Read The Bake-Off Online

Authors: Beth Kendrick

The Bake-Off (7 page)

Several minutes passed, the kitchen so quiet that Amy could hear the wall clock ticking off the seconds.
Linnie tapped her plate with her fork. “Just so you know, I'm not jealous of you.”
Amy shoved back her chair and fixed her sister with a death glare. “Don't start. I'm in no mood.”
Linnie circled the rim of her drinking glass with one fingertip. “Why so hostile?”
“You know why.”
They reverted to the silent staring contest.
Finally, Amy heaved a big sigh. “Why are you desperate for money?”
Linnie sidestepped the question and said, with the air of a teenager in detention, “Look. You don't want to do this. I don't want to do this. But Grammy's right; we don't have to like each other. We just have to figure out how to make”—she picked up the card and squinted at the lopsided text—“szarlotka, whatever that is.”
“It's a Polish apple pie,” Amy said. “You have a piece of it in front of you right now. Grammy Syl and Auntie Pavla used to make it all the time, remember?”
“Nope.”
“I can't believe you don't remember.”
“I didn't have a lot of free time to sit around enjoying Grammy's baked goods.” Linnie's self-satisfied little smirk vanished. “But I take it you know how to make it?”
“No clue.”
Linnie considered this, then shrugged. “Well, how hard can it be? We have step-by-step instructions right here. It's not rocket science. Housewives all over the world do this every day.”
“God, you're insufferable.”
Linnie blinked at her. “What?”
“ ‘Housewives all over the world,' ” Amy repeated. “Like you're so much better than all of us mere mortals.”
“Don't be so sensitive. My point is, Polish peasants used to whip this up with no electricity and no running water. If they can figure it out, so can I.”
“Ha. That's what you say now.” Amy tossed her head. “Hey, here's an idea: How about I have all the ideas and do all the work, and then, at the last possible second, you sweep in and screw me over and steal all the credit for yourself?”
Linnie blanched, her face going as white as the milk smudging her upper lip.
Amy smote her forehead, her voice still drenched in sarcasm. “Oh, wait, we already did that, didn't we? And look how
that
turned out.”
Chapter 4
L
innie had to remind herself to breathe as she wiped her shoes on the welcome mat outside Grammy's front door. The pages of annotated recipes in her hands were damp and curling at the edges from the sweat drenching her palms. The merino wool scarf knotted artfully around her neck started to itch.
After the initial confrontation with Amy two weeks ago, both sisters had agreed to return to Grammy Syl's for a weekend of “baking boot camp,” and Linnie hadn't thought much beyond learning to properly crack eggs and roll out paper-thin dough. But returning to the little town of Staunton, Connecticut, reuniting with the people who knew her best, made her feel like more of an outsider than months of being overlooked as just another anonymous pretty face in a Vegas casino.
The scent of fresh coffee wafted out from the apartment, and Linnie could hear muffled laughter and the faint clattering of china teacups against saucers. Amy must already be in the kitchen with Grammy, the two of them chatting and sharing confidences the way they always did.
Linnie had been lying two weeks ago when she'd insisted she wasn't jealous of her older sister. Please.
Of course
she was jealous. Amy had grown up mobbed with friends and besieged by phone calls from boys, and she had frittered away her teenage summers selecting lipstick at the mall and lifeguarding by the lake in a bikini. Amy was cute, not gorgeous. Amy was bright, not brilliant. Amy had been allowed the luxury of flipping through the cable channels on Sunday evenings and saying, “I'm
so bored
, you guys.”
Linnie, on the other hand, had never experienced a single minute of boredom in her adolescence. She'd been too busy preparing for the next hurdle on the road to greatness, greatness that she'd been assured she was entitled to achieve because she was, on some fundamental level, better than everyone else.
“You're
gifted
,” she heard over and over from her parents and her teachers. She did not have to earn her superiority. Rather, her intellect, like her beauty, had been bestowed by divine favor. She had been chosen. Amy had not.
And to this day, Linnie still burned with envy.
She was jolted out of her reverie as heavy-metal guitar riffs and drumbeats started blasting out of Grammy's apartment and the door flew open.
