Queen of the Kitchen

The fairies came for me on Christmas morning, which was very inconvenient.

For once in my life, I had peace. No yelling, no thundering little feet, no cries of I’m going to tell on you. The Brat Brigade were all at Mass with Mum and Dad, ready to sing “Happy Birthday” to Jesus as loudly and tunelessly as they could manage. I had traded a late night at Midnight Mass for this: a kitchen to myself, the first Christmas lunch I was allowed to prepare unsupervised, and blessed, blessed silence.

I paused to take stock. The pork roast was in the oven, nestled among chunks of pumpkin and caramelised carrot. The creamy squares of potato were draining in the sink, nearly ready for the lemon-mayo dressing chilling in the fridge. The red and yellow capsicums I’d sliced lay on a bed of fresh rocket, looking like jewels on a green ruff.

So far, so good.

I picked up one of the eggs that I’d kept at room temperature, and began to separate them, sliding the yolks from half-shell to half-shell while the whites slipped into the blue ceramic bowl my next-door neighbour had given me the day she’d decided my pavlova had reached her standards of perfection.

It’s careful work, separating eggs for pavlova. You can’t let the slightest trace of yolk in, or your whites won’t reach just the right stage of fluffy stiffness. If you do, your meringue will fail, and no amount of whipped cream and sliced kiwifruit can disguise a failed meringue to the discerning palate. And my family were all excellent eaters.

They were terrible cooks, though. My talent for food was the one thing my biological parents had given me. I cracked the last egg and held it over the blue bowl, intent upon its progress.

A brassy trumpet blast reverberated through the sunny kitchen.

I jumped. The egg fell from my grip. My other hand shot out, and as if in slow motion, I saw my fingers close over the golden yolk. For a moment, there was hope. But my desperate grasp had been too hasty, and the yolk slipped between my fingers, plopping right on top of the fallen eggshell, which promptly cut it to yellow ribbons, all too visible in the translucent whites.

Ruined. Totally ruined. And there were no more eggs.

I raised my eyes. The kitchen, which had been empty of all but me and my formerly perfect Christmas meal, now contained three more people, standing in the dining area. There was a drippy looking white girl, with long blonde hair, a pointy nose, and a long watery-green gown. Very Ophelia, right down to the way she looked as if she wanted to drown herself. Beside her stood a posh-looking muscled boy with olivey skin, dressed in a midnight blue doublet and purple hose. And there was a short, stocky boy, a little bit darker than me, with brown apologetic eyes. He was wearing a tan shirt and black trousers, and holding a shiny brass trumpet in a very incriminating way.

“You,” I said, and pointed at him with my dripping eggy hand. “You are so dead.”

“I’m really sorry about that,” Trumpet-boy said. “Flavian thought it would be dramatic.”

The posh one shot him a look and brushed Byronic black locks from his manly brow. “Dear Princess,” he intoned. “At last, your durance vile is over! I have come to rescue you from this hovel, and return you to your rightful station as the beloved ruler of the Summerlands.”

“You ruined my pavlova,” I said.

Flavian looked perturbed. “Surely it matters not,” he said. “The curse is gone, and no longer shall you labour in this disgusting place of foul smells and vile meats.”

I threw the bowl at him.

It hit him full in the chest, and broke in a spectacular shower of blue shards and flying egg goop, covering him from neck to knee in dribbles of slime, with a few pieces of shell stuck in for emphasis. He blinked at me, his mouth opening and closing, looking like a modern art installation.

“Root and branch!” Ophelia said, staring at the mess. “Sir Flavian? Are you injured?’

“Only his pride,” Trumpet-boy murmured, looking enormously cheerful.

“There’s nothing vile about my pork roast!” I yelled, fists bunched on my apron-swathed hips. “My cooking is very sanitary! And who gave you the right to break into people’s houses on Christmas morning and wreck their pavlovas, you Renaissance reject? Is this some kind of joke? Because if you’re putting this on YouTube, I hope you get this!” I gave him the finger with both hands, and picked up the nearest likely weapon, which turned out to be the knife I’d used to slice the capsicum. “Get out! Get out of my kitchen!”

Ophelia and Flavian both tried to step in front of each other to protect the other from me.

