Read The Bake-Off Online

Authors: Beth Kendrick

The Bake-Off (8 page)

“You have a suggestion?”
Amy leaned forward, her eyes dancing. “Party Girl Pie.”
Linnie struggled to keep a straight face.
“What?” Amy demanded.
“Party Girl Pie sounds like something a sorority house would force pledges to eat during hell week.”
“Are you going to come up with any ideas of your own, or are you just going to criticize?”
“A catchy recipe name isn't going to make any difference when we face the judging panel,” Linnie insisted. “What's going to win this for us is chemistry, pure and simple.” She produced her notes from her back pocket and started pacing the perimeter of the kitchen. “I've spent the last two weeks reviewing the recipe, and I've come up with a few minor refinements that are going to give us a major edge. Like here, for instance: two and a half cups of flour, two-thirds of a cup of sugar—we should be measuring out the dry ingredients by weight, not by volume. Measuring cups are notoriously unreliable.”
“But we're allowed to bring our own measuring cups, so let's just bring Grammy's. She's made this hundreds of times, and it's always delicious,” Amy said. “I say, if it ain't broke, don't fix it. All we need is hard work and a little luck.”
“You're missing my point. If we perfect the methodology, we won't have to work that hard. And PS, I don't believe in luck.”
“Did you seriously just say we won't have to work hard to win this?” Amy snorted.
“Grunt work is for suckers.” Linnie ducked back into the foyer, dug through her carry-on bag, and returned to the kitchen with a digital food scale, an oven thermometer, and a food science textbook. “Okay, let's go over the major factors that affect crust texture: sugar, which hinders gluten formation; acid, which breaks down existing gluten strands; fat proteins, which can promote gluten formation if not properly coated—”
“Hang on.” Amy called for a time-out. “Gluten's like wheat, right?”
“It's a tough, stringy strand of protein that originates in cereal grains, including wheat. Piecrusts need some gluten to hold the dough together, but too much gluten makes the finished product tough and chewy. So you have to be very aware of the protein content of the flour you're using. Also, it's important to give the dough time to chill after you mix it, because that allows the gluten to relax.”
Amy's expression was a mix of horror and amusement. “Is there going to be a test on this later?”
“Yeah, and we get a hundred thousand dollars if we pass.” Linnie flipped open her textbook. “Now, the eggs help bind everything together and contribute to the dough's structural elasticity while discouraging water absorption.” She noticed that Amy's eyes had started to take on a glazed, detached expression. “Hey! Stay with me here. We're just getting started.”
Amy rubbed her forehead. “Are you going to act like this for the entire trip?”
“Like what?”
“Like a neurotic, type-A control freak.”
“Oh.” Linnie considered this for a moment. “Yes.”
“Well, I don't want to spend all afternoon solving equations and watching PowerPoint presentations on the molecular properties of gluten. I just want to bake some damn pie.”
“But if you understand the scientific principles at work in the process—”
“I don't understand and I don't want to. We're not going to be able to control every aspect of the baking conditions.”
“Um, I beg to differ.”
“You really don't see that this is ridiculous? Come on. You can't think your way out of this, Linnie. We're going to have to jump in and get our hands dirty. And we're going to make a lot of mistakes along the way, so we'd better get started.”

You're
being ridiculous,” Linnie sputtered. “All the determination in the world doesn't matter if we don't attain the proper chemical ratios and reactions.”
“Is that so? Tell you what: Let's each make a batch, right here, right now.” Amy rocked back on her heels. “You can go crazy with your Bunsen burner and your Geiger counter and whatever, and I'll be over here playing fast and loose with a measuring cup and a spatula. Whoever makes the better-tasting szarlotka gets to do it her way at the competition in New York. Grammy Syl can judge.”
“No deal,” Linnie said. “Grammy Syl favors you.”
“She does not.”
“Does, too!”
“You're just afraid you're going to get schooled by the culinary kamikaze.”
“Fine.” Linnie rolled up her sleeves. “You're on. But the winner gets to name the recipe, and the loser has to wash all the dishes.”
Amy cranked up her iPod. “Let's rock and roll.”
 

