Marlene Monroe had the date circled on the calendar that hung in her kitchen. Who even kept calendars like this anymore? She often discovered she’d have one event entered on her iPhone calendar that did not appear on the kitchen calendar, and vice versa. It wasn’t easy—adjusting to all this new stuff when one was inching her way toward retirement age.
But there it was, November 2, circled with a red marker. The library staff had decided a few years ago to hold a potluck lunch four times a year, on the first Mondays of February, April, August and November, to promote camaraderie among the staff. Everybody participated—librarians, custodians, pages, even the administrative staff. Elliott Samuels, the Bookmobile guy, brought a very good cole slaw that Marlene suspected he bought at the deli counter at the Hy-Vee, but she wasn’t going to question its provenance.
She had secretly wondered about Janet Corcoran’s “Hummingbird Cake.” It was a spectacular cake—one that looked beautiful and tasted even better than it looked. Then last time, because so many people asked about it, Janet gave the recipe to Pauline Fagen to publish in the employee newsletter. Okay, so she didn’t buy it at Forsberg’s Bakery—or any other bakery. She made it herself.
Couldn’t be too difficult then, if an ordinary Circulation Desk person could pull it off. Marlene decided she would come up with her own show-stopper dessert for the next potluck. A cake somehow more spectacular than Janet Corcoran’s Hummingbird Cake. While business was slow in the Children’s Department, she Googled “favorite cakes” and came up with the perfect recipe—a Chocolate Biscuit Cake that was said to be Queen Elizabeth’s favorite cake. Marlene would make a cake fit for a Queen for November’s potluck.
Marlene was glad she discovered the recipe a few weeks ahead of time. A couple of the ingredients were not to be found at a local grocery store. One 14-ounce package digestive biscuits, such as McVitie’s. Good grief! Where was she going to get Brit cookies? But then, the ever-present world of Amazon came to the rescue. Marlene didn’t like to use Amazon—she considered them one of the library’s most ominous competitors—but it wouldn’t hurt, just this once. Amazon would deliver the biscuits in no time. Amazon also made available Lyle’s Golden Syrup, of which Marlene would need one-third cup. She couldn’t imagine what she was going to do with whatever was left in the tin after she finished making the cake. But, perhaps her dessert would be so good her co-workers would request it for every potluck, just like Janet Corcoran was implored to make her Hummingbird Cake.
An equally important reason to be glad she thoroughly read the recipe ahead of time was to know that—midway through the cake-making—there was a step that said refrigerate until set, at least 6 hours or overnight. She wouldn’t want to discover that on the day of the potluck!
Marlene was congratulating herself on her foresight when she realized this refrigeration step was only about halfway through the entire procedure. She was going to have to get up at the crack of dawn that Monday morning in order to accomplish the second half of the recipe and have her Chocolate Biscuit Cake ready to take to work with her when she left the house at 8:15.
Another thing about this cake was you didn’t actually bake it at all. The only reason you turned on the oven was to toast the hazelnuts. Kind of strange, Megan thought. But nevertheless, she persisted. It was the Queen’s favorite cake, after all.
Right after 60 Minutes was over on Sunday night, Marlene set the TV to record her usual Sunday night PBS shows and turned the thing off and headed to her kitchen.
The first step was to toast the hazelnuts, which she figured she could do while she looked for her springform pan. Marlene remembered she had purchased one a few years ago, although she had to admit she couldn’t remember what she had made that required such a pan. Neither could she remember where she stored it. She got out her little step-stool and poked around in the upper reaches of the corner cupboard where she kept mixing bowls and measuring cups and the like. Nope. She was down on her hands and knees in front of a lower cupboard, looking through pie tins and round cake pans and square pans, and muffin tins, when the acrid aroma of over-toasted nuts reached her.
Crikey! Marlene pushed herself up and yanked open the oven door. She pulled out the cookie sheet only to behold dark brown lumps rolling around in bitter reprimand. The Chocolate Biscuit Cake wasn’t off to a very good start. Thankfully, there were enough hazelnuts in the package to begin again with a new half-cup. This time she remembered to set the timer for the recommended ten minutes. And turned on the fan to try to get rid of the telltale smell of burned hazelnuts.
Turning on the fan brought her eyes up to the panel at the top of the oven, and then she was reminded that she kept odd baking pans and utensils in a smallish cupboard above the oven. Up on the footstool again, she was delighted to immediately find the springform pan. Taped into the pan was a recipe for Raspberry-Topped Cheesecake. Aha! Now she remembered—she had made that special cheesecake one of the last times they hosted Book Group at their house. But that was before Fred had his stroke. So—three years ago, at least. Her husband had lingered for nearly a year after that. He was so incapacitated; they both would have been better off if he’d been taken immediately.
Ding! The timer went off and Marlene nearly fell off her stepstool. While the hazelnuts cooled, she lined the springform pan with parchment paper. The recipe said to butter the pan, but her experience was that parchment paper was simpler and made it easier to get the cake out unscathed. Besides, the recipe was probably pretty old—before the now common use of parchment paper—if it was the Queen’s Favorite Cake. How old was Queen Elizabeth, anyway? And she just wasn’t going to let go of her throne, was she? But then, Marlene couldn’t really blame her—look at the men lined up after her, for goodness sake.
This time the hazelnuts were perfectly toasted, but the little devils were still wrapped in their darker whispery coats which turned out to be unhappy about being parted from the nuts. She rubbed and rubbed and ended up with pieces of hazelnut papery peel everywhere on the kitchen counter. And then she had to chop them. Another mess—bits of nuts flying all over the place.
Good Lord! Was this gonna be worth it? Marlene conjured up an image of Janet Corcoran with her mouth agape as Marlene set her Chocolate Biscuit Cake on the dessert table—and decided that yes, it was. Worth the effort.