“Er,” Trumpet-boy said, eyeing the knife. “Maybe we should explain, eh?”

“I did explain!” Flavian said, finally finding his voice. “I simply don’t see the problem! Are you sure she’s the princess, Dev?”

Trumpet-boy shrugged. “Were you left on the steps of the Cathedral on Christmas Day fifteen years ago?” he asked me.

“Yes,” I said, grateful to be talking to someone who seemed vaguely sensible, and who, unlike the other two, had a good strong New Zealand accent. Now that I’d gotten a decent shout out of the way, I was beginning to feel frightened by these strange people and their weird clothes. “But anyone could find that out,” I added. “It was in all the papers for days.”

“It is you, then,” Ophelia said, and sighed. “Oh, Father.”

Flavian looked glum. “I suppose you were taken in by peasants who forced you to prepare their miserable meals, far from the delights of your homeland.”

“My dad is an accountant and my mum’s a hospital administration manager,” I said sharply. “And New Zealand is my homeland. Are you one of those anti-Asian pricks?”

“You’re a fairy princess,” Dev said. “When you were born, the enemies of your sadly deceased mother cursed you to never eat fairy food, so you were sent to the mortal world to save your life.” His voice was ironic, but he looked disturbingly sincere.

Flavian, naturally, butted in. “But I have defeated your mother’s enemies, and the curse has been removed, and now you can come home and we’ll get married and then you can assume your throne.” He looked very unenthusiastic about it. “My love,” he added.

Ophelia bit her lip and looked even more pale and drownable.

I considered this for a moment. “That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.”

“Are you calling me a liar?” Flavian demanded, sounding much less posh.

Dev stepped forward, his warm brown eyes sympathetic. “I know it’s hard to believe,” he said. “But probably a part of you always knew you were different. Your magic would have come out somehow. Is there anything that always works for you, even when others fail at it?” He raised his trumpet. “For me, it was music. Not that there was a lot of it at the Home. But I knew every one of the songs at church, and sometimes I’d hear something on the wireless, and know that if I could only get to an instrument, I could play. And then Flavian came and got me out.” He smiled. “There’s always music in Faerie.”

Something that always worked for me? A magical skill? I began to shake my head, then froze.

My muffins were never tough. My soufflés always rose. My roast chicken was moist and tender. And sometimes, when I worked my hands into dough, or cut fresh pasta into perfect strips, or inhaled the rich scent of toasting spices, I could feel something tingling inside me, a shining connection to the things I was making with hands and head and heart.

That food made things happen when people ate it. My chicken noodle soup actually cured colds. My scroggin mix had powered my Year 10 tramping trip to safety through the world’s worst thunderstorm. My brownies made my feuding friends laugh and reconcile, and not because of any “special ingredients”.

The special thing was me.

“Cooking,” I whispered, and blinked hard against the sudden stinging in my eyes. “I’m a magical cook.”

“I can smell that,” Dev said, and slipped the knife out of my hand. I sagged against the bench, too stunned to fight him.

“It smells awful,” Ophelia said, in her sparkly little voice. “Oh, Sir Flavian, am I really going to have to eat their food? All that burnt flesh…”

Flavian patted her hand. “It won’t be for long, Lady Abundantia,” he said. “I promise, once Calubria and I are married, and the coronation has taken place, I’ll pardon you and you’ll be welcome back.”

“Oh, please,” she breathed, and clutched his hands. “I don’t know how long I can stay here.”

“Cal-who-bria?” I asked. “And what’s this staying here business?”

“You’re the Crown Princess Calubria Suriel Tallullah,” Dev said. “Sorry again. Abundantia’s the daughter of your mother’s enemy – now also deceased. She’s supposed to take your place to pay for that crime.”

“That’s not my name,” I said, but only Dev was listening.

Abundantia was looking around the living room, still holding onto Flavian. I’d helped the Brat Brigade make paper streamers out of Mum’s gardening magazines, and hung them on every wall. The tree was covered in tinsel and lights and all our battered ornaments, with the star Mum had balanced on the very top. Dad had brought out the nativity scene his mother had willed him, with blue-gowned Mary and brown-robed Joseph and shepherds and oxen and only two Wise Men, because I’d chewed the face off the third one while I was teething. I was supposed to put baby Jesus in his manger before they got back, so the kids could all coo at the miracle.

