Title: Baking Day at Brandy Hall
Theme: Special Celebrations (recipe!fic)
Elements: My prompt was a tart
Author's Notes: In my version of the Shire, education is a family affair. Young children are taught their letters by parents or older siblings (or in this case, a cousin) and when older they receive further education from other adult members of their families and household. I go by the roughly two-thirds age ratio for hobbits, so in this story, Frodo is almost 20 (which is about 11 in "Man-years", and Merry is 6, which is a precocious 4 in "Man-years").
Summary: Disappointed when a promised outing is cancelled, Frodo and Merry are treated to a morning of baking.
Word Count: 2,184
Tap. Tap. Tap. Frodo blinked in the faint light of his lamp as the door to his room cracked open, allowing a crack of light in. Merry, who'd been laying on his arm, sat up and rubbed his little eyes.
"Master Frodo? Master Merry? It's time for second breakfast." It was the voice of Dahlia, Merry's nursemaid, as she peeped through the door. "The mistress said to let you lads have a bit of a lie-in this morning, but I doubt she'd want you to miss breakfast altogether. Hop along now, young masters!"
Her head vanished, the crack of light disappeared, and Frodo's door closed with a snick. Frodo reached over and turned up the lamp. His inside room had no windows. Sometimes he wondered if Uncle Saradoc and Aunt Esmeralda knew he had slipped out of his window when he first joined them after his parents' death. He only knew that after a week in the room that was now Merry's nursery, they had moved him to this inner room that opened off their own room. They'd only said that this one was larger--which it was--but still, he wondered from time to time if they had suspected his nighttime wanderings.
Merry slid out of the bed and grabbed his hand. "Come on Frodo! We're going fishing today, remember?"
Frodo chuckled at his little cousin's impatience, got out of bed himself, and reached for his dressing gown. Merry had already gone skipping ahead and Frodo followed, only to find the lad stopped, gazing in dismay out his parents' bedroom window.
The rain was pouring down outside, running off the eaves of the windows in Buck Hill like a waterfall.
"Oh Frodo!" Merry's sad little cry of dismay sparked an echoing sorrow in Frodo's heart. They'd both been so looking forward to their expedition this morning--a reward for Merry for reading an entire story by himself for the first time.
He stepped over, schooling his own face and expression to one of hopefulness. "We can do it another time, sprout."
Merry looked up at him for a moment, and then hugged him. "I'm sorry, Frodo! You're sad about it, too!"
Frodo ruffled his curls. "Well, yes, a little. It would have been fun. But there's nothing we can do about the rain. If it was just a light rain, I'd say we could go anyway--but this is pouring far too hard. It would be unsafe."
Hand in hand they went into the small kitchen that served the quarters of the Son of the Hall, and saw Dahlia just setting out Merry's special blue plate with the ponies painted around the rim, filled with eggs, bacon and scones, and his glass mug with the etched scene of two young hobbits fishing filled with milk; next to it was another plate similarly filled for Frodo, as well as a cup of tea. The two lads sat down and the food quickly dispelled their sad mood.
"We'll find something else to do that's fun today, Merry," said Frodo, after swallowing his last mouthful of his third helping.
"Begging your pardon, Master Frodo, but the mistress thought of something you both might like to do instead. Before she and Master Saradoc went down to help Master Rory and Mistress Menegilda see to the guests from the Northfarthing, she gave me this." Dahlia reached into her capacious apron pocket and held out a key. "It's the key to the spice box. She thought that you might enjoy doing some baking today, and she asked me to help you."
Merry gave a whoop of delight, and Frodo grinned widely. While all young hobbits are taught early the art of cooking, the two of them rarely had the chance to practice; living in Brandy Hall, most of their meals save breakfasts and tea were taken in the common dining hall and made by the cooks in the big main kitchens. Several of the private quarters had their own kitchens, but often were not much used. Much of the time even those who dined in their own apartments had meals sent to them. But Esmeralda enjoyed baking, and had taught the young nursemaid several of her favorite receipts.
"What are we going to bake, Dahlia?" Merry asked. "Can we bake a cake?"
Dahlia smiled and shook her head. "Our oven is not quite large enough for cake," she said. "but your mother said as we might use up those pears from Bridgefields, and make a tart or two."
"I've never baked a tart," said Frodo.
"I like pears!" exclaimed Merry.
Breakfast finished, the two lads rushed off to get dressed while Dahlia cleaned up the dishes and got out the ingredients and other things they would need. Mistress Esmeralda had begun firing the oven built into the chimney above the kitchen hearth before she left, for it took a long time for the bricks to reach the right temperature.
When the two lads came back to the kitchen, Dahlia presented Frodo with Saradoc's apron, and tied a tea towel around Merry's waist to serve as an apron for him.
There was a bowl of large pears on the table, as well as bowls and the flour and butter needed for the pastry crust, while Frodo took a paring knife and began to peel the pears, and the smell of them reminded Frodo of honey and flowers and sitting in a tree with the juice drabbling down his chin.
Dahlia allowed Merry to help her roll out the crust with Esmeralda's oak rolling pin. "Turn the pin the other way now, Master Merry, so that it will make a circle." Merry stood on a chair in front of her, and her hands were on either side of his as he rolled, his little tongue sticking slightly out of the side as he held his breath in concentration.
"That's good, that's good!" said Dahlia. "Now one more time the other way. We want it right thin and evenlike all over, so it'll bake up pretty!"
Merry let his breath out with a whoosh! as Dahlia proclaimed it to be "Just right!"
