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 Thursday at her home in Miami Beach at age 102, was not yet the successful cookbook author she would soon 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 the East 62nd Street lemon cake, a tender lemon Bundt cake; her 86-proof chocolate cake, a rich 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 (whose full name is pronounced MAY-da HEAT-er) 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.
In 1974, “Maida Heatter’s Book of Great Desserts” was published, 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 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 jewellery designer living in Miami Beach, when 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 chocolaty and a dream to make if you follow Heatter’s precise instructions to the letter.
Maida Heatter’s Chocolate Mousse Torte
Serves: 6 to 8
Total time: 1 hour, plus at least 3 hours’ chilling
For the mousse:
225g – Semi-sweet bar chocolate (not chips), chopped
1 tbsp – Instant espresso or coffee powder
1/4 cup – Boiling water
8 large eggs, yolks and whites separated
65g – Sugar
1 tsp – Vanilla extract
1/8 tsp – Fine sea salt
Unsalted butter, for greasing the pan
Fine dry breadcrumbs or cocoa powder, for dusting
For the whipped cream:
360 ml – Heavy cream
40g – Powdered sugar
1 1/2 tsp – Vanilla extract
Grated semisweet chocolate, for serving (optional)
* Set a rack in the centre of the oven. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 9-inch glass pie plate. Dust it with breadcrumbs or cocoa powder. Set aside.
* Place the chopped chocolate in the top of a small double boiler over water over low heat. Bring it to a low simmer. Meanwhile, in a cup or small bowl, dissolve the coffee in the 1/4 cup boiling water and pour it over the chocolate. Cover and cook over low heat, whisking occasionally, until the chocolate is almost melted.
* Remove from heat and continue to stir until smooth. Let cool slightly. Alternatively, place chocolate in a medium microwave-safe bowl. Dissolve the coffee in the boiling water and pour it over the chocolate. Cover with a plate or kitchen towel and let stand for 5 minutes. Vigorously whisk until the chocolate is melted and smooth. If there are still bits of unmelted chocolate, microwave in 15-second bursts, whisking between, until smooth and fully melted.
* In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, beat the yolks at high speed until they are pale, thick and lemon-coloured, about 5 minutes. Gradually add the sugar and continue to beat at high speed for 5 minutes more until very thick. Reduce speed to low, and add the vanilla and cooled chocolate, scraping the sides of the mixing bowl as necessary. Transfer mixture to a medium bowl. Wash the whisk attachment and mixing bowl.
* In the mixing bowl of the electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, beat the egg whites with the salt until stiff but not dry. Gradually, in two or three 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 the mousse in a separate medium bowl; cover and refrigerate.
*Transfer the rest of the mousse into the pie plate; it will barely reach the top. Gently level and bake for 25 minutes. Turn off the heat, then leave it in the oven for 5 minutes more. Remove from oven and cool on a rack. The mousse will rise during baking, and then, while cooling, it will sink in the middle, leaving a high rim. Wash the mixing bowl and whisk attachment and place in the refrigerator or freezer to chill.
* When the baked mousse is completely cool, remove reserved mousse from refrigerator. Handling as little as possible, transfer the chilled mousse to the center of the baked mousse. Mound it slightly higher in the centre, but be careful to handle as little as possible or it will lose the air beaten into it. Refrigerate for at least 2 to 3 hours.
* Make the whipped cream: In the chilled mixing bowl with the chilled whisk attachment, whip the cream, powdered sugar and vanilla on high speed until it holds a defined shape. Spread over the unbaked part of the mousse, excluding the rim; refrigerate. Another way of applying the whipped cream: Use a pastry bag fitted with a medium star tube and pipe a lattice pattern over the top of the pie and a border around the edge. Coarsely grate some semi-sweet chocolate over the top before serving, if desired. The torte is best eaten the day it’s made, but it’s not bad the next day.