And now something really miraculous was happening to me, and my chest was beginning to seize up with pain. Leave? Leave my home?

“Maybe it won’t be so bad, for a little while,” Abundantia said, but with an insulting note of tremulous doubt. “They seem to be kind people here. As long as I don’t have to cook.”

“Look, you can’t possibly replace me,” I said. “You look nothing like me.”

“Oh, yes,” Flavian said. “Dev?”

“I really think that-”

“Please, Dev,” Flavian said, and Dev sighed and raised the trumpet to his lips. Abundantia lifted her pointy chin and looked brave as Dev began to play. It was really nice – I don’t know much about music, but this was all pure, clear notes spilling out, sort of definite and sad.

Flavian gazed at Abundantia like she was the last light in a dark, dark world as the song went on, and much against my will, I started to feel a bit sorry for the big jerk. Then Dev finished in a fall of notes, and I was suddenly looking at a girl half a foot shorter and twenty kilograms heavier than Abundantia, a girl with long black hair tied back in a sensible ponytail, wearing old jeans, a pale pink T-shirt, and a red apron with a smear of mayonnaise down the front.

I was looking, in fact, at me.

My nascent sympathy disappeared. “I am not leaving,” I said, my voice trembling only slightly.

“You certainly are,” Flavian said, looking even more miserable. “I rescued you and now we’ve got to get married. You’ll like being Queen of the Summerlands, Calubria. You’ll have attendants and magnificent gowns. There’s music, and dancing, and we feast on fruit and flowers every day.”

“Fruit and flowers,” I said flatly. Not that I object to fruit, and some flowers are good as a flavour accent in salads, or candied for cake decoration, but the thought of eating nothing but was making me dizzy with hunger already. No wonder Abundantia was so skinny. “No thanks.”

Flavian screwed up his face, glanced over his shoulder, and dropped to one knee with little of the grace that marked his other movements. I got the strong feeling that this was a first for him. “Please, my lady? Neither of us have the authority to pardon Abundantia unless we claim the throne, and we can’t do that until we’re wed-”

“-and then I’ll be exiled forever for Father’s terrible crimes, to who knows where!” Abundantia said, and burst into tears. Looking at myself cry was distinctly unpleasant, and I felt more of my anger slip.

“But I can’t go,” I said. “I’ll miss my family, my real family. I’ll miss my friends and my kitchen and I’m going to Rarotonga at New Year, I’ve been saving for months. Plus, I’m fifteen years old, and I can’t get married!” I stared at Abundantia wearing my face, and felt hope spark. “Wait…she looks exactly like me! Can’t you just say she’s me? Then you two can get married.”

Flavian turned dark red. Abundantia looked delicately away, which looked very peculiar in my body.

“Yes!” I concluded. “You’ll be the King and Queen, I’ll stay here, and no one will ever have to know. Happy ending!” I folded my arms and grinned at them.

For a moment, Flavian and Abundantia looked like people usually do when they’ve taken their first bite of my Chocolate Death Fudge.

But Dev coughed. “It’s a good idea,” he said. “But the illusion will fade. And people know all my spells. Someone will notice if I keep playing the same song for Queen Calubria.”

My hopes fell with the happy couple’s faces. One thing was for sure; they were going to have to use those swords if they wanted to take me anywhere. I looked around for another knife.

“There might be an alternative,” Dev said quickly. “They know all my spells. But yours would be brand new.”

“I can’t possibly-” I began, and then swallowed hard. “I just found out, I can’t whip up a spell like that!”

“I bet you could try,” Dev said.

“I never wanted to be a fairy princess,” I wailed.

“I never wanted my father to be an evil magician,” Abundantia pointed out, sounding much less sparkly. “But that happened, and now I’m paying the price for it.”

I took a deep breath, picked up the castor sugar I’d been planning to use for the pavlova, and put it on the other bench. “No, you’re not. Okay. I’ll try.”

Abundantia took a step forward, clasping her hands together. “Really?”

“Really.” I pursed my lips. “Although this would be much easier with eggs.”

