Child, stop crying. I can’t help you unless you tell me what it is that ails you.
The royal ball? Oh, child. Our mistress isn't being harsh, but sensible. The king and queen may have invited all the land, but they don't truly expect all the land to attend. The journey to the city is more trouble than it's worth for the households of minor nobles; we'll get our due in other ways. Besides, I’ve seen the way the butcher’s boy looks at you. He thinks well upon you, I’m sure.
The prince isn't looking for a match, despite what you may have heard from the tavern girls. His future engagement is the diplomats' fuss and worry, not a matter of the heart. No matter what the old tales would have you believe, princes don't marry scullery maids. And princes are not necessarily good and true, either.
Here, drink this. Verveine, to calm your nerves. Dry your eyes.
Let me tell you a story.
I was a child of the woods. A foundling, raised by a huntsman and his wife, but loved as though I were their own. I grew up in the shade of poplars and linden, with acorns and horse-chestnuts for playthings. I slept under quilts thick with goose down plucked from the birds my father hunted, and ate savory stews of rabbit and duck that my mother cooked over the fire in our hearth. My life was quiet and simple, and if my mother and father sometimes spoke in hushed, frantic whispers, I was too untroubled to notice.
The summer of my fourteenth year, two days after I woke to find my bedlinen spotted with blood, my father fell ill with fever. His face swelled and became strange. His nose like a boar's snout, his teeth like tusks. My mother said it was old magic, evil magic, and and for three days she burned sage and lit beeswax tapers, hoping to drive the evil out. She did so in vain: he died bleeding from his eyes and ears, a river of red blood. In the days that followed, I would catch her looking at me with speech heavy in her mouth, and in some moments, I didn't know if the words that lay on her silent tongue were those to form a prayer - or a curse.
I was quick and fleet of floot, but not strong enough to wield an axe or draw a bow. And so we foraged in the woods: picking watercress from where it grew in tangled mats in the stream, stealing eggs from the pigeons’ nests, seeking out blackberries and hazelnuts as the leaves turned in the autumn. For a time, I thought us safe. And then, as the nights grew colder and longer, my mother developed a cough that would not quiet, no matter how much horehound tea she drank. At first frost, blood bloomed scarlet on her handkerchief, and I knew we could not stay in the woods.
We left the woods for the city. My father had been foreign, a country man from a neighboring kingdom, but my mother knew the ways of the town and sent me to the royal palace. I believe she would have had me be a lady's maid, but I knew nothing of hairdressing and could not curtsy without making a fool of myself. I found a place in the kitchens instead. Though I had never seen an artichoke nor a pea, and couldn’t tell a salver from a soup spoon, I knew good mushrooms from bad, and I could pluck and truss a game bird with ease.
In the kitchens, I peeled potatoes until my hands were raw, stripped peas from their shells until my nails split. I clarified stocks with egg white to produce consomme as clear and as deep as fine brandy, and poached whole trout to encase in gleaming aspic. I learned to strip a peacock of its feathers and skin, and when roasted and gilded with saffron, reassemble its tail. My hands were marked with burns and scars, and when I looked upon them, I felt a certain pride.
The king and queen were kind but distant, in the way of rulers who await their retirement from the throne. It was said that when the prince – the sole heir – returned from his diplomatic posting abroad, he would be crowned king. Upon the official announcement of his return, there were hushed whispers amongst the staff. Avoid being alone at night, said the upstairs maids. The prince has a roving eye and wandering hands.
I was grinding almonds for marchpane the day I first saw the prince. I would have known him for who he was even without his tunic and embroidered robes. It showed in the way he moved, perfectly certain of his place in the world. I curtsied with the other staff when he arrived, and then turned back to my business of crushing almonds into fine powder.
I startled when he came over to me. He stood so closely, I could feel his breath on my neck. You look, he whispered, like a maiden with her hands in first snow. You are a maiden, aren’t you? And then he curled a finger in a lock of my hair. Dark like ebony, he murmured. I will have you soon. I shivered, and he smiled – a slow, pleased smile.
I slept poorly that night, my dreams filled with imps that knotted tangles into my hair. In the morning, on my pillow, I found a comb set with onyx, carved from the darkest, richest ebony. Horrified, I threw it into the fire.
I was skinning rabbits the next time he visited the kitchens. He ran a hand down one of the discarded pelts. Ermine is softer than this, he murmured. And then he leaned in and brushed his fingers along the hollow of my throat. Your skin would look lovely against a bed of ermine fur, white as snow. I will have you yet. The skinning blade trembled in my hand, and he chuckled.
That night I dreamed of a rope around my neck, and woke gasping for breath. Looped around my throat was a strand of pearls, lustrous as moonlight, tied with a ribbon as fine and white as milk. Horrified, I tore it from my neck and dropped it into the chamber pot.
