Ascendance Of A Bookworm - Chapter 74
Interlude: Recipes for Desserts
My name is Ilse. I'm the house cook for the guildmaster of the merchant's guild. Hm? Didn't anyone tell you it was rude to ask a woman how old she it?
I set myself on the path to becoming a cook from a very early age. This was the most natural outcome for me, since my parents ran a restaurant when I was growing up. When I was very little, they just had a little food cart, but as I grew I watched them get set up in a small shop right inside the eastern gates. Because of all of the training they gave me, even before I started my apprenticeship I already knew how to cook and had a much better grasp of finances than the other pre-baptized children.
After my baptism, I apprenticed at a shop belonging to some acquaintances of my parents, and I quickly started absorbing as many new recipes as I could. Learning made me so happy, so I memorized every recipe I was taught, watched the other cooks around me to steal their recipes, and spent long hours seeing if I could make them even better than they already were.
As I bounced around from shop to shop, I got better to the point that people started telling me that maybe I should be working for the nobility. My parents objected, saying that there was a chance I'd never be able to come back home if I did that, but I brushed them off and went to work for a noble house. It's only natural, right? How could I possibly pass up the opportunity to learn the kinds of recipes that are prepared for the nobility?
I was put to work as the lowest of prep cooks, charged with doing the menial ingredient preparation and washing the dishes. There, I quickly started stealing the techniques of the head chef. I learned that the ingredients and seasonings used in the nobility's food are enormously different compared to what the rest of us eat. Even the plates they eat off of are more extravagant than anything you would see in any restaurant in the city. I spent every day studying every single detail.
However, that only lasted a few short years. No matter how hard I pursued my studies, I reached a point where I just couldn't climb any higher through the ranks. After all, it's not skill that you need to rise to prominence in a noble house. It's your lineage and your connections.
My grumblings about this reached the ears of the guildmaster of the merchant's guild. He'd been out looking to a head chef to hire away from their position to work at his house, but when he heard about my skill and the fact that I was at a dead end in my career he offered to hire me. He told me that his granddaughter would be going to the nobles' quarter when she grew up, and he wanted me to make for her the kinds of food that the nobility eat. He didn't want her to face any hardships when she eventually left to go live there all by herself, he said.
I accepted on the spot. My chance to demonstrate my true skills as head chef had finally come around. On top of that, this was at the home of the guildmaster of the merchants' guild, who had more money than even some of the lesser nobility! He made sure that the kitchen was furnished with the same equipment you'd find in a nobleman's kitchen, and arranged for me to have access to the same ingredients and seasonings. This job had me doing exactly what any cook would dream of, in the perfect workspace. And, in order to make full use of this ideal environment, I have spent every day exercising my skill to my utmost. I have never before had a life more enjoyable and fulfilling than this.
I had utmost confidence in my skills.
I took great pride in all of the recipes I'd gathered throughout my career.
Yes. Until Maïne came crashing in.
That was a shock.
Sugar is an ingredient that had only recently been introduced to this region from Central, and, even though this is the guildmaster's house, had only just become available to me here. There is no way that anyone here could have had time to establish any sort of culinary principles around its use. I'd been thinking up a variety of possible uses for it, but hadn't yet had enough time to do any proper experimentation with it.
Despite this, Maïne immediately produced desserts with it as if she'd been using it every day in her life. She lacked the physical strength and stamina to make anything herself, so the actual cooking was done entirely by me, but she gave me instructions in a way that wouldn't have been possible if she hadn't known a recipe.
The ’’pound cake’’ that we baked was a fluffy, moist dessert with a refined taste. The way it seemed to melt in my mouth was unlike any recipe I had ever encountered before. That's right, even in my time cooking for the nobility.
However, the girl who taught the young Miss Freida this recipe is a commoner, the daughter of a soldier and a dyer. She does not live in a situation where she should have easy access to luxury goods like sweets. The only source of sweet things in her diet should be the fruits and berries that she can find in the forest.
Where in the world did she learn this recipe?
After that day, I started experimenting with the pound cake recipe that she'd taught me. I experimented with how much froth I whipped into the batter, how hot I kept the oven, how long I baked it for, and so on. After countless variations, I created what I thought was the ultimate masterpiece, the finest cake I could make with all of my skill. It was so good that even Miss Freida started wondering if this was something that could be sold to the nobility.
She said that she wanted to have Maïne sample it, say how delicious it is, and sell us the rights to it. Maïne has the devouring, she said, and is looking for connections with the nobility. Miss Freida thought that she could offer to introduce Maïne to a noble who would give her favorable conditions in exchange for the rights to the pound cake.