“Oh, Calubria! Thank you!” Abundantia said. It seemed that I looked quite pretty when I was happy. “And don’t concern yourself with the eggs. My talent is thievery!” She headed for the door, tugging Flavian behind her.

“Don’t call me Calubria,” I said, and spared a worried thought for the neighbours. But this was a matter of life and death – my life, and Flavian’s death, since I would obviously strangle him long before the wedding night.

I grabbed flour, baking powder and milk, and then considered flavours, letting that shining thing inside me guide my hands through pantry and fridge. Cocoa, for me. Raspberries, for Abundantia. And to bind us together, the candied rosepetals I’d been planning to put on the Christmas cake.

Dev was quietly helpful, moving around me as I sifted the dry ingredients, greasing the muffin pans and clearing space for me to work. He hummed as he went. Normally I don’t like music when I’m cooking, but Dev’s tune was different, something smooth and cheerful that calmed my nerves and made me think that I could do this. The shining part of me was pulsing in eagerness, stronger now that I knew it was really there. I felt it tingle down my arms as I measured and mixed, thrumming in time with the beat of Dev’s song.

By the time Flavian and Abundantia returned with the eggs, giggling and whispering to each other, I had the dry ingredients ready in my inferior yellow bowl, the raspberries gleaming beside them in their little plastic packet.

“Oooh,” Abundantia said, looking at the raspberries. Flavian eyed the bowl and said nothing, but cautiously handed Dev the eggs. I took them from him. The lower oven was set to pavlova heat – it wouldn’t heat up in time for muffins.

“The roast,” I said, but Dev was already bending over the oven, sliding out my beautiful roast and covering it in tin foil. I sighed. Even with the foil, it was going to dry out.

Well, it couldn’t be helped.

“Hey, presto,” I murmured, and cracked an egg into the cup of milk, mixing them together with a fork. I folded it into the dry ingredients with a few sharp slashes – never overmix muffins – and last of all, added the raspberries, which tumbled daintily in, studding the dark mixture with their delicate red. The magic hummed a little louder.

For the first time, I watched my food cook, kneeling by the oven door for the long minutes it took them to rise. The second they were done, something resonated within me like a plucked string, as beautiful as Dev’s voice. I fumbled for the oven mitt Dev held out. Abundantia and Flavian clustered behind me.

“Out of my kitchen,” I said absently, and then when Dev went to go too, “Oh, not you.”

“You better change back,” I told Abundantia, and she nodded, her illusion fading to show her tall skinny self again. I lifted the muffins from their tin, not one sticking, and arrayed them on the wire rack. The steam smelled beautiful; rich and chocolatey, with the tang of raspberries rising above it.

Flavian and Abundantia both sniffed the air hungrily, then tried to look as if they hadn’t.

I picked up the candied rose petals, and placed one on each muffin, trusting the melting sugar to bind them to the surface. As each one touched, I felt the magic rise and grow, until my hands were glowing with it, soft and warm.

I raised my shining hands over the muffins, and wriggled my fingers. The spell snapped into place.

“There,” I said, and slumped against the bench. I felt as if Mum had dragged me out for one of her 6 a.m. jogs. But the muffins looked gorgeous.

Abundantia approached, looked at me for permission, and broke off a crumb, gingerly raising it to her mouth. The air wavered, and there I was, staring at myself with my fingers in my mouth, looking blissful.

“Ooooh,” she said. “That’s really not too bad.”

I managed a weak, yet triumphant, punch into the air. Dev cheered.

Flavian fell to one knee again and clasped his beloved’s now less-than-lily-white hand. “My darling Abundantia! Will you marry me?”

“Of course! Oh, Flavian,” she cooed, a single crystalline tear rolling down her cheek.

“Oh, Abundantia,” he exclaimed, rising to take her in his arms.

“Oh, ew,” I muttered, and busied myself packing the muffins into a plastic container.

“Won’t they…you know, go bad?” Dev asked. “Human food rots, I remember that.”

“This is fairy food,” I said. “I made it, and I’m a fairy, aren’t I? It won’t go bad.” I put the container into his hands. “But she’ll eventually eat them all. You’d better come back in six months, and I’ll make you some more.”

“I’d be glad to,” he said, and winked.

