CABB’s Winter

Challenge, 2022




by Carole W

He hardly needed his personal alarm clock. The community’s midnight-to-dawn chimes were muted – gentled, as Pascal described it – until they rang out hard at six, but his schedule was the habit of years. How people got anything done, sleeping in past four, he’d never understand.

Those biscuits aren’t gonna make themselves, buddy. His dad’s voice sounded in his ear at 3:30 every morning, just like it had when he was a boy. No alarm necessary then either, just his dad’s soft call and the hum of his enthusiasm. Those days, he’d bundle into the backseat of the old station wagon and shuffle into the diner half-asleep, head straight to the high-backed booth in the back. When he did wake up, it was to the aroma of the trays of biscuits his father had made and the towering, buttery, steaming-hot sample on the white china plate in front of him. Taste-test this one for me, will you, son?

Today, though, he was up even earlier.

December 9th, National Pastry Day, so Sebastien informed him. He’d scoffed at the made-up holiday, but then took it to heart. And so … a trial run of some of the new treats he hoped to serve at Winterfest this year: Brioche Pain de Mie, vanillaorange madeleines, and chocolate croissant – Pain au Chocolat, the real laminated-dough, three-day deal. Having everything ready when the breakfast call went out meant he’d have to be his own maestro to make sure all the parts came together in harmony. Once he’d chosen the recipes, he’d spent an afternoon thinking the timing through, writing it out, thinking some more, recalculating. If nothing went haywire this morning – meaning there weren’t any lunches he’d need to pack for field trips nobody remembered to tell him about or an emergency repair crew leaving out early – he should be able to get the treats baked off before he’d have to jump on the regular breakfast-making.

Of course, now, there was Ada. Ah-dah. Just thinking her name – pronounced the way she said to – made him glad. Glad for her energy, her skills. Since she’d arrived below and gravitated to the kitchens, he’d enjoyed his work in a different way, even recognizing a glimmer of the old calling flaring up.

He threw back his covers, but for a moment lay abed, his hands behind his head. Not for the first time he wondered who to thank for the gifts. Butter below wasn’t unheard of, but that much? Pounds of it, the unsalted kind in whole blocks. Baker’s butter, fresh and sweet. He doubted Long could have made that hefty a donation. And the special flours? The fragrant oranges, the chocolate batons, the crate of eggs? Who’d-a thought! Catherine, maybe. She was pretty flush, but decent about having what she had. Yeah, he’d bet good money on her.

His bedside table was stacked with Gourmet magazines, unsold copies from the newsstand that Willis brought below every so often. He had a pretty good collection now, rowed up on his bookshelf. Most of the time, he just used them to dream on, but Christmas had come early this year – All that butter! – and he’d gone back through the old issues with new interest. The pastries … Just looking at the pictures, he could almost smell the yeast working, taste the caramelization. He might be getting a little above his raising, but wasn’t having a bakery something he used to think about? Pâtisserie, boulangerie, viennoiserie … He knew the difference, but he’d bet more good money nobody expected him to.

He sat up, pulled an old issue from the heap, revisited the bookmarked pages. That caramel créme Anglaise poured over a warm chocolate pudding cake would be a hit with the young ones. Vincent would go for the almond kringle. And those tuiles …Father would hoard them for his tea. None of the recipes looked tricky. He read through the ingredients lists: check, check, check. Maybe he could pull a couple more rabbits out of his Winterfest hat.

Better hop to it. Those biscuits …

Down to the kitchens at a clip.The tunnels were sleepy-quiet, the lanterns still middle-of-the-night dim. A good sign – no urgencies so far. First thing, he checked his special pantry. Everything was just as he left it, not a single orange purloined from the pyramid of fruit, every bag of almonds accounted for. No one had borrowed any of his baking tins without asking; they were all stacked and winking at him in the turned-up lantern light, ready for action.

The madeleine pans Mouse had discovered had taken some elbow grease to clean up, but he’d managed, spending the better part of three evenings at it. Now the metal trays, each with forty little shell-shaped wells, were perfectly smooth. He’d taken them to Rebecca first, thinking they were molds for candles, but Rebecca had sent Mouse on to him, and was he ever glad. Mouse was sure he’d seen other baking vessels in the heap – shiny thingies, he’d called them – and he’d run off for a second look, coming back with eight pullman pans, six in pretty good condition with lids that still slid on and off. A good scrubbing to get the rust off, some coconut oil rubbed on the lip, and he had the means to make a square-sided loaf. Something about the shape made him … happy.