“Linnie!” Grammy looked disconcerted to find her granddaughter loitering on her doorstep with a furrowed brow and an incipient case of neck hives, but she quickly recovered and commenced hugging and kissing. “Come in, darling. Goodness, I didn't even hear you knock; I was just going to check for the newspaper. I'm so glad you managed to get a few days off work. How was your flight?”
“Fine,” Linnie mumbled, staring down at the intricate pattern on the living room rug. “Thanks for sending me the ticket. I promise I'll pay you back.”
“Don't give it a second thought. Here, put your suitcase right over here. I'm sorry you had to take a shuttle from the airport, but I finally had to give up driving on the freeway this year. My eyesight isn't what it used to be, and your sister . . . well, you know she has her job and the children to look after. She's always so busy.”
“The shuttle van was fine,” Linnie said. “I didn't expect Amy to pick me up, believe me. What on earth are you listening to in here? Is that . . . ?”
“Def Leppard!” Grammy Syl clapped her hands together. “ ‘Pour Some Sugar on Me,' I believe the song is called. Amy put together a whole baking playlist on her iPod. Isn't that festive?”
Linnie unbuttoned her coat and grimaced as the vocalist started howling about taking a bottle and shaking it up. “That's one word for it.”
“You're just in time. We're getting ready to start the first batch.” Grammy led the way down the hall past five decades' worth of Bialek family photos. As they rounded the corner into the kitchen, she squeezed Linnie's hand. “And for heaven's sake, be nice to your sister.”
Linnie scratched the ferocious itch at the back of her neck. “I'll be nice to her if she'll be nice to me.”
She squared her shoulders, set her chin at a haughty angle, and swept into the kitchen to find Amy lining up ingredients on the countertop and rocking out to the music blasting out of tiny speakers rigged up next to the stove. Amy's thick, wavy auburn hair was slowly escaping its ponytail, and her hazel eyes sparkled as she paused to play a little air guitar. She wore a well-cut green shirt, fitted dark jeans, and a long, stylish gold statement necklace. She looked comfortable and confident in her own skin, the prom queen grown up into the president of the PTA, but without any trace of cliquey cattiness.
Amy had never been a gossip; all these years and she'd never breathed a word about what had really caused the rift between her and Linnie. Her silence protected Linnie, but it also left Linnie alone with the hard, humiliating truth.
For a few moments, neither sister acknowledged the other. Finally, Grammy stepped in between them and exclaimed, “Look, Amy, Linnie's here! All us Bialek girls together again. Isn't this marvelous?”
“I downloaded some songs to inspire us while we work,” Amy announced, not making eye contact. “ ‘Pour Some Sugar on Me'; perfect, right? Then ‘I Want Candy,' ‘Cherry Pie,' ‘Appetite for Destruction,' ‘She's Crafty . . .' ”
Linnie smoothed back her hair and pursed her lips. “Could you please turn it down?”
“What?” Amy yelled.
“Could you please turn it down? I can barely hear myself think.”
“Okay, there, Grandma.” Amy grinned across the kitchen as she lowered the volume by a few decibels. “No offense, Grammy.”
“None taken, dear.” Grammy Syl produced a pair of gingham aprons from a drawer next to the oven and handed one to each sister. “Now suit up, darlings. It's time you learned the lost art of making szarlotka. We're going to need plenty of patience, precision, and, most important, teamwork.”
“Oh no.” Amy groaned. “Here we go.”
Grammy Syl ignored this and started rummaging through the pantry. “First, we'll go through our ingredients and set out everything we need so it'll be right here when we need it. Flour, sugar, butter, sour cream, eggs . . . Making perfect piecrust is an art, you know, and timing is everything. The number one mistake new cooks make is overworking the dough.”
“I know,” Linnie said. “I did some reading on the science of baking on the flight over.”
“Suck-up,” Amy muttered under her breath.
Linnie “accidentally” whapped her sister with an errant apron string.
Grammy was still peering into the depths of her pantry. “And let's see—we'll need salt.”