However, despite Miss Freida's scheme, Maïne didn't show her face at all, even as summer grew closer. Miss Freida took drastic measures to bring her here, only to have her refuse the offer with the calm of a girl who didn't actually realize her life was running out.
’’Welcome, Maïne,’’ I said. ’’Glad you could make it. I baked some pound cake today, and I'd love to hear what you think of it.’’
After taking a bite of the pound cake that I had improved again and again, she offered a plan to improve it further in exchange for a bag of sugar.
’’If you grate ferigine peel and add it to the batter, that'll change both the smell and the taste, and it'll still be delicious. You could add other things, too, and those will change the flavor as well. As for what exactly to put in and exactly how much, please do some experimentation on your own. I'll tell you this as a bonus, too: if you're going to bring this out to serve to nobles, then you could thoroughly whip heavy cream and make a fringe around the edge of the cake, then decorate it with fruit to make it look really extravagant,’’ she said.
Now, I grip my bowl tightly, beating together batter for a pound cake with ferigine peel mixed in. I have no doubt about it: Maïne, who can so immediately spit out ideas for improvements, must know more recipes.
I want them. I want those new recipes.
I want the recipes that Maïne knows.
’’Ilse, Ilse! I brought Maïne!’’
Miss Freida opens the kitchen door and rushes in with a huge smile on her face. Ever since she'd decided that she was going to be throwing a tasting party, she's been unusually energetic. She's roped the entire family into this and is pulling out all of the stops to make this a success.
Since she had been very weak ever since she was born, when I first started working here I noticed that she spent the majority of her time in her room. Now, though, it's difficult to imagine that the Miss Freida in front of me is the same girl who enjoyed spending all day shut in her enormous room, counting money. She's changed so much, ever since she met Maïne. Now, she's been burning with a desire to become a better merchant than Benno, who has been quickly amassing clout in this town as of late, and lure Maïne over to work for her. Miss Freida, of course, is the kind of girl who drags her entire family into whatever she gets excited about.
’’Now then,’’ she says to Maïne, ’’these are the things you suggested might appeal to kids. What do you think?’’
She leads her over to a table in the corner and starts setting out small slices of the cakes that I've made. It seems that she's brought her over today to ask her questions about the tasting party. Maïne glances around the table as she answers the question.
’’Well, commoner kids won't be able to afford it, but merchant kids would probably be able to tell how much it's worth, and they'd probably have enough money to actually buy it, right? And if they're around apprentice age, then they should be able to read... Actually, most importantly, when someone grows up, they never forget the kinds of food that they liked when they were kids.’’
’’Ah, I see...’’ murmurs Freida, writing something on a wooden board.
Freida seems to be taking all this in stride, but this is very strange to me. Maïne, thanks to her devouring, has been slow to mature, so it's difficult to see her as anything but a very young, unbaptized little girl. Despite that, she's making some very adult comments, isn't she?
’’And then also, when you're selling the pound cake, instead of selling the entire cake, you could maybe just sell slices. You'd be able to sell those for less, and increase the number of actual sales, I think. You'd get people wanting to share a slice with their sweethearts, or maybe give them to their kids to congratulate them for their baptisms, and so on...’’
’’I've been planning to start by selling these among the nobility,’’ replies Freida, ’’as a high-class dessert.’’
Miss Freida, who owns monopoly sale rights, wants to price it as high as she possibly can. Maïne wants to lower the price a little so that it can be sold to many more people. Even though these two girls are the same age and trying to sell the same thing, they have two entirely different schools of thought about it.
’’I get that you're trying to get as much as you can out of your monopoly, but these are sweets. I think it's a better idea to try to make it really popular so you can get a lot of customers...’’
’’My monopoly lasts for just one year. Why would I want it to be popular after my year is up? I'd prefer to sell it exclusively to the nobility for that year and try to price it as high as I possibly can.’’
’’Hmm. Well, in that case, if you use seasonal fruits, then you'll be able able to offer new flavors each season. Making little differences like that will keep your regular customers happy.’’
Seasonal flavors, she says? My ears immediately pick up on her offhanded remarks. As different seasonal fruits flash across my mind, I cock my head curiously.
’’There's no seasonal fruits in winter, right? What would we use then?’’
’’Paru is a winter fruit, isn't it? Also, you could use 'rumtopf' ’’
Maïne's eyes go wide and she snaps her mouth shut mid-sentence. The silence hangs awkwardly in the air, and I raise my eyebrows at her. She glances nervously around the room, then crosses her fingers together in front of her mouth.
