Read The Bake-Off Online

Authors: Beth Kendrick

The Bake-Off (5 page)

Brandon returned downstairs after tucking in Chloe and Ben, clicked on ESPN in the family room, took one look at Amy's expression, then crossed into the kitchen to comfort her. “How can I help you?”
“I think I'm beyond help at this point.” She blew out her breath and gazed down at the liquefied berries. “What are the odds that I can pass this off as innovative, cutting-edge cuisine? Raspberry gazpacho?”
Brandon put his arms around her and kissed her temple. “Would you like me to go buy some premade cookie dough?”
She rested her cheek against his soft merino sweater and swallowed her pride. “Yes, please. And a big bottle of wine. I'm starting to remember why we don't have a rolling pin.” She snatched up her new cookbook and chucked it toward the recycling bin by the back door. “No wonder that damn thing was in the clearance section.”
 
S
he had just popped a tray of round, uniform cookie dough slices into the oven and collapsed on the sofa with a glass of merlot when the phone rang. Her grandmother's name flashed across the cordless phone's caller ID display, and Amy snatched up the receiver immediately.
“Is everything okay, Grammy?” she said by way of greeting.
“Splendid, darling.” Grammy Syl sounded so upbeat that Amy started to de-stress, too, as if by osmosis. “Why do you ask?”
“It's just that it's so late. I thought you'd be in bed by now.”
“Pinochle night,” Grammy explained. “I just got home.”
Amy smiled. “You senior-center ladies put the
Sex and the City
girls to shame.”
“Pish-tosh.” Grammy clicked her tongue, but Amy could tell she was flattered. “How are my adorable great-grandchildren?”
Amy glanced over at the ketchup handprints still smeared across the kitchen cabinets. “They're two years old. Need I say more?”
“More important, how are you? You sound a bit run-down. Did you skip dinner tonight?”
“How do you always know these things?” Amy marveled. “Are you psychic?”
“I'm your grandmother. I know all.”
In fact, Grammy Syl had been more of a surrogate mother to Amy than a traditional grandmother. While Amy's parents were preoccupied with “handling” her younger sister, Linnie, Amy had spent weeks at a time at Grammy's house. Grammy Syl was the one who helped her shop for homecoming dresses, taught her how to properly apply mascara, and drove her to and from school musical rehearsals (where Amy had spent most of her time painting set pieces and flirting shamelessly with seniors).
“Don't worry about me.” Amy tucked her feet up under her on the couch. “I'm okay.”
“You're running yourself ragged and you ought to take better care of yourself. Admit it.” Grammy's tone brooked no argument.
“Maybe a little,” Amy admitted.
“I know just what would put the spring back into your step: a week all by yourself at a five-star hotel, plus lots and lots of money.”
Amy closed her eyes and sipped the rich, fruity wine. She fantasized about sleep the way other women fantasized about Clive Owen or the shoe department at Neiman Marcus. “Mmm. Sounds heavenly.”
“Then pack your bags, darling, because all that can be yours. All that and more.”
Amy's eyes flew open. “I don't get it. You're giving me my inheritance early?”
“Even better, dearest. I'm giving you the opportunity of a lifetime. And all you have to do is hold a mixing bowl and look glamorous. Congratulations!” Grammy crowed. “You're going to be my partner in the Delicious Duet Dessert Championship this year!”
Amy threw back her head and laughed.
The Delicious Duet Dessert Championship was, as the name suggested, a culinary competition focused on promoting wholesome family fun. Teams of two—mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, sisters, best friends, etc.—vied for a major cash prize by entering original recipes. Grammy Syl entered every year, along with her sister Pavla. A few years ago, Syl and Pavla had made it all the way to the semifinals in New York with their Plum Pistachio Macaroon recipe. They hadn't won the grand prize, but they'd received a gilt-edged certificate of participation along with lots of Delicious sugar coupons and some local press. Grammy had framed the certificate and hung it in her living room next to her wedding portrait.
But Great-aunt Pavla died last summer, and Amy had completely forgotten about the annual baking hoopla. Until now.
