THREE LUSCIOUS LEMON TARTS glistened up at Catherine. She reached her towel-wrapped hands into the oven, ignoring the heat that enveloped her arms and pressed against her cheeks, and lifted the tray from the hearth. The tarts’ sunshine filling quivered, as if glad to be freed from the stone chamber.
Cath held the tray with the same reverence one might reserve for the King’s crown. She refused to take her eyes from the tarts as she padded across the kitchen floor until the tray’s edge landed on the baker’s table with a satisfying thump. The tarts trembled for a moment more before falling still, flawless and gleaming.
Setting the towels aside, she picked through the curled, sugared lemon peels laid out on parchment and arranged them like rose blossoms on the tarts, settling each strip into the still-warm centre. The aromas of sweet citrus and buttery, flaky crust curled beneath her nose.
She stepped back to admire her work.
The tarts had taken her all morning. Five hours of weighing the butter and sugar and flour, of mixing and kneading and rolling the dough, of whisking and simmering and straining the egg yolks and lemon juice until they were thick and creamy and the colour of buttercups. She had glazed the crust and crimped the edges like a lace doily. She had boiled and candied the delicate strips of lemon peel and ground sugar crystals into a fine powder for garnish. Her fingers itched to dust the tart edges now, but she refrained. They had to cool first, or else the sugar would melt into unattractive puddles on the surface.
These tarts encompassed everything she had learned from the tattered recipe books on the kitchen shelf. There was not a hurried moment nor a careless touch nor a lesser ingredient in those fluted pans. She had been meticulous at every step. She had baked her very heart into them.
Her inspection lingered, her eyes scanning every inch, every roll of the crust, every shining surface.
Finally, she allowed herself a smile.
Before her sat three perfect lemon tarts, and everyone in Hearts – from the dodo birds to the King himself – would have to recognize that she was the best baker in the kingdom. Even her own mother would be forced to admit that it was so.
Her anxiety released, she bounced on her toes and squealed into her clasped hands.
‘You are my crowning joy,’ she proclaimed, spreading her arms wide over the tarts, as if bestowing a knighthood upon them. ‘Now I bid you to go into the world with your lemony scrumptiousness and bring forth smiles from every mouth you grace with your presence.’
‘Speaking to the food again, Lady Catherine?’
‘Ah-ah, not just any food, Cheshire.’ She lifted a finger without glancing back. ‘Might I introduce to you the most wondrous lemon tarts ever to be baked within the great Kingdom of Hearts!’
A striped tail curled around her right shoulder. A furry, whiskered head appeared on her left. Cheshire purred thoughtfully, the sound vibrating down her spine. ‘Astounding,’ he said, in that tone he had that always left Cath unsure whether he was mocking her. ‘But where’s the fish?’
Cath kissed the sugar crystals from her fingers and shook her head. ‘No fish.’
‘No fish? Whatever is the point?’
‘The point is perfection.’ Her stomach tingled every time she thought of it.
Cheshire vanished from her shoulders and reappeared on the baking table, one clawed paw hovering over the tarts. Cath jumped forward to shoo him back. ‘Don’t you dare! They’re for the King’s party, you goose.’
Cheshire’s whiskers twitched. ‘The King? Again?’
Stool legs screeched against the floor as Cath dragged a seat closer to the table and perched on top of it. ‘I thought I’d save one for him and the others can be served at the feasting table. It makes His Majesty so happy, you know, when I bake him things. And a happy king—’
‘Makes for a happy kingdom.’ Cheshire yawned without bothering to cover his mouth and, grimacing, Cath held her hands in between him and the tarts to protect from any distasteful tuna breath.
‘A happy king also makes for a most excellent testimonial. Imagine if he were to declare me the official tart baker of the kingdom! People will line up for miles to taste them.’
‘They smell tart.’
‘They are tarts.’ Cath turned one of the fluted pans so the blossom of the lemon-peel rose was aligned with the others. She was always mindful of how her treats were displayed. Mary Ann said her pastries were even more beautiful than those made by the royal pastry chefs.
And after tonight, her desserts would not only be known as more beautiful, they would be known as superior in every way. Such praise was exactly what she and Mary Ann needed to launch their bakery. After so many years of planning, she could feel the dream morphing into a reality.
‘Are lemons in season this time of year?’ asked Cheshire, watching Cath as she swept up the leftover lemon peels and tied them in cheesecloth. The gardeners could use them to keep pests away.
‘Not exactly,’ she said, smiling to herself. Her thoughts stole back to that morning. Pale light filtering through her lace curtains. Waking up to the smell of citrus in the air.
Part of her wanted to keep the memory tucked like a secret against her chest, but Cheshire would find out soon enough. A tree sprouting up in one’s bedroom overnight was a difficult secret to keep. Cath was surprised the rumours hadn’t yet spread, given Cheshire’s knack for gossip-gathering. Perhaps he’d been too busy snoozing all morning. Or, more likely, having his belly rubbed by the maids.
‘They’re from a dream,’ she confessed, carrying the tarts to the pie-safe where they could finish cooling.