"Oh, Master Frodo, I think that's enough pears for two. Now we need them sliced all up."
"Can I cut some?" asked Merry. He'd never yet been allowed to use one of the sharp knives.
"Master Merry, I'm not sure--" Dahlia hesitated. The lad did need to learn how to use one, but those knives were fearful sharp, and his hands was still little. She tried to remember how old she'd've been when she'd've been allowed to cut things--surely she'd been about his age...
"I'll help him, Dahlia," said Frodo. "I won't let him get cut."
She nodded reluctantly. This wasn't something the mistress had mentioned when she suggested they bake today.
"Come sit on my lap, Merry. You must do just as I say."
Merry nodded seriously.
Frodo took up another knife, somewhat longer and wider than the paring knife. "Now, I'm going to cut the pear in half and cut the core out," he said, suiting his actions to his words. "Here, hold the knife just so." He arranged Merry's fingers carefully along the knife handle, and then put his own hand over it. "We will do it this way. You can't do it by yourself yet, do you understand? Don't let me find you've touched a knife without permission!"
"Yes, Frodo," he said with a sigh. It was hard to have to wait to do things himself, but he had learned that if he fussed, he'd not be allowed to do them at all.
"Now we are going to slice them up nice and thin." Merry was surprised at how hard the pear was, and yet how easily the sharp knife slid through the juicy fruit, cutting through and hitting the surface of the wooden worktable with a "snick!"
When the last of the pears had been sliced they were dumped into a bowl. The lads washed the juice off their fingers and dried their hands on their aprons, and Dahlia allowed them to measure out the other ingredients into the bowl: sugar and cinnamon and a little cornstarch and little chunks of butter. Then Merry was finally allowed to do something all by himself--he plunged his fingers in to mix it all up, making sure that all the pear slices were thoroughly covered. When Dahlia said it was good enough, Frodo helped him wash his hands once more--but not before he licked some of the good stuff off his fingers first. Dahlia placed half the filling into the center of the pastry, and following her directions, Frodo lifted up and folded the edges up around it. The center of the tart left the filling exposed, and Dahlia took a little bit of egg and water whisked together and brushed it around the edges of the crust. Then Merry was allowed to sprinkle some sugar and cinnamon over the top. Using a wooden paddle, Dahlia slid the tart into the small oven over the embers to bake.
As it baked, Dahlia put out some biscuits and cheese and milk for the lads' elevenses, and prepared a second crust. Soon the first tart was finished and the second was ready to go in. As the second one baked, the lads were allowed to mix up some ginger biscuits. Merry enjoyed this, for he was allowed to use the three little shaped cutters by himself to cut out ginger hobbits and ginger ponies and ginger birds.
"We'll save up the tarts for tea," said Dahlia, "so's the Master and Mistress can have some, and see how fine they turned out! And you can take some of the ginger biscuits with you for a nibble when you play this afternoon!"
When the baking was finally done, they were sent down to take lunch among the other children. Frodo had the small sack of ginger biscuits in his pocket, and when he and Merry had eaten their fill of the hearty meal placed before them, they went off to explore the lower levels of the Hall. They had made themselves a "hidey-hole" in one of the mathom rooms down there, that Frodo called their "den", and they spent a few hours playing there, until their stomachs warned them it was almost time for tea.
Saradoc and Esmeralda were most impressed by the lovely tarts, which Sara proclaimed to be delicious. "I hear that we are celebrating a special achievement this afternoon!" said Sara.
"Yes, Uncle Sara," said Frodo proudly, for he was Merry's teacher. "Yesterday Merry read a whole story all by himself."
"Did you now, my lad?" Sara scooped Merry up onto his lap and squeezing him tightly. "Was it a good story? Could you read it again?"
Merry nodded in excitement. "Yes, Da! I'll go get my book!"
He scrambled down and raced to his room and was back in a flash with his storybook. The book was one that Frodo himself had written and illustrated as a birthday gift to his little cousin. Back in his father's lap, he opened it up: "Once there were best cousins, and their names were Merry and Frodo, and they lived in a lovely great hole with Merry’s mum and da. One day Merry and Frodo went for a walk and had a great adventure…”
Pastry for 2 nine-inch tarts
5 large pears, peeled and thinly sliced
Juice of ½ a lemon
¾ cup brown sugar
2 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, diced
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1 egg beaten with 1 teaspoon water to make an eggwash
1 teaspoon each of cinnamon and sugar.
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper, and place one crust in the center. Set aside.
In a large bowl place pears, lemon juice, brown sugar, butter, cinnamon and cornstarch and mix thoroughly until combined. (Mixing with your hands is recommended to get all the pieces fully coated.) Put half the mixture into the center of the piecrust, and then fold the edges of the pastry towards the center, pleating as you go. Mixture will not be completely covered. Brush the eggwash onto the pastry, then sprinkle the entire thing with some of the cinnamon and sugar.
Bake for 25-30 minutes, or until brown and bubbly in the center. Repeat for the second tart.
(Author's Notes on the recipe: This is not an original recipe, but is adapted from a small recipe booklet put out by the retailer for whom I work. The changes are: I discovered that the recipe made far more filling than was needed for one tart (which is what the recipe called for). I was using Bartlett pears, which are rather large. You might get less using a smaller variety. It was in fact, twice as much as I needed, so I increased the yield to two tarts. Also, I decided to sprinkle it with cinnamon sugar. The original recipe also called for it to be drizzled with caramel topping after baking, which is delicious, but not something I thought they'd have in the Shire! Still, it does make a yummy addition.
It's wonderful served with ice cream!)