’’...Any more will cost you.’’
From the awkward face she's making, it seems like she's finally realized that her mind tends to wander off in a conversation and leaves her to thoughtlessly leak valuable information.
Freida chuckles. ’’How much might it cost, then? I've already set aside quite a bit of money so that I can make sure to pay you for your knowledge.’’
Maïne, when paid a price she thinks is fair for her information, often throws in extra knowledge on top of that as a freebie. Miss Freida says that, rather than being stingy with our profits and trying to cheat her, giving her an actually fair price and building a solid, friendly relationship of mutual trust is better for us in the long run. It was a little astonishing to hear her say that, since she'd previously been of the belief that the fundamental nature of merchants was that of deceit.
’’Umm, well, what I'm calling 'rumtopf' is really just a way to pickle fruit in rum. It takes time for it to get tasty enough for that, but by winter you should have something you can use in a pound cake.’’
’’How does five large silver coins sound for that?’’
If it's just pickling fruit in rum, then the rest is just a matter of trial and error. I start thinking of ways I could still make things work if, in the worst case, negotiations fall through completely, but then Maïne glances at the bag of sugar.
’’...Since sugar really isn't on the market here, then that means that it'll be hard for anyone else to make or use 'rumtopf', isn't it?’’
Looks like this pickling process uses sugar, too. In that case, it's probably worth asking her. Sugar-based cuisine is still very much in the experimental stages, and nobody has yet to come up with any real recipes. I exchange a glance with Miss Freida, who subtly nods back at me.
’’Then perhaps eight small gold coins would suffice?’’
’’Alright. I'll tell you how to make and use it. I don't think there's any need for a contract, since you'll basically already have a monopoly until sugar really makes it onto the market, right?’’
After they tap their guild cards to finish their transaction, Maïne points out a jar sitting on one of the kitchen shelves.
’’We'll need a jar like that. Do you have a spare?’’
’’We can use that one,’’ I say. ’’There's nothing in it right now. What else do we need?’’
As Maïne starts listing off instructions, I start moving around the kitchen to get everything ready. She says we'll need to take several lutebelles, a seasonal fruit, wash them thoroughly, cut them up into chunks that are roughly equally-sized, and put them in a bowl. Then, we'll need to fill the bowl halfway with sugar and let it sit. The sugar, she says, will draw out the moisture from the fruit, so I'll need to leave it until it looks like the sugar is dissolving.
’’Maïne,’’ I say, ’’do you know how much sugar costs? Are you sure we really need to be using all of this?’’
’’It's a preservative,’’ she says. ’’If you're stingy with it, then the fruit will bruise easily and won't be edible. Also, for the rum, you're going to want the strongest rum you can find. Otherwise, the fruit will rot.’’
I have a feeling that this girl, who trades her recipes and rights away for huge sums of gold, might not actually have a good sense for money. If she knew that sugar was literally worth its weight in silver, would she be using it in huge piles like this?
’’Once all the moisture's been sucked out of the lutebelles, put it in this jar and then add some rum. ...Umm, if any of the fruit isn't fully covered, then that part'll get moldy. So then after about ten days, you can add other fruit. I think pyuhl and bralle are in season soon, right? If you put a bunch of summer fruits in there, then you can eat them in winter. Oh! That's right. This doesn't work really well with ferigine, I don't think.’’
Miss Freida is quickly writing down all of the important points. I commit everything to memory as well as I stir up the contents of the bowl. I can already see a bit of the moisture being sucked out of the fruit.
’’Have you made this?’’ I ask.
’’Yeah. I used the sugar you gave me last time. It's my first try making it too. So you can use this when making pound cake, or you can maybe use it as a jam substitute too. I also think it would be really tasty in a 'parfait' or served with 'ice cream', too...’’
Maïne looks like she's very much looking forward to making all of these things as she stares, entranced, off into space, a smile on her face as she continues rambling. Miss Freida suddenly startles, looking back at the table.
’’Oh no! We're getting distracted. I brought you here to talk about cake tasting, after all.’’
’’Ah, yeah, you're right. So, about that, I kinda want to invite Mister Benno too. Is that okay?’’
’’Why, might I ask?’’
A sharp glint enters Miss Freida's eyes as she looks closely at Maïne. at Maïne. Maïne scratches her cheek, looking off into space as if she's trying to recall a conversation she'd had with Benno earlier.
’’Ummm, well, a tasting like this is rare, isn't it? He's interested in seeing what kind of sweets you're going to be selling, but he's also interested in just coming to the event itself.’’
’’...I see. Mister Benno, hm.’’