The recipe said the digestive biscuits were to be broken into half-inch pieces and then tossed with the toasted & chopped hazelnuts in a large bowl. Easy enough. Back up on the stepstool to get that big mixing bowl out of the upper cupboard. Marlene wished she were taller. In fact, she had wished to be taller most of her life, except in sixth grade when she was taller than many of the boys in her class. But then she stopped growing and they just kept on.
Now, all she did was grow outward. Umph, the bowl was heavier than she remembered and again she nearly fell backward with the weight of it. She could envision falling and cracking her head open, lying unconscious on the kitchen floor until someone came looking for her the next day. Who would do that? Certainly not Janet Corcoran. But maybe that nice Clarissa Fenton who had called 9-1-1 about a regular Reference Desk caller she hadn’t heard from and ended up saving the woman’s life.
Where was her phone? She should have it nearby in case something did happen.
Marlene found her phone on the end table beside the living room sofa and put it in her apron pocket.
Okay, where was she?
Combine the butter, golden syrup and salt in a medium saucepan. She really should have got all the bowls and pans out before she even started this thing. But the saucepan was easy enough to locate and she was soon stirring the butter and syrup. Do not boil. Then she was supposed to add the 6 ounces semisweet chocolate, chopped. Marlene congratulated herself on figuring she could use chocolate chips and eliminate the chopping. But what the recipe writer considered a “medium” saucepan was a little bigger than Marlene’s definition. She was stirring the chips in, with not a lot of room to spare, and still had to add cocoa powder, vanilla and a third of a cup of Nutella. Whisk, it said. Marlene wasn’t about to try to whisk with the pan already full to capacity. She just stirred as vigorously as practical.
Following the directions, she then stirred that chocolate mixture into the bowl with the cookie pieces and chopped nuts. Transfer to the prepared pan and press down evenly until tightly packed. This step made for some lovely tasting fingertips. Then, fight with the Saran wrap to cut off enough to cover the “cake” in the pan, right on the cake itself, not just over the top of the pan. And refrigerate until set. Yea!
Marlene glanced at the clock. 8:30! The recipe said the total active prep time was forty minutes; she’d already spent an hour and a half and wasn’t even half done. Because when she got up in the morning—really early—she’d have to make the frosting (they called it ganache) and besides that, the recipe said to let it sit at room temperature until thickened but still pourable—30 minutes to an hour.
Criminy, so even earlier than she had imagined.
Marlene fell into bed with her phone on the nightstand and the alarm set for six o’clock. She’d take her shower in the morning while waiting for the “ganache” to thicken. Good grief, she was exhausted. But at least the place smelled heavenly—toasted nuts and chocolate. This was indeed going to be a stunner of a dessert. She pictured the entire staff oohing and aahing as she placed the Queen’s Chocolate Biscuit Cake on the table. It’d be worth all the hassle.
In the morning, Marlene was still in her pajamas as she ventured back into the kitchen. Fortunately, she was awake enough to realize she should take the cake out of the fridge while she was making the frosting. Why didn’t the directions tell you that? Instead it gave you the directions for making the frosting—excuse me, ganache—and said to let it sit at room temperature, and then said to remove the cake from the fridge and let it sit at room temperature for 45 minutes.
In any event, while everything was coming to room temperature, Marlene showered. She decided on wearing the pretty rose-colored blouse with her grey skirt—colors she thought the Queen Mother would approve of.
Fully-aproned, Marlene inverted the cake on her prettiest plate and proceeded to frost it. As she checked the directions, she realized she had overlooked the final ingredient—mini chocolate chips, for decorating. But, as she stood back and admired her handiwork, she figured no one would ever miss the little chips. Indeed, she could understand why this was the Queen’s favorite.
Marlene was thankful she had a regular cake-carrier purchased some years ago when the family often gathered for reunion picnics. After Aunt Alice died, nobody organized them anymore. Sad. But still, she had a good cake carrier—opaque enough that no one could guess what was inside. She had to move a few things around in the lunchroom fridge, but made space for her fabulous cake. She looked around the lunchroom, but didn’t see another cake carrier. Perhaps Janet Corcoran wasn’t here yet.
Marlene bided her time getting to the potluck, strolling in a few minutes after 12. She wanted as many staff as possible to be there when she took her Queen’s Cake out of the fridge. She saw that Janet Corcoran was still not there—was she not even going to show up at all? That would be a huge disappointment.
Marlene took her cake carrier out of the fridge and—with her back to the table and her co-workers–managed to open it without dumping the whole thing on the floor. She then slowly turned and without too much of a flourish, placed the Queen’s Favorite Chocolate Biscuit Cake on the table. Happily, there were the expected oohs and aahs. It was too bad Janet was not here to see and hear them.
Just as the bit of a hubbub died down, Janet Corcoran made her entrance. She carried a large glass plate and set it on the table. Then opened the fridge, and its crisper drawer, and set about arranging VEGGIES—carrot sticks, radishes, cucumber slices, celery and such—on the plate. Marlene stood there, gaping.
Janet smiled. “I just think it’s time we all started eating healthier,” she said. “Don’t you?” she asked looking directly at Marlene, who moved behind Clarissa in an attempt to be less conspicuous to have fewer of her extra pounds on display.
That night as Marlene sat watching “Call the Midwife,” she comforted herself with a nice wedge of Chocolate Biscuit Cake. She wasn’t going to let Janet Corcoran run her life, thank you very much.
Mary Ann Presman’s first job was as a library page (shelving books); she went on from there to become an advertising copywriter, radio disk jockey, and TV weatherperson. Her collection, “The Good Dishes,” was published in March 2019, and includes “A Not-So-Fond Farewell,” which was first published by TheRavensPerch.