I flushed, glanced again at the happy couple, who were now onto the pet name stage, and then surveyed my disorderly kitchen. The roast was drying out, my mise en place was out of order, and there were bits of egg and ceramic all over the floor. And I was completely behind schedule.

Dev looked at my face, and then coughed. “Flavian?”

“- and your sweet yet mischievous nature is as a brook that trickles merrily through an enchanted grove – yes, Dev?”

“We’ve left a mess, eh?” Dev said. “Don’t you think I should stay and help?”

“Oh, yes, do that,” Flavian said, taking the muffins. And then he and Abundantia vanished in a spray of lilac glitter.

“Well,” I said, staring at the place they’d been. “You’re welcome.”

Dev laughed, and grabbed a cloth to run under the tap. “He’s not so bad.”

“Oh, really,” I said, and put the roast back in the oven. If I added a little extra olive oil and trimmed the edges, I might be able to mask the drying. “What’s his talent? Being rude and clueless?”

“Rescuing people,” Dev said, and looked non-cheerful for the first time. “I can see why you didn’t want to go, but I jumped at the chance. My fairy dad abandoned my pregnant human mother, and when she died, it was the Home for me.”

“It sounds awful,” I said.

“Pretty bad. The 50s weren’t that great for orphan brats.”

“I was lucky,” I said, putting the bit about the 50s aside to think about later. He looked my age. “Lots of kids in care still slip through the cracks.”

“I bet,” Dev said, in a way that indicated he maybe didn’t want to talk about this right now. “So you can see why I chose Faerie.”

“And hanging out with Flavian.”

“Hey, he’s not all that bad. A lot of people in Faerie aren’t real nice to human half-breeds, but he doesn’t care about that.” He paused. “He was a friend when I needed one.”

“So now you’re the brains when he needs them?” I asked, and he laughed.

“Something like that,” he said, looking happier again. “You should visit Faerie sometime. I bet you’d bake up a really nice disguise.”

I couldn’t deny that I was a bit curious. “Well, maybe I’ll come for the wedding.”

“So, that would be tomorrow,” he said. “Maybe later today, if Abundantia has her dress already made. Tomorrow if she has to put the royal seamstress on it.”

“Don’t mice and birds do all the sewing in Faerie?”

“Don’t be silly,” he said, poker-faced. “The mice are only allowed to do haberdashery.”

I giggled, which is a thing I don’t do very often, and his eyes went wide and bright. “You should definitely come. Maybe after the feast, though; it won’t meet your standards.” He looked wistfully at the kitchen. “I haven’t seen a feed like this since… well, since ever.”

“Hmm,” I said, and counted the eggs. God bless Abundantia; there were enough to make another pavlova.

“DECK the HALLS with BOUGHS of HOLLY,” the Brat Brigade sang, banging through the door. They tumbled to a halt and stared at Dev, three snub-nosed faces of identical freckled horribleness above their Sunday shirts and ties.

He stared back, looking suddenly young and vulnerable.

“They’ve been singing that all the way back,” Mum sighed, adjusting her glasses. “Just that one line. How’s- Oh. Hello.”

Dad came up behind her, looking curious, and there they were, my family, standing in my kitchen, which glowed with light and good food and the fading echoes of my magic, looking at the boy the fairies had inconveniently left me for Christmas.

I was suddenly aware that I was intensely happy.

“Who’s this, Caroline?” Dad asked, raising one eyebrow in a speaking manner.

I reached for Dev’s hand to steady him, and wasn’t surprised that it fit neatly into mine.

“This is my friend Dev,” I said. “He’s staying for lunch.”

THE END.

Karen says:

HAH, I have you trapped at the end of this story, and now I’m going to talk to you! If you hang on, there’s a recipe at the end.

The beautiful illustration is a commissioned piece by K. Smirnov, and it is perfect. I especially love the strength in Caroline’s forearms – if you do a lot of cooking, you know it takes a lot of oomph!

This story surprised me by being way, way cuter than what I normally write. My novels tend to also involve humourous dialogue, but much less slapstick, and much more distressing trauma. Summerton, my second novel, is also set around a New Zealand Christmas, and um. Let’s just say the problems raised there aren’t so easily solved.