After a moment of pondering, Miss Freida suddenly looks up, eyes gleaming. It seems like she's just thought of something. She quickly spins around and starts walking towards the kitchen door.
’’I have something I must go ask my grandfather. I'll return shortly. Ilse, please take care of our guest.’’
Thanks to the fact that Benno, who she one-sidedly considers to be her rival, will be coming to the party, it seems like Miss Freida's fire has grown even hotter. Leaving Maïne behind, she walks briskly out of the room, somehow still as elegant as always.
’’...She left,’’ says Maïne.
’’She doesn't usually act like this,’’ I remark.
’’Freida said the same thing about you, actually, back when I told you how you could make your pound cake better.’’
She snickers, and I sigh. I thought I'd left my days of being unable to contain myself when faced with a new recipe long behind me, but it seems like I haven't changed at all.
’’Your new recipes are hard,’’ I say.
’’...Urgh. I'm sorry about that.’’
’’Nothing you need to apologize for,’’ I say, lightly. ’’I still want to know them. Now, why don't you try these? I'd like to hear what you think.’’
I line up a slice of the basic cake that she'd taught me how to make, a slice of a cake that I'd added grated ferigine to to change its aroma, a slice where I'd substituted honey for some of the sugar, and a slice with walnuts. Then, I fill a cup with a tea I'd picked to match the cakes and set it in front of her.
’’Wow, these all look delicious!’’ she says, eyes sparkling. Beaming, she starts to taste each cake, cutting neat pieces off of each slice with her fork and slowly lifting them to her mouth. The precision with which she moves her fork and her immaculate posture reminds me of the young noblewomen I'd seen who had had table manners thoroughly drilled into them from a young age. At the very least, her attitude is definitely not one of a common girl who ordinarily never gets to eat sweet things.
She takes a long drink of tea, seeming to enjoy that too, then lets out a long, satisfied sigh.
’’I think my favorite out of all of these was the ferigine cake, probably?’’
’’I really liked how the flavor seemed to fill my mouth.’’ She takes another gulp of tea. ’’...Hm, these tea leaves might really work in a cake, too,’’ she mutters, squinting down into her cup.
’’The leaves?’’ I say. ’’Wouldn't that be hard to eat?’’
’’...Ah!’’ she says, her hands flying up to cover her mouth. ’’I've said too much.’’
It seems like this might be yet more valuable information. I snort, then bring out another full bag of sugar, the same size as I'd given her last time. The table rattles as I set it down heavily.
’’I'll trade you a bag of sugar for the tip,’’ I say. ’’I'm only going to get antsy if we just leave it like that. You said you made some of this 'rumtopf', so you're probably running low, aren't you?’’
To be perfectly honest, I hadn't even imagined that you'd put tea leaves in a desert. Deserts are sweet things. Sugar is extremely expensive, so I'd heard that the current thinking in Central is that you need to highlight its sweetness when you use it. I can't imagine that adding tea leaves into a cake would make anything sweet at all. Also, I don't actually have enough time to experiment with all of the different kinds of ways to use all of the different kind of leaves to figure out what she's talking about.
She hums, thinking about it for just a little while. ’’...For a bag of sugar? Eh, sure. You make tasty things for me to eat.’’ She smiles. ’’If you grind the leaves into a powder so that you can't taste them individually, then adding tea into the batter can change the aroma of it.’’
’’You mean, this tea?’’
I point at the pot that holds the tea leaves I'd served to Maïne, and she gives me an emphatic nod. I stare distrustingly at the pot for a while, then go to fire up the oven. I sit down next to Maïne as she continues to eat her cake and start grinding up tea leaves. I should try this out immediately, I think. I feel bad for neglecting Maïne, my guest, but she gives me a happy smile, saying that she's really just here to taste things and is content to watch me work.
’’Say, Maïne. Do you mind if I ask you something?’’
’’Sure, what is it?’’
’’You don't just have good ideas about sweets, do you? I bet you've got some ideas for soup, as well.’’
Maïne freezes, fork in her mouth, and looks up at me with her wide, startled, golden eyes. My hands are currently occupied whipping a bowl full of eggs, so I shrug at her with one shoulder.
’’It's something I thought of when I saw what you left behind on your plate back when you stayed with us. You ate everything but the soup, didn't you? I thought at first you just didn't like vegetables, but then you ate pretty much everything else I fed you. You've got another tasty secret in you, don't you, Maïne?’’
’’...You're very perceptive, Miss Ilse.’’
She removes the fork from her mouth and gently sets it down on her down on her plate.