“Kosher salt is best, right?” Linnie asked.
Grammy looked impressed. “That's right. Very good, Linnie! Now for the apples. Most szarlotka recipes call for Granny Smith, but I like to sneak a Fuji in there, too. It adds a tangy little kick. Plus, let me see, nutmeg, allspice, and—Oh dear.” Grammy clapped a hand to her cheek. “I'm almost out of cinnamon.”
“I'll run out and buy some more,” Linnie volunteered.
“No, no, you stay right here. I'll go.” Grammy shook her head with excessive surprise. “How careless of me!”
Amy rolled her eyes and leaned against the counter. “Oh, Grammy. You're so transparent.”
“What? It's all gone.” Grammy shook the tiny metal canister. “See for yourself.”
“Uh-huh. This is like a scene out of
The Parent Trap
. You think that if you lock us up together with enough sugar and spice, we'll magically bond and become BFFs.”
Grammy paused for a moment, then smiled. “A grandmother can hope.”
“Well, you should spare yourself the trouble, because I can tell you right now that Linnie and I—”
“Are quite capable of being civil to each other for a few hours,” Linnie finished, reaching over to turn off the stereo. “We do not have to be BFFs to make a pie. We both have plenty of self-control. We have dignity.”
Amy fluttered her eyelashes. “And don't forget the kosher salt. We've got that, too.”
Linnie finally snapped. “Oh my God, Amy, why don't you take this whole canister of kosher salt and shove it—”
“Girls!”
Grammy Syl pounded on the counter with the solid maple rolling pin. “That is enough! I am going to the grocery store, and when I get back, I expect to see pies baking and childhood traumas healing. Now, get to it.” She stalked out of the apartment, slamming the front door behind her.
The metal measuring spoons rattled from the force of Grammy's exit, and then the kitchen fell silent.
“This isn't going to work out, is it?” Linnie said.
“Probably not.” Amy sounded almost cheerful. “Why do you keep scratching your neck?”
Linnie immediately dropped her hands to her sides, then washed them in the sink and tucked her fingers into the pockets of her apron. “Let's start over, okay? I'm sorry. Regardless of our, uh, history, I really want to win this thing.
Really
.”
Amy tilted her head, her gaze suddenly shrewd. “Yeah, I believe Grammy's exact words were ‘desperate for money.' What's going on?”
“Failure is not an option,” was all Linnie said by way of explanation. “So we need to do anything and everything we can to blow away the competition in New York. We need to eat, sleep, and breathe szarlotka for the next few weeks. We need to try to get along. I'll do my part, Amy—more than my part. I know I owe you.”
Amy's penetrating stare intensified. “You really want to win that badly?”
Linnie nodded, even though she knew that doing so was admitting weakness and providing Amy with the perfect opportunity to deny Linnie what she most wanted. But she didn't have any other options. Her sister was her last resort and her only hope.
“Huh. Interesting.” Amy drummed her fingernails on the stovetop. “Well, then, I have some ideas. Like, I was thinking that we should jazz up the recipe name if we can.”
Linnie glanced up in surprise. “What does the recipe name have to do with anything?”
“You'd be surprised. The recipe name can make all the difference, according to the online forums I browsed.” Amy tucked her hair back behind her ear. “That's right, while you were spending countless hours studying up on salt, I spent five minutes surfing the Internet while the twins tore apart the family room. And word on the Web is, judges like kicky names.”
“Really?” Linnie had never even considered this, and the possibility dismayed her. This was exactly the type of curveball that set off a fresh case of neck hives. “Do they have any stats to back up that theory?”
“Don't know. I had to log off before the dog lost an ear. But there was this one chick who'd won three regional cake competitions, and she said judges prefer creative recipe names.”
“ ‘One chick'?” Linnie repeated. “Need I remind you, the plural of anecdote is not data.”
Amy threw up her palm. “Don't pull that supercilious crap with me. I know I'm right about this. No one knows how to pronounce
szarlotka
, and ‘Polish Apple Pie' is a snore. We need to set ourselves apart from all the Caramel Walnut this and Coconut Meringue that.”

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