The third time he visited the kitchens, I had rose petals laid out for sugaring. He picked up a petal and rubbed it between thumb and forefinger. These are almost as smooth as silk, he murmured. I think you must feel like this, he whispered. And then he brushed a thumb across my mouth. Red as blood, he declared. You will be mine. The sugar pot slipped from my fingers and sent a drift of crystals scattering across the workbench. He laughed.
I dreaded sleep that night. I thought myself tormented by needles, pricked by pins. I woke to a feeling of chill. Fastened around my waist was a fine chain, and hanging from it, a garnet like a teardrop, like a single bead of blood. I yanked it from my waist and threw it out the window. I did not dare wonder what my fate would be if the prince came to the kitchens a fourth time.
Days passed. And then the king came to the kitchens, which he had never done – not in the memory of any cook – in a state of great excitement. The diplomats had done their work, and the prince would marry in the spring. There would be a feast and a ball to celebrate the engagement.
A feast like no feast before. Scallops in their shells, perfumed with sweet wine. Silver dishes of caviar set with mother-of-pearl spoons. Paté of hare, rich with livers of fattened geese. Squab with figs and morels. Doves roasted with slices of truffle patterning their skins. Galantines of pigeon garnished with carrots and parsnips fashioned into roses. Beef tenderloins with savory mushrooms beneath a majestic crust of golden pastry.
Meringues adorned with sugared violets. Syllabub flecked with candied citron. Gilded marchpane, ginger comfits. Crushed ice in blown-glass goblets, drizzled with rose syrup. Hothouse peaches with skins like the setting sun.
For a centerpiece, we chose Cendrillon, from the old tale. A piece montee of pastillage and pulled sugar, a fairy castle with spires. A figure in a ballgown of pale blue, leaving a tiny shoe on the palace steps in her haste to flee.
I thought myself safe the night of the ball. The nobles were sated and merry. I could hear the faint strains of music from the kitchen as I swept out the ovens and laid fresh kindling, my last task before I could rest for the night. And then I heard footsteps behind me.
Cologne couldn't disguise the wine on his breath. He told me that if he couldn't have me, then no-one would. And then he smiled at me - sometimes I still see that smile in my nightmares - and told me that because he wanted to see me afraid, he would give me until midnight before he unleashed the hounds. I had heard the grooms’ stories of the hounds. If the hunters weren't quick enough in the chase, they would fall upon the fox and tear it to pieces.
He took me by the arm and forced me up the stairs, barring the kitchen door behind. He pulled me through the front halls and into the ballroom. The musicians had left; the floor was deserted. As much as I knew I should run, it was as though my feet were rooted to the ground. As he left, I heard him call for the doors to the ballroom to be locked and barred. In the distance, a clock chimed half-eleven.
The prince, for all his forays into the kitchens, was still lacking certain secrets that the servants guarded. Or perhaps he knew those secrets, but did not recognise their power. Behind one of the tapestries was a passageway that led back into the kitchens, permitting us to cater to feasts in the ballroom with minimal delay.
There was meat in the kitchen stores. Hams, haunches of venison. Stone crocks of goosefat. As the clock struck the half-hour, I dipped my hands in goosefat and began to grease the marble steps of the ballroom’s spiral staircase. Back and forth I ran, the fat shining on my hands, fear lending me speed. Once all the steps were greased, I dragged all the ham and haunches of venison I could heft to the foot of the stairs.
The prince kept his word. At the final stroke of midnight, I heard the baying of the hounds, and then the doors swung wide. The prince held the hounds’ leashes in both hands, and he was laughing as he saw me. Not that he laughed for long. The hounds pulled him along in their haste to reach the meat they could smell, and his slippers found no purchase on the greased marble. He hit the foot of the staircase with a loud crack, his neck bent at an impossible angle. The hounds were busy with their spoils, and I climbed my way back up the staircase on my hands and knees.
I left the palace and kingdom both, and sought a place as a cook in the land that my father had once called home. Now I am here, cook to a household of minor nobility, and this is where I hope to stay. Beef stew with carrots and plain rice pudding are a far cry from ballotine of poussin and rose bavarois, but I believe I am safe here, as I once was in the woods. A simple life. There is no shame in a simple life.
Now, child, I can’t fashion you a ballgown from a moonbeam. I can’t make you slippers of glass. Maybe princes are not all cut from the same cloth. But I would counsel you to take up with the butcher’s boy, and leave princes in storybooks, where they belong.