’’Will you teach me?’’
’’Ummm... the soup is actually something I'm kinda worried about. If my circumstances change a little, I might find myself having to take care of nobility, even if I don't want to. I'm hoping to keep some secrets to myself so I can have them up my sleeve in case I need them to protect myself.’’
’’Ah, I see.’’
She looks so exhausted that I decide not to press her any further, so I just shrug. I worked in a noble house, too, so I know what she's afraid of: the differences in social stature and the constant danger of being cut down. It's entirely natural for her to want to hold on to a few trump cards, and she really should.
’’Since you've got a temporary monopoly on sweets, though, I'd be happy to consult with you about those.’’
I grip the bowl under my arms even more tightly. Maïne flinches back, startled, then nods quickly.
’’First off, although I guess this is after you get things going, what's your plan for when your monopoly on pound cake expires?’’
’’Is Mister Benno going to be getting in our way?’’
Miss Freida always complains about how Lutz and Mister Benno are constantly monopolizing Maïne's knowledge.
Maïne tilts her head thoughtfully. ’’Hmmm, I don't know. I'm sure he'd be mad if I said this, but I don't think he can? Honestly, I don't think anything would change if I told him about my dessert recipes.’’
’’Well, Mister Benno's connections with the nobility are still not very deep, so I don't think he'd be able to find the ingredients or people with the skills to make them. I don't think he's got a path open to him that he could get sugar from, and if he can't hire people away from the nobility, then he's not going to find a cook like you, will he? I heard from Freida how the guildmaster hired you.’’
I'm halfway dumbfounded to hear Maïne's frank analysis of Benno, a man who by all reasonable descriptions is practically her guardian. Maïne, in her own way, seems to be thinking about who she should be telling things too. If this is the case, though, then this might be my chance to learn more of her recipes.
I glance up at her as I pour flour into my bowl. ’’How about you just open up your recipes to the public? I'd be happy to listen.’’
’’Yeah, if I didn't know a cook as good as you I wouldn't be able to make any of these things just by describing them. I really like how enthusiastic you are about learning, too, so I want to help you out too.’’
Her words make me so happy that I have to keep a wordless shout of joy from springing from my throat. What she's saying, in other words, is that she recognizes my skill. She's not going to be telling her recipes to Benno, the man she owes so much to, but to me.
’’...But, if I just tell them to you, then I don't make any money off of it, and there's all sorts of unfairness in that, so I'm in a kinda difficult situation.’’
Even if Maïne herself doesn't find profit to be that important, the world doesn't agree. Also, her recipes might cause all sorts of chaos in the rest of the world. She probably has ideas for other things besides food, too, things that have no precedent at all.
As I mix melted butter into the bowl, I decide to just ask her the question that's been on my mind for so long.
’’So, Maïne. Who are you, really? Where in the world did you learn all these recipes?’’
’’...Ummm... a dream.’’
Without thinking, I shoot her a threatening glare. She must be trying to make fun of me. ’’...What was that?’’ I say.
She gives me a troubled sort of smile. ’’...It's true. Everything so far has just been me trying to eat things I've only ever tasted in a dream.’’
She sighs heavily, letting her eyes close halfway as she looks nostalgically off into the distance, smiling sadly. Seeing such a mature expression on her face makes me strangely anxious. She closes her eyes, briefly, then looks up at me, putting on the biggest, most childish grin she can. It's painfully obvious how fake that smile is.
’’But I really do wanna just spread all my recipes eeeverywhere, so I want really good cooks like you to help me make them!’’
Sensing that there's something she deeply doesn't want to talk about, I go back to stirring my batter, and follow along with where she's trying to steer the conversation.
’’You can't make them yourself?’’
’’I mean, I'm weak, and I'm frail, and I don't have the tools, and I'm not good enough at cooking, so I definitely can't actually make any of it myself. But if I have good cooks make them for me, then there's tons of recipes I want to share with the world. I just can't do it right now, though.’’
She waves her tiny hands around, letting her eyebrows droop pitifully. I glance at her thin, pale arms, recalling how she didn't have the strength to whip eggs or stir flour into a batter. She probably really can't do much cooking with those arms.
’’Well, if you ever get a craving for something come see me. I'll be happy to make anything you want, if you show me how to do it.’’
My heart trembles with the idea of reproducing the recipes Maïne saw in her dreams.
Aaah, I'm looking forward to that! Just what in the world could be hidden in there?
Keeping one eye on Maïne as she keeps eating away at her cake, I pour the batter for my new tea-based pound cake into a pan, then shove it deep into the hot oven.