Before she retired, Elinor Klivans wrote 14 cookbooks from her Camden home and also wrote about baking for national magazines and newspapers. Reproductions of Wayne Thiebaud cake paintings hang in her kitchen, as well as framed copies of magazine covers that feature her cakes. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Elinor Klivans has baked hundreds of cakes and thousands of cookies over a lifetime in baking. Her luscious desserts have adorned covers of Bon Appetit, Fine Cooking and Hannaford’s Fresh magazines. Now retired, Klivans wrote 14 cookbooks between 1994 and 2013, covering all manner of cookies, cakes, ice creams and pies – with a book on bread and another on pot pies thrown in for good measure.

Positive and energetic, Klivans still loves to try new recipes and to improve on old ones; she’s often tasting and tinkering. Although she turned 80 last week, she regularly clips recipes from magazines and newspapers for new desserts she plans to make.

But when it comes to Passover, which begins with the Seder meal on April 5, for Klivans, there is just a single dessert: Mom’s Walnut and Wine Passover Cake. The recipe, which calls for nine eggs and is leavened with the whites, appeared in Klivan’s first cookbook, “Bake and Freeze Desserts.” Except for recent pandemic Zoom Passovers, it has shown up on her Seder table every year of her life.

“I love that cake,” she said simply during a cake-baking session in her spacious, light-filled, hilltop home of four decades in Camden. “To me, it’s part of Passover.”


Klivans grew up in Lakeland, Florida, and baked happily at her mother’s side as far back as she can remember. “My mom, her whole generation, cooked. How else would you have dinner?” Klivans said.


But it’s her mother’s desserts that Klivans remembers with exactitude: Swedish crumb cake; strawberry shortcake made with sponge, not biscuits; apricot strudel. That last was her mother’s signature. In “Bake and Freeze Desserts,” Klivans describes it as “the strudel that made her reputation.” The three-ingredient dough, “a silky, smooth dough that is a pleasure to work with,” according to the book’s recipe note, is made with, of all things, melted ice cream.

A dutiful student, the only time Klivans ever remembers skipping school was in ninth grade. She had a hankering to bake a loaf of bread, and her mother not only let her stay home to do so, but even wrote her a note excusing her absence.

At the University of Florida, Klivans studied English literature and education. Like other young women of her generation, she was told she had just two career options: teacher or nurse. She graduated in December 1963 and married a few weeks later.

Walnut and wine Passover cake, made by Elinor Klivans from her mother’s recipe, photographed at her Camden home. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

By the 1970s, the family – Klivans and her husband now had a son and daughter – was living in Miami, and Klivans was developing recipes for a local bakery and teaching occasional cooking classes. But Miami was changing, she said, and not for the better; crime was on the rise. In 1981, the family moved to Camden. (She brought her sourdough starter with her, but says the bread in Maine is so good these days, she no longer bothers to bake her own.)

Klivans found part-time work baking desserts for several Midcoast restaurants. At Peter Ott’s in Camden, she developed a menu of crowd-pleasing, homey favorites: fruit crisps; pies like mocha cream, apple and blueberry crumb; gingerbread with ice cream and butterscotch sauce. “I like regular delicious desserts,” she said, describing her baking style, then and now. “I don’t like contrived things.”

That predilection extends to her own diet. “My favorite foods are ice cream, chocolate chip cookies and bread and butter,” she said, smiling.


Klivans took classes whenever she could, studying under legendary pastry chef Albert Kumin (Windows on the World, The Four Seasons, the White House), then saving up for five years to spend three weeks at La Varenne in Paris. She still sounds wistful that she was never able to enroll at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park. “That would have been a dream for me,” she said.

After nine years at Peter Ott’s, Klivans was restless, looking for a new challenge but unsure of what sort. Her daughter, then a college student with a work-study job in the admissions office, sent her mom a stack of aptitude tests. “I spent a whole summer filling out the tests,” Klivans recalled. “I literally spent hours and hours.”

By the time she was done, she had a plan. She would write a cookbook.


Klivans spent two years preparing herself, going to workshops, and reading books and taking classes on food writing. “I just tried to go about it in an organized and correct way,” she recalled. “It’s a process.”

A process that paid off. Early story pitches to Bon Appetit magazine on ice cream and mousse were accepted. At a conference for the International Association for Culinary Professionals, she landed an agent and an editor. (She also rode in an elevator with Julia Child.) Driving from Yarmouth to Camden one day, the idea for her first book popped into her head: “Boom. A brainstorm.”


Then came the hard part – sitting down to write. To this day, Klivans keeps a copy of  “Bird by Bird” by Anne Lamott on her desk. Over the years, Lamott’s writing techniques guided her as she penned a steady stream of cookbooks for William Morrow and Company, Chronicle Books and Williams Sonoma as well as articles for national cooking magazines and newspapers. Write that first draft, no matter how bad, Klivans paraphrases Lamott. Get something, anything, on paper, then fix it.