W
hat's going on in here?” When Grammy Syl finally returned more than two hours later, the kitchen was in shambles, the oven was going full blast, and the two sisters hadn't exchanged a single word.
“We're having a pre-bake-off bake-off,” Amy said.
“To demonstrate that science beats sloppy technique,” Linnie added.
Amy cleared her throat. “To demonstrate that the art of baking transcends a bunch of arbitrary rules and regulations.”
Grammy Syl dropped a brown paper grocery sack onto a chair and raised her hands to her face. Linnie was shocked to realize that her grandmother was near tears. “But this is terrible,” Grammy cried. “You're supposed to be working together! The whole point of the Delicious Duet Championship is teamwork.”
“Sorry, Grammy.” Amy shrugged. “Your
Parent Trap
ploy didn't work. And PS, that was the longest grocery run in history. Did you go all the way to Asia and harvest the cinnamon yourself?”
“Don't cry, Grammy.” Linnie offered a tissue. “We'll have lots of opportunities for teamwork in New York.”
Grammy's lips stopped trembling as she clamped them together in grim resignation. “I give up. You two are hopeless.”
“Don't say that until you taste my pie.” Amy glanced over her shoulder at Linnie as she pulled a tray out of the oven. “I'm totally going to win.”
Amy's words might have been cocky, but Linnie detected a trace of doubt in her voice. They both knew that Linnie always won—if she couldn't win, she wouldn't compete.
When the pastries were baked, Amy and Linnie banished Grammy to the living room as they prepared to present the finished products.
“The judging has to be blind and impartial,” Linnie said. “Grammy can't know whose is whose. So you use the plate with the silver rim, and I'll use the one with the blue flowers.” She reached into the cabinet, but Amy hip-checked her out of the way.
“I want the one with the blue flowers.” Amy grabbed the dish before Linnie could reach it. “Visual presentation matters.”
“Fine. You don't have to be a bully about it.”
Amy whirled around and stuck her index finger centimeters away from Linnie's nose. “Let's get one thing straight right now. I agreed to participate in this as a favor to Grammy, but you are not calling the shots here. You need to win so much? Then you play by my rules.”
“Calm down.” Linnie tossed her head and tried to sound blasé. “I cannot believe you're still so mad about something that happened years ago.”
“This is not about
some
thing that happened. This is about
everything
.” Amy's eyes narrowed. “I don't care how brilliant you are. The days of me giving you special treatment and letting you get away with murder are over.”
Linnie glanced over at the slice of tart Amy was plating and did a double take. “You didn't.”
“Oh, but I did.” Amy had decorated the top layer of her crust with a scrap of dough sculpted into a Greek symbol: π. “Get it? It's a pi crust.”
“Wow, that art school tuition was worth every penny.”
Amy carried both plates into the living room and set them down upon the lace doilies on the coffee table. Linnie followed with two clean forks, a napkin, and a palate-cleansing glass of water.

Bon appétit
.” Amy gestured grandly to the piping hot szarlotka.