But while I was thinking about what to do for this story-gift (and wondering nervously if I’d taken on more than I could handle), I thought about what Christmas really means to me, which is food, and sunlight, and my messy, delightful family. I’ve had Christmases away from home, and I’ve had Christmases in winter, and they all seemed a little grey, and not really Christmas at all, no matter how many liqueur chocolates I ate. So I wrote a warm little story about family and food and the glowing joy of doing something you’re good at as my Christmas present to you. (And I wrote it in unrepentant New Zealand English with no word glosses because that was my Christmas present to me.)

I hope you enjoy it, and whatever holidays you have.

Caroline’s Guide To Pavlova:

Pavlova is a meringue dessert with a crunchy crust and a soft, chewy centre. It was invented in New Zealand after the tour of Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova in 1926, because it is, at its best, light and airy and beautiful. Do not dance around the kitchen while it’s in the oven, though. The Brat Brigade once, I swear, did a jig while I was baking, and Dad had to get very firm to stop me from grabbing a wooden spoon and going to town on their dancing bums when I saw the results.

Australians will try to tell you they actually invented the pavlova, but Australians are always claiming New Zealand things, like Phar Lap, or Sam Neill, or the Finn brothers, so the correct response is to shake your head in a pitying way and move on.

You will need:

4 large (120 grams) eggs, or 6 small ones

1 cup (200 grams) castor sugar

1 teaspoon white vinegar

1/2 tablespoon cornflour

1 cup (240 ml) heavy whipping cream

1 1/2 tablespoons (20 grams) white sugar

1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Fresh fruit – kiwifuit, raspberries, blackberries, mandarin segments, or whatever you like. Because the meringue is very sweet, I like to use tangy fruit to contrast. Banana tends to be too sweet, and also the slices can go a bit brown and slimy.

Instructions:

Set the oven to 120 degrees C. Cover a baking sheet with baking paper. If you’re a bit nervous, you can draw a circle (about 20 centimetres diameter) on the paper in the middle – in pencil, not pen.

Into a bowl that is absolutely free of grease, separate your egg whites. You can either do this with cool eggs (easier to separate) and then wait for the whites to reach room temperature, or do it with room temperature eggs and get right on with it. Beat the egg whites until they start to form soft peaks (these will fold over on themselves and collapse a bit when you lift the beater up, but will still be raised and peakish).

Add the castor sugar a tablespoonful at a time and beat until the mixture forms very stiff peaks. Rub some meringue between your fingers. Does it feel gritty? More beating! When it’s smooth, the sugar has completely dissolved.

Sprinkle the vinegar and cornflour on top, and fold in very carefully with a rubber spatula. You’re trying not to sacrifice any more air than you have to.

Pile the mixture onto your baking sheet, inside your circle. Make sure the edges of the mound are a little bit higher than the middle, because you’re going to put your cream and fruit in there later. Smooth around the edges with your spatula.

Bake for 1 hour and fifteen minutes, or until the outside is dry and pale cream. Turn the oven off, pull the oven door a little bit ajar, and wait until the pavlova is completely cool. If you’re a first timer, it’s permissible to push on the crust with a fingertip – if it’s firm at first, then cracks a bit like crème brulee and you can see the inside is soft and marshmallowy, that’s good.

Stephanie Alexander, who can’t help being Australian, writes in her book, The Cook’s Companion, that “if syrupy droplets form on the surface of the meringue, you’ll know you have overcooked it; liquid oozing from the meringue is a sign of undercooking”. Both of these are still edible, and even sort of yummy, but if your family is as finicky as mine, they’ll totally notice.

You can store the cool pavlova in an airtight container in a cool, dry place for a few days (or use it right away, of course). Just before serving, put it on a plate, pile whipped cream (flavoured with sugar and vanilla if you like) on top and decorate with fruit. If you want a dairy-free version because you’re lactose-intolerant like Flavian, or because, like Abundantia, you turn up your nose at cream because, root and branch, it is food for baby cows, you can just go with the fruit, or drizzle a fruit syrup on – bright, strong colours like raspberry or blackberry syrups are best, because they look good against the creamy pavlova. Serve immediately.

And that’s how to make a pav. If fairies show up, don’t break your best bowl. Not everyone’s new boyfriend will be sweet enough to give them a beautiful handmade one to replace it.