Grammy was still rattling off her sales pitch. “Since Pavla passed on, God rest her soul, I need a new partner, and so I'm putting your name next to mine on the entry form. Everything has to be postmarked no later than tomorrow. Prepare to bake your way to glory, darling.” She paused as Amy choked on her wine. “Why are you laughing?”
“Oh, Grammy. You picked the wrong day to ask me.” Amy summarized the tartlet fiasco. “I'm very flattered that you thought of me, but there's no way.”
“One little mishap and you're ready to give up? For shame. Baking is in your bloodline,” Grammy said loftily. “Don't fret; I'll do the hard work. All you'll need to do smile for the cameras and make the finished product look good. You can act as my food stylist.”
Amy's ears pricked up. “Cameras?”
“Oh yes. The winners are going to be showcased in a special feature for the Culinary Channel. It's a very big deal.”
Amy had never been on national TV. She'd never even had her name in the newspaper; Linnie had been the undisputed star of the family.
Grammy, sensing weakness, swooped in for the coup de grâce. “And the corporate sponsors put up all the finalists in a swanky hotel in New York. Just imagine: a whole big bed all to yourself. The soft white sheets, the fluffy pillows, nothing to do at night but sleep and sleep . . .”
Amy's resolve wavered. “But don't we have to come up with an original recipe?”
“Already done, darling. I'm submitting my top secret recipe for szarlotka—apple pie with a twist.”
“But that's a family secret!” Amy said. “Hence the term ‘secret recipe.' ”
“Let's face it—I'm not going to be around forever. Family secrets are overrated. Together we can win the whole shebang; I'm sure of it. What do you say? Are you with me?”
“Hang on a second.” Amy put down her wineglass and lifted her chin, sniffing the air. It smelled like . . . “Oh
crap
.”
“What is it, darling? Is everything all right?”
Amy raced into the kitchen and yanked open the oven door. Dark, acrid clouds of smoke billowed forth. She let out a squeak of despair. “Everything's fine, but I have a code-red cookie situation. I have to go before the smoke detector goes off and wakes the kids.”
“Just give me a yes or no.”
Amy gazed down at the blackened, deflated blobs on the cookie sheet. “For both our sakes, I'm going to have to say no. I'm so sorry, Grammy, but—”
Grammy didn't miss a beat. “That's all right, dear. I'll just ask Linnie instead.”
Amy's eyebrows snapped together. “Come on. That's not going to work on me. I'm not fifteen anymore.”
“I'm glad to hear that. It's high time that you and your sister got over that ridiculous rivalry.”
“It's not sibling rivalry, Grammy; it's more like guerrilla warfare.”
“You haven't seen each other in years.”
Amy didn't respond.
“Aren't you ever going to tell me what happened between the two of you?”
“No.” Amy's tone was sharper than she'd intended.
“Well, that's your prerogative, I suppose, but it's such a shame. You're sisters.”
“Exactly. We're sisters, not friends. We happen to share some DNA through circumstances beyond our control. That doesn't mean I have to feel guilty over not bonding with her.”
Grammy sighed and gave up. “Well, have it your way, darling. Go tend to your cookies, and let's see if we can't arrange a family dinner next weekend. I'd better call Linnie before I go to bed.”
“Wait.” Amy knew she should quit while she was ahead, but couldn't seem to help herself. “Don't ask her yet. Let me think about it.”
“I'm going to the post office first thing in the morning,” Grammy said.
“I know.” Amy flung open the back door and flapped a dish cloth to air out the smoke-filled kitchen. “You promise I don't have to do any actual baking?”
“Perish the thought. You'd only be there for moral support and a smidge of prep work. And press interviews, naturally. You're very photogenic, you know.”
“I'm aware that I'm being manipulated.”
“Don't be ridiculous; I would never manipulate anyone,” Grammy said sweetly. “So shall I sign you up or not?”
Amy took a deep, bracing breath and said, “Okay. I'm in.”
A few minutes later, Brandon wandered into the family room, munching a scorched cookie.
“Who was that?” he asked, nodding toward the phone.
“Grammy Syl.”
“What'd she have to say?”
“Pour yourself a glass of wine and prepare to have your mind blown.” A slow, stunned smile spread across Amy's face. “The time has come to invest in a rolling pin.”
 