Her first book was published when she was in her late 40s. Among her titles and subject matter: “Slice and Bake Cookies,” “The Essential Chocolate Chip Cookbook,” “Chocolate Cakes,” “Big Fat Cookies” (which was translated into Thai!), “Cupcakes” and “Fearless Baking.” Even as late as 2007, remembers Don Lindgren of Rabelais Books in Biddeford, she was “one of the few Maine cookbook authors with a national publisher deal.” As a group, the books are bright, cheerful and meticulous, not unlike Klivans, and they offer plenty of cues and hand-holding for home bakers: Whisk until no white specks remain, beat ganache for 30 seconds until the color lightens from dark brown to medium brown, beat egg whites until they form a shiny, pure white mass that clings to the beaters.

“Fearless Baking” was directed squarely at new and anxious bakers. It starts with simple recipes, like Big Easy Popovers, and builds on baking skills until by the end of the nearly 400-page book, home bakers can confidently tackle Blaze of Glory Chocolate Cake, with two pralines, caramel sauce and a whipped cream filling.

Klivans had high hopes for “Fearless Baking.” “I think it could have been really huge,” she said. But it came out in 2001 just one week after the World Trade Center attacks. The New York publishing industry, the entire world, had stopped. New books get only a small window for exposure, after which, “You lost your slot,” Klivans said. “They are not going to start it six months later and do a do-over.” “Fearless Baking” sold just 5,000 copies.

“Cupcakes,” on the other hand, a small, smartly produced book impeccably timed for the cupcake craze that swept the U.S., had a far happier trajectory, selling 100,000 copies, “very high by today’s standards and also by 15 years ago standards,” according to Karen Murgolo of Aevitas, a longtime book agent who represents many cookbook authors.

Klivans faced both hit and miss with equanimity. “All kinds of things happen and they are out of your control,” she said, “and that’s the way it is.”


She is equally philosophical about the end of her career. Retirement, she said, “just kind of happened.” Some of the editors and publishers she’d worked closely with retired. The recession hit. A couple of her books sold poorly. Klivans proposed a few new ideas, but got no takers. She was a widow by then, and began to travel – to Easter Island, Machu Picchu, Bhutan, Morocco, Italy and elsewhere. When editors called, she was far from home. Eventually, they stopped calling. Though none of the cookbooks remain in print today, Klivans said, most are available as e-editions.

“I’ve pretty much written everything I wanted to,” she said. “I was really lucky. I did it for over 20 years. It was the right time for me. Then you have to move on. Everything moves on.”

Klivans tops the cake with powdered sugar. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer


The food and cookbook worlds have also moved on. Ingredients that just a decade ago might have seemed downright weird now show up in cakes, cookies and pies: miso, tahini, rye flour, black sesame seeds, sumac, preserved lemons, garam masala, olive oil. Klivans is not necessarily a fan.

“Sometimes I think I am old-fashioned? It’s fine if people want to do that, and it’s fine if people like it, but I wouldn’t order it,” she said. “I have no desire to eat olive oil ice cream. Sorry. I might taste it because I’d be curious, but I’m not going to eat a whole scoop.”

That jibes with how Barbara Fairchild, former editor-in-chief of Bon Appetit, remembers Klivans. “When Elinor wrote for us in the early to mid-90s, a revolution in American food and ingredients was well underway,” Fairchild wrote in an email. “Elinor’s recipes were a nice balance for our readers – classic and more traditional comfort food.”


Likewise, Klivans isn’t interested in tweeting, posting on Instagram, blogging or even going viral (though a video of her making that melted ice cream strudel certainly could). Back in the day, she was often on TV (Good Morning America, QVC, Food Network, “207” and plenty of local shows around the country), but excepting Stanley Tucci’s “Searching for Italy,” she watches little food television now, certainly not competition shows like “Iron Chef.” “Cooking is supposed to be fun,” she said. “It’s not a competition.”

She talks as enthusiastically about the cooking skills of her children and grandchildren, as about her own career. One granddaughter works as a sous chef in New Zealand. Another makes huge, spectacular cakes and posts photos of them on Instagram.

These days, it’s locals who benefit from Klivans’s baking skills. She brings desserts to her friends, neighbors and book club. She donates desserts, volunteering to bake for monthly soup kitchen suppers sponsored by Rockland’s Adas Yoshuron synagogue. “Elinor is extremely generous and has been baking for years,” said Linda Garson Smith, the synagogue’s soup kitchen coordinator. “She has made the most wonderful confections.”

The much-loved recipe card for Passover cake. Klivans’ mom wrote it out many years ago for her daughter by hand. Photo by Peggy Grodinsky


On a late March morning, the “wonderful confection” she is baking is her mother’s Passover cake. Passover baking has many special requirements. The multi-day holiday celebrates the Jews’ escape from slavery in Egypt thousands of years ago, as it is related in Exodus in the Old Testament. According to the story, the Jews fled in such a hurry, there was no time for bread to rise, a fact they commemorate by eating matzoh, a flat cracker, during the holiday.

For the same reason, Jews are supposed to avoid food made with leaveners, like yeast, baking soda and baking powder. Even ordinary flour is off-limits. Klivans’ cake calls for matzo cake meal and potato starch instead. She is relaxed about these restrictions, though. She says she follows them during the Seder meal, but then returns to her usual diet for the remaining eight days of Passover.


