"I smell like peanut butter."
I'm saying this to no one. In fact, even if I was saying it to someone, they wouldn't care. I smell like some baked good pretty much every day. The staff at the bakery say it's comforting and delicious to go home smelling of chocolate and vanilla and spices. Normally I don't notice it but today the smell of peanut butter hangs around me and permeates every fiber of my clothes and it's even in my hair. Peanut butter is in my top five favorite foods from childhood and it's one of my favorite ingredients for baking. But right now it's becoming a bit overwhelming.
There are six batches of peanut butter and jelly bars in the oven, turning a golden brown and oozing with jelly goodness. I haven't made these bars in years but I woke up this morning from a dream about my old tree house and eating PB&J sandwiches with my friends and had to make them. I settled on classics, grape and strawberry, for half of the batch and peach and blackberry for the other half. With these bars, the peanut butter cookie base is the bread and the jelly settles into the dough like when a PB&J sandwich sits too long before you eat. The peanut butter and jelly fuse together and it is delicious. I could eat an entire pan of these bars myself; they're that good. I can never make enough.
Rob, one of my bakery assistants, convinced me to compete in the 100th Annual Franklin Hills Bake-Off. I'm going up against some of the most talented home bakers in this town. Women (mostly) who bake recipes handed down from generation to generation. Women who can smell store bought goods a mile away. It's not enough that I'm a success business owner and own the only bakery in town; these women are the real bakers of Franklin Hills and they know it. They may line up for my croissants and scones every morning but that means nothing. I have to win that trophy to really be accepted in this town. I moved here when I was six but I’m still no closer to being a local than the family that moved here last month. I’ve spent the last four weeks experimenting with several recipes trying to get them exactly perfect and never even considered the PB&J bars as a contender (category: bar cookies).
I've been having dreams about the tree house more and more lately. Sometimes it's just a simple image like today where I'm in the tree house with my friends and we're laughing and having fun as we always did when we were young. Other times it's just the tree house and the backyard. In those dreams, I'm in the tree house looking out and waiting. I don't know what I'm waiting for and I always wake up before I can figure it out. Every time I have a tree house dream, I get an idea for a new recipe or a way to make an old recipe sparkle. That's how I got the idea for my bake off theme: Childhood Memories. All of my entries are inspired by the tastes of my childhood.
The front of The Rolling Pin is dark and quiet. I woke up from my tree house dream and couldn't go back to sleep so I came in two hours earlier than usual. The rest of the staff will be in soon enough. Once they get here, I can leave the morning rush to them so I can focus on my next bake off entry: Pink Ponies of Doom.
Like the peanut butter bars, the Pink Ponies of Doom were the result of a tree house dream right after I entered the bake off. In this one, I was sitting in my tree house with my best friends, Lizzie and Daisy, and we're playing ponies. Between the three of us we had every My Little Pony made between 1983 and 1986. The pink ones were our favorite and my dad affectionately called us the Pink Ponies of Doom. The name stuck with us all through school. We even became heroes of sorts to the kids who got picked on by the popular set. We were famous for exacting schoolyard justice when needed; mean girls beware. After the dream, I dug around in the attic and found my old toys including an entire box of ponies. I needed inspiration to come up with a new dessert. I picked my favorite pink ones, Cotton Candy, Parasol, and Lickety Split, and brought them to the bakery. They watched over me, next to a picture of Lizzie, Daisy, and I in the tree house, as I baked and discarded idea after idea for how to make Pink Ponies of Doom.
How could I turn something so amazing as the Pink Ponies of Doom into a baked good? Cutout cookies, although delicious, are too obvious. Cupcakes are overdone, cake pops are a little too modern for this town, and brownies don't work at all. It has to be sweet and a little sour at the same time (my dad used to call us "sweet and sassy; a perfect combination"). Then it came to me: strawberry cream cheese cookies with glittery vanilla frosting. Cream cheese has that slight tang to it that makes it the perfect balance for sweet strawberries and vanilla frosting. I hadn't gotten the combination right though. The last two batches had been too sweet and the one before that too cream cheese-y. I think I figured it out and today would be the perfect batch. The secret: short bread cookie base. I don't know why I hadn't thought about it before. My grandma made the best short bread cookies and she used to make a box for the Pink Ponies of Doom every time she visited. The buttery cookie with the tangy strawberry cream cheese and the vanilla would be heaven. Those ladies would not know what hit them.
When I heard the back door of the bakery open I realized how long I'd been working on the cookies. Rob, Jamie, and Mona took one look at the kitchen and went about getting ready for the morning rush. They ignored my mutterings about pony designs on the frosting and got the croissants and scones baking away. Muffins, I call them breakfast cakes, were ready (sometimes I help out around here). Mona got the coffee going and by 5:30 we were ready to open. The first customer of the day, Marva Davis, was one of my competitors in the bake off.
"Maeve," she called out over the counter. "What is that heavenly smell?"
I came out from the kitchen to talk with her. "Just something I'm working on for the bake off. I'm not going to tell you what it is; you'll steal my idea."
Marva faked offense. "I would never! Of course, you can't trust some of the other ladies. They're gunning for you, you know. You're the youngest competitor and the only one from away. You know how they can be." Marva took a seat at one of the cafe tables. She had already eaten have of her breakfast cake.
"From away? I hate it when y'all use that term. I've lived her for over twenty years, not counting when I went away to college. That has to count for something." I slumped in the seat across from her.
"You know how it is, honey. Some people have been here since the town was founded and they think anyone who wasn't born here is from away. It's just how it is. Now if you win, they'll think of you more like one of us. Not a local, but at least not from away anymore. I don't make the rules; I just live here." She finished her breakfast cake (lemon blueberry) and made her way to the door. "Take care, Maeve. I look forward to seeing what you bring to the competition."
"Thanks Marva." I waved as she walked down Oak Street towards the town square. I made my way back behind the counter and into the kitchen. The Pink Ponies of Doom were ready and the PB&J bars had cooled enough to cut. Both were going out as specials this afternoon; a test run to see how people liked them. I was too close to judge anymore. If people liked them, I would finally get to shift my focus to the final category: an original cake recipe.
I returned to the kitchen to help with the rest of the morning baking and a few special orders for later in the day. The Pink Ponies of Doom, the plastic and the little girl versions, watched from their ledge. I had two weeks until the bake off. That was plenty of time for me to create the greatest cake of all time inspired by my childhood. A cake so amazing it would the hearts and stomachs of an entire town.
Easy. Not a problem at all.
Will Maeve win the bake off? What is the best cake of all time? Find out this week in Short Story Hour: Pink Ponies of Doom - The Bake Off, Part Two.