Is Baking” (Little, Brown, 2019), a collection of her most popular recipes, may introduce her to a new generation.

Heatter had no intention of becoming a cookbook author. In the early 1960s, she was a successful jewelry designer living in Miami Beach. She persuaded her third husband, Ralph Daniels, an airline pilot who was often out of town, to quit his job and open a cafe so he could help her care for her ailing father, Gabriel Heatter, the 1940s radio personality. She made the desserts, which she developed and tested in her home kitchen, and soon afterward locals were lining up for them.

The torte — “a piece of ingenuity with chocolate,” as Raymond A. Sokolov wrote in The Times in 1973 — is among the 100 or so rigorously tested and exquisitely detailed recipes in “Happiness Is Baking.”

Developed by Heatter, a self-professed “chocolate nut,” it is the apex of chocolate desserts: just rich enough, doubly chocolatey and a dream to make if you follow Heatter’s precise instructions to the letter.


By Maida Heatter

  • Unsalted butter, for greasing pan
  • Fine, dry breadcrumbs or cocoa powder, for dusting
  • 8 ounces (225 grams) semisweet bar chocolate (not chips), chopped
  • 1 tablespoon instant espresso or coffee powder
  • 1/4 cup boiling water
  • 8 large eggs, yolks and whites separated
  • 1/3 cup (65 grams) sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/8 teaspoon fine sea salt
  • >> Whipped cream:
  • 1-1/2 cups (360 milliliters) heavy cream
  • 1/3 cup (40 grams) powdered sugar
  • 1-1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • Grated semisweet chocolate, for serving (optional)

Set a rack in center of oven. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 9-inch glass pie plate. Dust it with breadcrumbs or cocoa powder. Set aside.

Place chopped chocolate in top of a small double boiler over water simmering over low heat.

Meanwhile, in a cup or small bowl, dissolve coffee in the 1/4 cup boiling water and pour it over the chocolate in the double boiler. Cover and cook over low heat, whisking occasionally, until chocolate is almost melted. Remove from heat and continue to stir until smooth. Let cool slightly. (To prepare without a double boiler, see note.)

In bowl of an electric mixer fitted with whisk attachment, beat yolks at high speed until pale, thick and lemon-colored, about 5 minutes. Gradually add sugar and continue to beat at high speed 5 minutes more until very thick.

Reduce speed to low; add vanilla and cooled chocolate, scraping sides of mixing bowl as necessary. Transfer mixture to a medium bowl. Wash whisk attachment and mixing bowl.

Use electric mixer and whisk attachment to beat egg whites with salt until stiff but not dry. Gradually, in 2 or 3 small additions, gently fold half the egg whites into the chocolate, then fold the chocolate mixture into the remaining whites just until no whites show. Handling as little as possible, gently reserve about 4 cups of mousse in a separate bowl; cover and refrigerate.

Transfer remaining mousse into prepared pie plate; it will barely reach the top. Gently level and bake 25 minutes. Turn off heat, then leave it in the oven 5 minutes more.

Remove from oven and cool on a rack. (The mousse will rise during baking, then sink in the middle while cooling, leaving a high rim.) Wash mixing bowl and whisk attachment and place both in refrigerator or freezer to chill.

When baked mousse is completely cool, remove reserved mousse from refrigerator. Handling it as little as possible, so it doesn’t lose the air beaten into it, transfer chilled mousse to center of baked mousse. Mound it slightly higher in center. Refrigerate at least 2 to 3 hours.

>> To make whipped cream: In the chilled mixing bowl with the chilled whisk attachment, whip cream, powdered sugar and vanilla on high until it holds a defined shape.

Spread over unbaked part of mousse; refrigerate. (Whipped cream may also be added with a pastry bag fitted with a medium star tube in a lattice pattern and a border around the edge.) Coarsely grate some semisweet chocolate over top before serving, if desired. The torte is best eaten the day it’s made, but it’s not bad the next day.

>> NOTE: To prepare mousse without a double boiler, place chopped chocolate a medium microwave-safe bowl. Dissolve coffee in boiling water and pour over chocolate. Cover with a plate or kitchen towel and let stand 5 minutes.

Vigorously whisk until chocolate is melted and smooth. If bits of unmelted chocolate remain, microwave in 15-second bursts, whisking between, until smooth and fully melted.

Nutritional information unavailable.

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