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The Perfect Ingredients

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Dot smiled at the perfect arrangement.  The small bottles in the front row, the big ones on the back, Dot’s fingers deftly placed the jewelry cases on the right and the brushes to the left. All the time, she had been avoiding her reflection in the mirror, because she always felt so out of place among all the finery, but with the corner of her eye she caught the image of a smiling girl and curiosity got the best of her.

She was not raised to be coquettish; vanity was frowned upon in her childhood because every coin was reserved to sustenance and shelter. That small peek in the mirror didn’t scandalize her, but made her wonder about the other image that glass was used to reflect. Miss Fisher was far more beautiful and far more sinful; Dot knew it and confessed without judgment. That didn’t hinder her from acknowledging how big Miss Fisher’s heart was. While she was looking at her reflection, Dot raised her hand and cleaned a spot of makeup on the surface without even thinking about it.

The room was very elegant and Dot suddenly realized there was no way she could ever repay all the favours her employer had poured on her head. From the big and rich bed to the closet stuffed to spilling with clothes, the honourable Phryne Fisher had everything a woman could want. She lacked nothing.

Dot reviewed the chamber one last time before closing the door behind her. On her way downstairs, she saw Mr Butler fussing about with the details on the ornate finials.

“Going to the kitchen, may I pour you a cuppa?”

“Bless your soul. I’ll meet you in the kitchen.”

Dot picked up her sewing basket and put the kettle on the stove.  Night was falling and the house was quiet. Dot smiled because the principal noise maker was celebrating her birthday with some friends in the newest saloon. Dot waited patiently to hear the hissing of the kettle and idly leafed through a magazine while sorting the stockings by colour. Those housekeeping magazines where one of the most precious indulgences she could afford since she started working for Miss Fisher and she was always eager to learn a new trick or a novel stitch for her needlework.

The image on the page caught her eye. The dessert was depicted in such a delicious way; Dot had never seen anything like it. The kettle was whistling, so Dot poured a couple of cups, left them to brew and returned to the recipe. All the ingredients were common enough, and the method was easy.  Dot was staring at the page when Mr Butler sat in front of her with his cup and looked at her magazine.

“Found a new recipe?”

“This one seems lovely, although a bit rich.”

“Do it for the house. Miss Fisher wouldn’t mind.”

“Do you want to try it, Mr Butler?”

The man just smiled and sipped his cup. They both wanted to try something new and they knew it. Once their cups were empty, they went to look for the kitchen utensils and ingredients. They distributed the tasks without comment: Mr Butler started to line the oven trays and Dot divided the yolks from the whites. The oven was lit and left to heat while Dot started to beat the egg whites.

“Those are nice peaks, Dot,” Mr Butler congratulated her as she beat the egg whites into foam.

“Thank you,” Dot responded absentmindedly as she turned the bowl upside down to check if the consistency was adequate.

Mr Butler —who was anything but a novice where baking was concerned— measured out a good cup of caster sugar. Dot, with deep concentration, beat the egg whites and let Mr Butler add the sugar and the vanilla extract. The rhythmic sound of the whisk over the thick and glossy mixture was relaxing and soon the mix was being poured into the trays and popped into the hot oven.

“What’s next?”

“Whipped cream and cherry sauce.”

“You’ve done enough beating. Mind the sauce.”

Dot sat and started to pit the cherries while Mr Butler mixed icing sugar and cream. The sound of the whisk scraping the bottom of the bowl and the pits being tossed into a tin made a nice melody.

“She loved cherries.”

“Who?”

“Aurelia,” Mr Butler didn’t miss a beat, but the longing for his late wife resounded in his voice.

Dot put her cherries in a pan and, before adding caster sugar, kissed the man on the temple, as one would kiss a dear grandfather. Mr Butler didn’t react, except to swap the trays from top to bottom shelf. The sauce was boiled, thickened and strained in no time; the cream was whipped and put into the icebox.

“Do we have pie crusts?” Dot asked, mashing the boiled cherries with a couple of ripe bananas.

“Always,” Mr Butler put the dish on the countertop, realizing that Dot was aiming for a custard tart made with the leftover yolks.

While Dot mixed and boiled the cream, Mr Butler turned off the oven and propped the main door slightly ajar before taking the tart from Dot’s hands and placing it in the side oven, to bake in the residual heat.

“I would have loved to meet her,” Dot commented, passing a rag over the countertop,

“She would have loved you,” Mr Butler replied, filling the kettle again.

They shared a cuppa in silence while the meringue set. Layer after layer they assembled the dessert and were busy decorating with cherries when the kitchen door swung open. Two  fashionably dressed figures danced into the kitchen among hearty laughs which signalled either good humor or intoxication. Neither Dot nor Mr Butler were greatly impressed because they recognized their employer by the headband full of gemstones and the good doctor MacMillan by the pants, vest and the profusion of Makassar oil. Their dance almost ended in the pantry where they tripped on each other. 

“Dessert!” Doctor MacMillan said with the delight of a kid when they came to help them.

“Right away, Doctor,” Mr Butler replied, helping Miss Phryne by taking up her friend’s weight.

“Is the doctor all right, Miss?”

“She’s fine,” Miss Phryne said carelessly, kissing Dot’s cheek. “Mac is really generous with her own medicine.”

Mr Butler helped the good doctor into a chair as she pointed an accusing finger at her friend.

“In every sense,” Phryne conceded with a brief nod before sinking into a chair. “Now, Dot, I just danced until my shoes fell to pieces,” she said, showing the evidence of her good time hanging off the tips of her fingers. “So, show some mercy and don’t make me ask for a piece.”