No way he could pull off mixing, proofing, chilling, and baking from scratch in the morning though – the best brioche took 24 hours. Plus, bread smelled great just out of the oven, but it needed to cool first or else the crumb would be gummy under the knife. He rocked back on his heels. The loaves he and Ada had baked up late last night were still there, golden and uncut. The aroma had drawn folks in, but he’d had bran muffins going too, the little ones, the kind you can have three or four of right out of the pan. Much to his surprise, Ada pulled a butter curler out of her apron pocket and had a bowl of ridged ribbons ready before the muffins were. It wasn’t his, at least he’d never seen it, and he’d swear he’d inventoried every drawer in the workroom, but he’d forgotten to ask her about it.

Next to the cold storage room. The madeleine batter should be well rested. He hoped he’d not folded in the butter too vigorously, hoped for a decidedly evident hump. He left the special pans there to chill. Ada had told him it would help with the rise.

And, ahhh, the puff pastry!

Day one: make the dough. Make the butter blocks to the exact size necessary. Both into cold storage overnight.

Pounding the butter flat was cathartic, he’d discovered. He and Ada had fallen into a funny syncopation with the task, one that wasn’t exactly the ha-ha kind of funny, but when their gazes met over raised rolling dowels, he’d felt … accompanied.

Day two: roll out the dough, even the thickness, square it up. Get out the cold butter block and lay it on catty-corner, bring the flaps over to enclose it, then roll and fold, roll and fold, roll and fold – with bouts back in the cold room in between – to get the requisite number of layers. Then back to chill overnight.

Today, day three. Time to roll, cut, fill, shape, proof, and bake.

But also … time for breakfast. His family would be hungry again.

Out to the kitchens … and there was Ada, the big ovens already up to temperature, the kettles gently steaming on the back burners. She’d arrayed the skillets, each with a knob of butter in their centers, ready to warm for eggs-any-way. Coffee started; the flattop nice and clean. No evidence of midnight snacking this morning. The bin of potatoes on the work table, peelers and shredders laid out. How long had she been up and at it?

Fill the milk pitcher. Already full. Fill the sugar bin. Already to the brim.

Okay then. Fill a mug with coffee, the biggest one on the rack. Take it to her. Thank her.

A second mug in hand, he headed back to the cold room humming a happy tune. There, he rubbed his hands together, laced his fingers, turned his wrists, stretched his arms out straight. Time to get crackin’, his dad would always say, and now he said it too.

* * *

His breakfast helpers arrived a little before seven. Good kids, willing hands, just not drawn to kitchen work like he’d been at their age. He had to do a little retraining every now and then, give more direction that he wished he had to, but they were a biddable bunch. The older, seasoned, supper-time helpers were too, even though they didn’t think it was as important as he did to trim the ribs from the inside of the bell peppers or squeeze the seeds out of the tomatoes when they made spaghetti sauce.

They’ll make it bitter, left in, he’d explained. Was he really the only one who could taste it? Another reason to treasure Ada, he realized. She’d go after a single seed spied in the simmer with a long-handled spoon, capture it with a crow of triumph.

“Lay all those pastries facing the same direction, see … like this,” he instructed one of his young servers. “Just a little overlap. In rows on the big silver trays.” He stood back and watched, wincing at the misalignments, but saying nothing.

“Those madeleines go shell-side up, gotta balance ‘em on their hump. What? Yes, they’re supposed to look like that. No, they’re not called humpty-dumpty cookies. Take the sugar shaker … the aluminum one with the powdered sugar … and give them a – WAIT! A powdering! Not a snowstorm! Oh, well.”

Samantha clearly needed a job. “You want to slice the bread? It’s a long knife, but look, I have this jig Cullen made. Bread goes in, you set the knife in the guide slots … like that … and you get even slices. Don’t push down, saw back and forth, let the knife do the work … Good job! Now go ahead and cut the whole loaf. All of them, yes. Plug in the toasters when you take the platters out.”

All through breakfast he – and Ada – worked the griddle, taking orders for eggs and potatoes while keeping an ear out for commentary. The morning chatter rose and fell as folks arrived, then sat down to eat. His helpers didn’t relay anything other than over-easy, over-hard, soft-scrambled, please. Surely if he stepped into the dining hall, someone would say something, say anything, about the new treats. Did they like the madeleines? The pastry? The brioche? He’d sent it all out with love. Sent it out with hope too. He wanted his family to be happy.

The last pan of eggs served up, he took off his apron and ventured out. The sideboard was all but empty. The big bowl of homemade granola had plenty left in it, but he’d expected that. He heaved a good-sized sigh. Not a single madeleine remained. Only a few slices of pan de mie were left, the heels, in his opinion the best part of the loaf. And half a chocolate croissant. Who eats just half a croissant, he wondered, studying the room. A dozen people lingered in the chamber, two of them finishing off madeleines as he watched.