Smacznego
,” Linnie added. “That's Polish for
bon appétit
.”
“That's right,” Grammy said. “Nicely done, Vasylina!” She took a bite of each piece, chewing slowly and deliberately in great concentration.
“So?” Linnie prompted. “Which is better?”
Grammy Syl's gaze shifted from one sister to the other. She cleared her throat. “I couldn't possibly choose.”
“Come on!” Amy cried. “Don't be diplomatic.”
“Yeah, there's a ton of money riding on this,” Linnie said. “We demand brutal honesty.”
“Let me taste again.” Grammy took another tiny bite from each. “Very well. You want brutal honesty, here it is. There are two kinds of szarlotka, girls, and you were trying to make the other kind.”
Linnie furrowed her brow. “What are you saying?”
“She's saying we suck,” Amy clarified.
“Don't put words in my mouth, dear heart. All I'm saying is that both of these”—Grammy swallowed again and dabbed her lips with a napkin—“concoctions are lacking a certain something.”
“Cinnamon?” Linnie pressed.
“Lemon?” Amy asked.
Grammy sipped her water. “Edibility.”
“Fine, so we both suck,” Amy said. “But which one sucks
less
?”
“Well.” Grammy pointed her fork toward the silver-rimmed plate. “This one has better dough.”
“Ha!” Linnie crowed.
“But this one is just beautiful to look at.” Grammy indicated the blue-flowered plate. “You girls want to bicker and compete, you should split the work down the middle. One of you should spend the next two weeks perfecting the dough, and the other should work on perfecting the presentation.”
“But you have to declare one of us the winner,” Linnie said.
Grammy put down her fork and sat back on the sofa. “No.”
“Someone has a gun to your head,” Amy said.
“Shoot me.” Grammy folded her hands primly.
“Someone has a gun to
my
head,” Linnie said.
Grammy lifted her gaze heavenward and murmured something in Polish. “Fine.” She touched the rim of the silver-lined plate. “This one.”
Amy sighed. “Of course.”
“But only by one percent.” Grammy Syl touched Amy's wrist and tugged her down for a kiss on the cheek. “I'm sorry, darling. Yours
looks
delicious. And that little pi on top—so clever, like something out of a magazine.”
Linnie's surge of victory fizzled when she realized that no kiss or warm words of grandmotherly praise were coming her way. She nodded at the bowls, measuring cups, and food processor attachments piled high in the kitchen sink and told Amy, “Enjoy. Oh, and I thought of a name for the recipe.”
“What's that?” Grammy asked.
“Secret Sisterhood Szarlotka.” Linnie paused. “The secret being, the sisters can't stand each other.”
Amy let out a surprised bark of laughter. Linnie laughed, too, and for an instant she felt a spark of pride that she could still impress her sister.
“See that?” Grammy leaped up from the sofa to hug them both, her eyes going misty again. “You girls are going to be BFFs before this is all over. Mark my words.”
Chapter 5
O
n the morning she left for the Delicious Duet Dessert Championship, Amy woke up to the sensation of something cold and wet squishing against her ankle and the sound of the dog snuffling at the foot of the bed.
She flung her arm over her eyes and groaned. “Did Mooch throw up?”
“No,” replied a little voice inches from her face.
Amy's eyes flew open as her nose brushed against her daughter's.
“Hi, Mommy.” Chloe grinned and gave her a kiss on the lips.
“Hi, baby.” Amy struggled into a sitting position, wedging her elbows underneath her and squinting into the dark. “Did
you
throw up?”
“Uh-uh,” Chloe singsonged.
“Did you take off your diaper?”
“Uh-uh.”
Amy steeled herself as best she could. “Then what is down there on my foot?”
“Lovey.”
Lovey was Chloe's attachment object, a flat pink satin pillow in the shape of an elephant that she'd had in her crib since infancy. As Lovey grew older and stinkier and increasingly ragged, Chloe's love for him only grew.
“Why is Lovey so wet?”
“I sucked on him. I need my cup, Mama. I'm thirsty.”
The poor girl must be on the verge of dehydration, if the sodden stuffed animal draped across Amy's ankle was any indication. Chloe had always been a champion drooler.
Amy heard Ben pipe up on Brandon's side of the bed. “I'm hungry.”
“So tired,” Brandon mumbled. “Five more minutes.”
“Get up, Daddy! I want Cheerios.”
Brandon burrowed his head into the pillow and lifted up the blanket. “Climb in, buddy.”
Both children clambered up and made themselves comfy in the valley of duvet between Brandon and Amy. Mooch took this as his invitation to hop up, as well.
“One big happy family.” Amy let out an
oof
as the dog plopped down on her stomach.
“Five more minutes,” Brandon croaked. “Please. They can take my car keys and my wallet. I just need five more minutes.”
“You better get to stepping—you have to fit a temporary crown at seven thirty,” Amy reminded him. “And then—Aigh!” She yelped as Ben pressed his icy toes into the backs of her knees. “What happened to your socks?”

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