Apple tarte tatin with a difference.
“How did you summon me, mortal?!” The demon’s voice rattled the crockery and cracked the tiles, but its slitted goat-eyes showed white around the edges and its long ears were pressed flat into its flowing crimson mane.
“I don’t know!” Amanda bellowed back from behind the relative safety of the kitchen island bench, clutching her grandpapa’s recipe book to her chest. Eyes screwed shut, as if it might go away if she didn’t look at it, she pulled her knees closer to her chest. “You were supposed to be a pie!”
On second thoughts, conversing with it probably wasn’t going to help it vanish, if she was imagining it. There was a musky, cloying smell starting to seep through the kitchen, underlying the smell of cookies and dough, which she didn’t think she could possibly have imagined herself. It smelled somehow animal. Feral. The innumerable bookmarks, post-it notes and scraps of paper poking from the pages of the recipe book shook as if in a wind.
“A pie?! You’re joshing me!” One of Amanda’s eyes cracked open as a frown creased her face. Slowly, in case it was some sort of word-baited trap, she turned and inched her head just high enough that she could peer over the top of the counter. The demon’s tail swished erratically from side-to-side, the flame-coloured tuft at the end moving so fast it appeared to be a tiny star flickering in her kitchen. Amanda raised a quizzical eyebrow.
It tried to take a step backwards, but its cloven feet clattered against the porcelain of her best pie dish and went no further, so the demon scowled at her instead.
“I-I mean, you dare to mock me, puny mortal?!” Its voice reverberated through the room, picking up sinister echoes from the metal pots and pans and making her bread dough collapse.
“Oi! You’ve ruined my bread!” Slamming the recipe book down on the table, Amanda rushed over to her stricken dough. It was a new recipe, and she’d been perfecting it for days. An ultra-slow rise with a rare kind of yeast, and now it was a sticky, flat pile of carbohydrates and sugar. She prodded it gingerly with a finger. Maybe it would rise again? The yeast was probably still alive, after all…
But first she needed to deal with the eleph— the demon in the room.
“Do you have any idea about— do you mind?” The slitted eyes of the demon met hers and it slowly lowered the choc-walnut cookie back onto the plate, patting it carefully as if to say ‘see, it’s there, it’s safe’. The same could not be said for the rest of the cookies, most of which were now crumbs in the demon’s mane and around its wolfish maw. “Do you know how I can unsummon you?”
“It’s normally built in to the end of the ritual. To try and stop me eating pathetic morsels like you.”
“I doubt you’d be able to fit me in after scarfing all those cookies.”
The demon licked its lips. “They were very good. Ahem—I mean, I might consider sparing your life after such tribute. It was… adequately acceptable.”
“I’m sure it was,” Amanda muttered as she snatched the plate and its three remaining cookies off the counter and out of reach of the demon’s enormous taloned paws. Sighing, she pushed a lock of mousy hair out of her eyes and turned to face her uninvited houseguest. “So, I guess I’m making another pie. I swear if this one also summons a demon I’m turning you into a pasty.”
“Into what?” She ignored the horrified look the demon sent her and thrust the recipe book into its hands. Despite the wicked claws on the ends of its fingers, it handled it surprisingly gently and barely even nicked the thick leather cover. Nothing that would be noticeable amongst the burns, coffee stains and smears of jam already adorning the cover, at least.
“It’s on page 138. If you read it out loud as I’m going, we’ll get this done faster.” Amanda began grabbing the ingredients; she mostly knew the recipe by heart, it was a fairly simple apple tarte tatine with a few extra flourishes, but at least it would distract the demon while she worked. And she still had enough shortcrust pastry left over, so she wouldn’t need to make any from scratch, which would make this even faster. She turned back and nearly dropped the bag of sugar at the sight of the towering demon, its head brushing her ceiling, peering at the recipe book with a pair of pince nez perched on its nose. A barely stifled snort of laughter caught in her throat and she turned it into a coughing fit as she turned the stove on.