White Celebration Cake
This isn't a dessert from the classic French canon - it's a good deal lighter, for starters - but it's a glorious excuse to eat lemon curd and raspberries and cream, which is just the sort of thing I think belongs in fairytale feasts. It's a lovely cake for a birthday or other festive occasion.
You can start making this cake in the morning and have a finished cake by the evening of the same day, but I wouldn't recommend it. It's much easier to spread it out over two days.
(Adapted from Rose Levy Berenbaum's White Velvet Butter Cake. Makes one four-layer nine-inch cake, which will serve twelve.)
Equipment roundup: you'll need a stand mixer, two 9-inch cake pans, silicone or rubber spatula, cake stand or serving platter, and a palette knife or other wide, dull knife (for frosting).
First thing on the first day: make the cake base. Start by leaving out a stick and a half of butter to soften.
Preheat the oven to 350F. Cut rounds of parchment paper to fit two nine-inch cake pans. Grease the pans with butter, line with parchment paper, then butter the parchment and dust with flour, knocking out any excess.
Separate four eggs. Save the yolks (you'll use them in the lemon curd filling) and place the whites in a small mixing bowl. Stir in a quarter-cup of milk and two teaspoons of vanilla.
Grab the bowl of your stand mixer. Add three cups (ten and a half ounces) white flour (cake flour is best, but all-purpose is fine), one-and-a-half cups (ten and a half ounces) white sugar, four teaspoons baking powder, and three-quarters of a teaspoon of salt.
Set the bowl in the mixer. Turn the mixer on low for a few seconds to mix the dry ingredients together. Add the softened butter, followed by three-quarters of a cup of milk. Mix on low speed until the butter and milk have been absorbed, and the mixture looks rather pasty. Mix on medium speed for a minute and a half to aerate. Scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula.
Add the egg mixture in three batches, mixing on high for twenty seconds after each addition. Scrape down the sides. The mixture should be quite thick; don’t worry if it looks curdled.
Divide the batter equally between the two prepared pans, and give them a gentle shake to smooth out the mixture. Bake for twenty-five to thirty minutes, or until the cakes are golden on top and a tester stuck in the center comes out clean.
Leave the cakes in the pans for ten minutes before turning them out on greased wire racks to cool. (Reinvert the cakes once they've been turned out.) Allow to cool completely before wrapping airtight.
Second item on the first day: make the lemon curd.
Take the four egg yolks left over from the cake, add another whole egg, and beat the lot with three-quarters of a cup of sugar in a heatproof mixing bowl. The mixture will be sticky and a little grainy.
Set the mixing bowl over a small saucepan of gently simmering water, and whisk in half a cup of lemon juice. Keep whisking - this will take a while - until the mixture starts to thicken. Stop whisking when your whisk starts to leave little trails in the mixture (the "ribbon" stage.) Remove the bowl from heat.
Stir in a half-teaspoon of salt, and whisk in six tablespoons of chilled butter, one tablespoon at a time. Allow to cool, then cover with plastic wrap and chill.
First item on the second day: prepare the cake layers. Unwrap the cakes and place them on a flat surface. Trim the cakes so that their tops are flat, then carefully split each cake in half horizontally to create a total of four thin rounds of cake. This is easiest done with a cake leveler, but you can manage with a serrated knife if you have a good eye and a steady hand.
Second item on the second day: make the mascarpone whipped cream frosting. Combine eight ounces of marscapone, one-and-a-half cups heavy cream, a quarter-cup of powdered sugar and a half-teaspoon of vanilla in the bowl of a stand mixer. Mix on low speed to combine, then gradually increase the speed until the mixture forms soft peaks. Turn off the mixer.
Third item on the second day: make the berries-and-cream filling. Take a pint of blueberries and a pint of raspberries and mix them together in a bowl. Add just enough of the whipped cream frosting to hold the berries together.
Finally, the fun bit: assembling the whole thing.
Set out the cake board, cake platter, cake stand, or whatever it is that you're serving the cake on. Ready your cake layers, lemon curd, berry filling and whipped cream frosting.
Place a dab of whipped cream frosting on the surface of your serving platter or cake stand and set the first round of cake upon it. Cover the cake round with a thin coating of lemon curd. Spread with a layer of the berries-and-cream mixture. Try to keep it as level as possible. Place the second cake round atop the berry mixture, and repeat the process. Do the same with the third cake round. Once the fourth cake round is in place, run the edge of a palette knife or other dull knife around the sides of the cake to smooth out any excess lemon curd or berry filling.
Working from the sides up, cover the cake with a generous coating of whipped-cream frosting. Use a butter knife to create swirls in the frosting. Cake may be garnished with edible flowers, if desired.
Cake may be chilled for up to a day in the fridge, but is best served as soon as possible. Serve with extra berries and cream on the side.