She laughs remembering her father during her childhood Seders. “Keep it moving, keep it moving,” he’d urge family and friends. The Passover story deals with oppression, freedom, family, memory, social justice, but Klivans discourages earnest mealtime discussions. “You don’t sit and talk philosophy for more than an hour when everybody wants to eat,” she said.

In her kitchen, Klivans has special drawers dedicated to flour and sugar. Photo by Peggy Grodinsky

She has already baked a sample cake. Smart and trim, she wears a cobalt blue cardigan, a pale blue Oxford shirt and a tidy white apron with her name in embroidery. The measured ingredients for the cake are neatly laid out. A greased, lined cake pan, a KitchenAid mixer, and cake-baking tools stand at the ready, alongside a print-out of the recipe and a single-serving walnut-wine cake for tasting. The kitchen is functional, streamlined and immaculate. Klivans is clearly a pro.

The word Seder translates as “order.” Dessert comes last, of course. In order, before the sweets, Klivans grew up eating a traditional Ashkenazi Passover menu (Ashkenazi Jews trace their heritage to Europe): gefilte fish, matzo ball soup, brisket or chicken and matzo kugel.

This year, though, will be different. Until just before the start of Passover, the extended family will be in New York City celebrating Klivans’ milestone birthday. There’s not enough time to cook an elaborate Seder when she gets back. So Klivans and her daughter Laura, who will be visiting with her family from Virginia, have splurged on a mail-order meal from Zahav, Philadelphia’s much celebrated Israeli restaurant.

No doubt that mailed meal comes with a delectable, kosher-for-Passover dessert. And no doubt, the Klivans will also eat Mom’s Walnut and Wine Passover Cake. The timer buzzes and Klivans takes the big, high, dramatic cake out of the oven. Pleased, she admires it for a moment.

“Wow!” she says. “It’s Passover.”


Elinor Klivans taps powdered sugar onto Walnut and Wine Passover cake, made from her mother’s recipe. The cornstarch in ordinary powdered sugar is not kosher for Passover, but you can find special powdered sugar or make an acceptable substitute yourself. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer


Recipe from Elinor Klivans’ “Bake and Freeze Desserts.” In the book, Klivans writes that while many Passover cakes “are notorious for their dry, unappealing texture,” this light, spongy, moist cake is the exception. The recipe in the book calls for 2 tablespoons wine, but over the years, Klivans has increased the amount.

GOOD ADVICE: This large cake must be baked in a 10-inch diameter springform pan with at least 3-inch-high sides. Cake meal and potato starch can be found in the kosher sections of supermarkets. Store leftover boxes of cake meal and potato starch, wrapped tightly in plastic freezer bags, up to two years in the freezer.

Serves 12

9 large eggs, separated
1 ½ cups sugar (3/4 cup beaten with yolks and 3/4 cup beaten with whites)
1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons canola or corn oil
1/3 cup Concord grape wine or any sweet red wine
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup matzo cake meal
1  tablespoon potato starch
2 ½ cups (8 ounces) ground walnuts

Powdered sugar, optional (use kosher-for-Passover powdered sugar, if it’s important to you)


Position an oven rack in the middle of the oven. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F. Oil a 10-inch diameter springform pan with 3-inch high sides. Line the bottom of the pan with parchment paper and oil the paper.

Put the egg yolks in the large bowl of an electric mixer and mix on medium speed for 15 seconds, just to break up the yolks. Add 3/4 cup of the sugar and beat for about 90 seconds until the mixture thickens and the color lightens to pale yellow. Add the lemon zest, lemon juice, oil, wine and salt and mix on low speed until the ingredients are blended. Add the cake meal and potato starch and mix until evenly moistened. Mix in the walnuts. Set aside. Put the egg whites in another clean, large bowl and with clean, dry beaters beat the egg whites on medium speed to soft peaks. On medium speed, slowly beat in the remaining 3/4 cup sugar, 2 tablespoons at a time. Use a rubber spatula to fold 1/2 of the whites into the yolk mixture. Fold in the remaining whites. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the top.

Bake for 60 to 70 minutes until a toothpick inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean or with a few crumbs clinging to it. Cool the cake in the pan on a wire cooling rack for 20 minutes. Loosen the sides of the cake from the pan with a thin knife blade. Place a wire cooling rack on top of the cake and invert it onto the rack. Remove the bottom of the springform pan. Carefully remove the paper liner from the bottom of the cake and discard it. Place another wire cooling rack on the cake and invert the cake onto the rack to cool top side up. Cool the cake thoroughly.

Sprinkle the cake with powdered sugar, if desired. Leftover cake can be covered with plastic wrap and stored at room temperature up to three days.

TO FREEZE – Cover the cooled cake tightly with plastic wrap then heavy aluminum foil. Label with date and contents. Freeze up to 1 month.

TO SERVE – Defrost the wrapped cake at room temperature for 5 hours or overnight. Unwrap the cake and place it on a serving plate. Sprinkle the cake with powdered sugar, if desired. Leftover cake can be covered with plastic wrap and stored at room temperature up to three days.

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