Between the instructions, the demon flicked through the pages of the recipe book and eyed the remaining cookies hungrily. To stop its attempts to inch closer to the chocolate-y snacks, which were foiled by the fact that it couldn’t leave the confines of the pie dish but which nonetheless didn’t stop it from trying, Amanda asked it to grease the other pie dish with butter while she cut the apples and mixed the spices.
“Done!” the demon squealed, presenting her with a thoroughly buttered dish in hands which were, if possible, even more buttered than the porcelain. The grease extended all the way up it its elbows, and her brand-new block of butter was no more than a few greasy scraps of paper. Amanda mentally added ‘butter’ to her shopping list.
“Thank you. Uh, could you also…” she cast around frantically for something else to keep it occupied and out of her hair. Her eyes settled on the pastry which still needed to be rolled and cut.
Amanda looked back at the pie dish and its half-a-centimetre of butter.
“Could you please keep an e—watch the apples while they’re caramelising?” Idioms, she decided, were probably a bad idea. She did not want to accidentally make an eye tarte tatine.
“Um…” The demon shifted its weight from one foot to the other. “I can’t move from here. I can’t see the apples from here.”
Considering the situation, Amanda edged closer to the demon. This close she could see that its dark fur reflected the light in shimmering waves of vermillion and cerise when the light hit it, giving a strange kind of volume to what appeared to be plain black fur from a distance. She nudged the pie dish experimentally with her foot, expecting it to be far too heavy to move but buying her time to think about her next distraction, but it slid easily away from her as if it was empty. The clattering sound of it sliding against the tiles made her wince, but she successfully manoeuvred the demon into proximity of the stove and left it to watch the apples.
She was vaguely aware that there was a saying or something to the effect of ‘who watches the watcher?’ but Amanda was fairly certain that never before had it been applied to a more absurd situation. As the dough flattened out beneath her rolling pin, she watched the demon bend over the large frying pan containing the gently caramelising apples. The animal head, ears twitching and turning to take in every sound, gradually lowered, eyes fixed intently on the hapless fruit stewing in their own juices. Resting its head on the benchtop, the demon turned its head this way and that so that it looked at the apples with one eye and then the other. Its nose twitched. A clawed paw came up and it prodded an apple tentatively, before shooting a wide-eyed look at her. Noticing her gaze, the demon coughed and lowered its hand.
Amanda resisted the urge to lay her face on the benchtop and sigh. For one thing, it would leave a weird imprint in the dough.
The apples remained blessedly unskewered and the dough was perfectly rolled and cut. The demon obligingly helped her lay the pastry over the apples, getting smears of flour on its paws and subsequently over an incomprehensibly large proportion of its body. Amanda told herself it must have gotten into the flour during a momentary lapse of attention.
As the tarte tatin crisped in the oven, the smells of cinnamon and caramelised apples wafting enticingly from the warmth, Amanda sighed and leaned against the wall. She brushed at a smudge of flour on her apron as she watched the demon crane its neck to observe the flour covering its mane and tail. Had it sat on the flour bag?
A slice of apple slid down its fur, leaving a sticky trail behind it.
Amanda eyed the oven timer. Only a few more minutes to go, and then she would be free of this nuisance. Hopefully.
“This was fun. Thank you.”
She stared at the demon, her mouth gaping open like a dying fish.
“…What?” she eventually managed a strangled question, her brain still trying to figure out exactly what was going on.
“It’s still polite to thank people who do something nice for you, isn’t it?” The demon was resolutely looking everywhere but at her. Its floured paws twisted as it wrung them together. “I don’t get summoned a lot. Well, ever. So this was nice. Hence the thanking.”
“Uh, no problem?”
“Really? Well, um, would you mind maybe summoning me again sometime? I could help you again!”
Before Amanda could formulate even the most basic response, the oven timer rang, shattering the awkward silence. And then there was just her in the kitchen, plus an apple tarte tatin and her best pie dish sitting in the middle of the floor. She understood why her mother had never used it now.
As she picked it up carefully, examining the faint marks scratched into the glaze. She had thought they were just age cracks, but maybe… maybe they were supposed to be there. Setting it gently on the washboard with all the other dirty dishes, she wondered if she would ever use it again.