Rebecca … and Joseph. Leaning close over the two-top in the back. A long story how Joseph, still a top-sider, had been granted access below, but it was clear enough why he was a regular at the breakfast table these days. Now he was brushing some of that snowy sugar from Rebecca’s cheek; now she was laughing.

Funny thing. Me, carrying a torch for the candle-maker. He’d had such a crush on Rebecca for so long, the heart-swell in her presence so customary, he hadn’t even realized what he felt now was simply, purely happiness for her.

Ada emerged from the butler’s corridor, joined him at his vantage point.

Well? her raised brows asked. He shrugged in answer and set about puttering a bit, stacking and neatening … and waiting. Surely somebody …

Brooke bussed her dishes to the collection cart and brushed past him on her way out … with a smile, at least, but nothing else.

Olivia was wrestling with Luke more than a little, so he didn’t really fault her for leaving without a word or for leaving their empty plates on the table.

Jamie and Mouse had their heads together over something. Now Mouse was juggling grapes. Now they were huddled up again, whispering.

Cullen and Eric and Geoffrey left as a group, Cullen shooing the boys along to school, each one of them with a croissant in hand … or in Geoffrey’s case, clamped between his teeth while he struggled with his overcoat. He managed to bite it through and caught the tail-end in one hand, waving it at him before he slurped up the drape of chocolate threatening to end up on the stone floor, his parting “See ya!” muffled.

Cullen gave him a little salute before he left for his work shift.

“Pretty good grub, William!” Eric called out over his shoulder.

Pretty good grub? That’s … it?

He hadn’t even noticed Vincent reading in that little niche in the far corner, but now the man closed his book and started his way. He held out both hands, shook his head. Surely he didn’t have to say it. None of that empathy stuff, okay? But Vincent headed for the pastry table instead, plucking up that last half-croissant, standing there, taking the three bites of it with his eyes closed.

Well, that says something … I guess.

When he turned, Ada had already disappeared, and when he passed the dish-room, he saw her elbow-deep in sudsy water. He let her be, not wanting her to see the strange stew he found himself in, and spent the next hour banging pots and pans and baking sheets around, then apologizing to them as if they had feelings. They worked hard, and they deserved respect and credit.


Ada had taken to calling him that. No one else did, never had. It made him feel … new. So did her touch on his shoulder. He ‘rounded to face her.

“I get it …” she began. “Sometimes you wonder why you put so much of yourself into something that people … consume … literally. And then it’s gone. And the next day, they’re hungry again. And they’re looking at you, holding their plates out.”

“Not so literally, but … yeah.”

“And you think sometimes they’d be satisfied with a peanut butter sandwich on store-bought bread. But you wouldn’t be satisfied, would you.”

He didn’t respond. It wasn’t really a question, more a statement.

“Actions speak louder than words,” she went on.

His dad used to say that too.

Every Saturday, the afternoons after school when he was there to help … The day’s rush over, there’d be bus boxes full of dirty dishes in the back, and, up front, crumpled napkins to collect, crumbs needing sweeping from the tables, the floor. His dad would lock the swinging door and flip the ‘Open’ sign over, turn to survey the littered room, hands on his hips … and a smile on his face.

He didn’t recall anybody ever sending compliments to the chef. But every now and then someone would say, when they sat down and opened the menu, So-and-So told me about this place. Off-handed, maybe, but it meant something – he could see that now.

It took this long? This long to learn to read between the lines?

“You feed people, Will. They keep coming back. It might not be quite what you need, but it is evidence. Words can be empty, they can be chosen carelessly, they can be withheld. But what people do …”

Now she had both his hands in hers, guiding them to her waist.

“Today was National Pastry Day. And a success, don’t you think?”

He nodded, less reluctantly than he might have thirty minutes earlier.

“Do you know what December 25th is?”

“Well … Christmas Day.” Where the heck is this going?

“It’s also Kiss the Cook Day, and I’m thinking … Trial run?”


Title taken from the poem by Ella Wheeler Wilcox, Love’s Language.

1 Comment

  1. Poor William made so many efforts, he needed words of appreciation and it was only Ada who opened his eyes to how much they appreciate his cooking, they come back to him, they eat willingly what he prepares for them, they are grateful, satisfied and satiated.
    I like this picture of him, how he prepares everything, how he cares, how much heart and willingness there is in it..and I like his new helper, perfectly matched…this is really a fantastic story. I really haven’t read this before!


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