The next day at noon, as she drove the four miles from the dental office to the day care to take advantage of the center's drop-in policy and eat lunch with Chloe and Ben, Amy called the florist to make sure that her order had been delivered. Then she took a fortifying gulp of lukewarm coffee and dialed her parents' number.
T
he phone rang twice before someone picked up, but all Amy could hear was a series of high-pitched, wince-inducing barks.
“Hello?” Amy pulled out of the parking lot and held her phone a few inches away from her head. “Mom? Dad?”
“Hang on.” Her mother's voice was barely audible over the barking, which escalated in both frequency and volume.
Two red lights later, the barking stopped and Amy's mother came back on the line, sounding breathless. “Amy? Is that you?”
“It's me.”
“Sorry about that. Rhodes just got home from the groomer, and you know how he hates getting his nails clipped. Then a deliveryman rang the doorbell, and that sent him over the edge.”
“You got the flowers I sent you?” Amy asked.
“I did, honey. Thank you. You're so sweet to remember that tulips are my favorite.”
“That's me.” Amy felt a bit wistful. “The good daughter.”
She had always been the good daughter in the Bialek family. Even as a baby, she'd been jolly and mellow, sleeping through the night at only six weeks old and greeting strangers with gurgles and a big toothless grin. When she was three and a half, Linnie was born, and everyone remarked on how smoothly Amy made the transition from only child to big sister.
Linnie, on the other hand, had never been easy. She was fussy and high-maintenance from day one, requiring special formula, wailing for hours every evening with colic, refusing to sleep unless the lighting, background noise, and temperature were exactly right. As she progressed from infant to little girl, Linnie demanded ever more of her parents' time and attention. While Amy was the good daughter, Linnie was the gifted one, the wunderkind who needed to be coddled and cultivated like a hothouse orchid.
For the first few years of her life, Linnie had adored Amy, and Amy had relished the role of the magnanimous older sibling. She'd been happy to let Linnie tag along and share her toys.
But then, suddenly, Linnie wasn't tagging along anymore. She started reading by the time she turned two, and was correcting Amy's grade school math homework when she was in preschool. Linnie was an intellectual tour de force, mastering mathematics, science, foreign languages, piano, and even gymnastics. Their parents would meet behind closed doors with educators and counselors about how best to nurture Linnie's burgeoning brilliance while Amy waited out in the hallway, reading Archie comic books and chewing on lollipops.
By the time Amy started high school, she had essentially regained her only-child status, except instead of being the center of attention, she felt more like an afterthought.
“Don't be like that,” her mother would say, looking guilty when Amy complained about spending yet another weekend at Grammy's house while her parents drove Linnie to an out-of-state science olympiad. “You know we love you. But Linnie needs us more right now.”
“You're lucky.” Her father threw one arm around her and squeezed. “You get to hang out with your friends and have fun.”
So Amy taught herself to fit in wherever she went. Although she loved to paint and secretly considered herself a budding avant-garde artist, she moved freely through most of the cliques in high school. She hung out with cheerleaders and jocks, the band and theater crowds, student council members and the newspaper staff. She could talk to anyone about anything—except for her own sister, who seemed increasingly closed-off and distant.
On the evening of her sophomore-year homecoming dance, as Amy zipped up her strapless sequined dress and applied her makeup, she tried to chat with Linnie about how she'd been nominated for homecoming court, who else was on the ballot, and which king and queen candidates might win.
Linnie, who used to hang onto her every word and beg Amy for a spritz of perfume, didn't even look up from her textbook. “I believe it was Eleanor Roosevelt who said, ‘Great minds discuss ideas. Average minds discuss events. Small minds discuss people.' ”
And that had pretty much been the end of their sisterly bonding. Amy went out and had fun; Linnie stayed home and germinated greatness. The long-term plan, everyone agreed, was for Linnie to become a physician and spend her twenties publishing groundbreaking research papers in prestigious medical journals. (Her thirties, presumably, would be devoted to curing cancer and the common cold.)

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