Everything Maida Heatter touches turns to high calories—and sales. Her latest best-seller, Book of Great Chocolate Desserts (Knopf, $15), has moved 75,000 copies and is now in its third printing. Even those untempted by her 12 variations on the basic brownie or her Countess Toulouse-Lautrec's French Chocolate Cake find Maida's recipes a work of art. Craig Claiborne calls Heatter "probably the best contemporary author of dessert books. I can't eat her goodies on my current diet, but she whets my appetite."

The key to the success of Heatter's cookbooks (the two previous were Great Desserts and Great Cookies) is that they are not just a lick and a promise. She executes each of her minutely detailed recipes at least 25 times before going to press. "I want to know that every person in the world can get the same results I do," she explains. Her occasional failures are fed to the seagulls outside the Miami beachfront home she shares with her third husband, Ralph Daniels, a retired IBM company pilot. Maida admits that there have been recipes "I've worked on for weeks and then said, 'The hell with it.' "

The daughter of the late radio news commentator Gabriel Heatter, Maida grew up in and around Manhattan. Since his broadcasts originated from home, there was always a bunch of her father's associates around munching on her mother's freshly baked cookies. "Mother was a wonderful cook, and the kitchen was the best room in the house," she recalls. But Maida's original interest was art, and, after studying at Pratt Institute, she worked as a fashion artist on newspapers for 10 years. Then, during the early '40s, she designed ties for Countess Mara and sold her hand-painted fabrics and silver jewelry at fashionable shops like Saks, Bendel and Hattie Carnegie.

In 1940 Maida married shoe designer David Evins (their daughter, Toni Evins, did the illustrations for her mother's books), but they were divorced five years later. Her second marriage was to Ellis Gimbel, a stockbroker from the department store family. They lived in Miami until their divorce in 1963. A year later she met Daniels, who was smitten by the chocolate brownies Maida would hand out to promote the cooking school she was then running. They wed two months later. When Daniels quit flying and opened the first of two profitable Miami restaurants, he featured Maida's homemade desserts.

Heatter's culinary skills came to national attention during the 1968 Republican Convention in Miami when she whomped up an elephant-meat omelet. Walter Cronkite covered the event himself, and New York Times-man Claiborne was so impressed by the exotic omelet and her accompanying array of desserts that he urged her to do a cookbook. Though Maida had no agent or ghostwriting assistance, she got a $5,000 advance for her first cookbook manuscript in three weeks.

Now 64, Heatter still cooks 12 to 14 hours a day. "I think women should know that if they like to cook they shouldn't be ashamed of it," she says. She is already three-quarters of the way into her next book, which will tackle yeast cakes, ice cream confections and "plain old American apple pie—one of the most difficult things to make."

Maida and Ralph have long since sold off their eateries, and she now has a thing against restaurant food. So when on the road, the two eat almost nothing but ice cream. When he first married her, Ralph's weight shot up 50 pounds, but it is currently stabilized. Maida still yo-yos, and every time she picks up 10 to 15 pounds, she puts herself on a crash protein diet. Says the woman who bills herself Chairperson of the Board of the Chocolate Lovers Association of the World: "I believe in doing everything in excess."