The Queen's Birthday Cake
"A-choo! A-choo! A-a-a-choo!"
Everyone in the castle's kitchens froze. All eyes turned to the Head Cook in astonishment. She continued sneezing violently and glared balefully at them.
"What are you – a-choo! – staring at? A-choo! Get back to – a-choo! – work!" she said in what she meant to be a commanding tone but sounded more like a sniffle.
"Begging your pardon, ma'am," said one of the pastry chefs uncertainly, "but are you ill?"
"Of course I'm not ill!" the cook growled, and promptly sneezed again. "I can't be ill! It's the Queen's birthday tomorrow, and the cake isn't ready! Now get back to work!"
The kitchen staff obliged, though they continued to give her dubious glances.
The Head Cook prided herself on making the Queen's birthday cake herself. It was a very special cake. It wasn't a chocolate cake, or a carrot cake, or even a traditional birthday cake. It was a mixture of all those cakes and more, and the Head Cook was the only one who knew the recipe for it. She had made it since the Queen was a young Princess driving her parents mad with her constant demands for "more cake!" or "no vegetables!", and she did so now that the Queen was married with children of her own, who irritated her as much as she had irritated her parents. A trifling matter like an inability to stop sneezing or a sore throat would not stop the Head Cook making the cake this year as well. For one thing, she didn't want to hear what the little Princes and Princesses would say if they didn't get their slices of it.
Every few minutes – or seconds – she had to stop working and turn away until she stopped sneezing. Her sore throat became more and more painful. A pounding, throbbing ache took up residence in her head. She stubbornly continued mixing the eggs in with the flour. The cake had to be ready – the cake had to be ready –
The kitchen staff gaped in horror as the Head Cook fainted. At last one of the serving girls recovered enough to take action.
"Why are we all standing around? Do something! Call a doctor! Get her some water! Don't just stand there with your mouths open!"
The staff snapped out of their shock-induced daze. One of the serving boys went in search of a doctor. Several of the cooks carried the still-unconscious Head Cook out of the kitchens and into one of the sitting rooms set aside for the kitchen staff, where they set her down on the sofa. Another serving boy, eager to help but with no idea of what to do, fetched a glass of water and threw it over her before anyone could stop him.
The Head Cook regained consciousness with a high-pitched yelp.
"What in Heaven's name are you doing?" she bellowed, fixing the luckless serving boy with a look that would curdle cream.
"Wanted to help," the boy stammered.
"So you decided to drown me?!"
"Now, now," one of the housekeepers interrupted in a soothing tone, "the child was only trying to help. You just lie down here and wait for the doctor to come. He'll soon see what's wrong with you."
"I don't need a doctor!" the Head Cook protested. "I'm not sick!"
She promptly contradicted her own claim with a loud "a-CHOO!"
The doctor arrived soon after. He "hmm"ed and "ha"ed a great deal. The kitchen staff wrung their hands and looked worried, while the Head Cook growled and grumbled about the time being wasted.
"It's undoubtedly a bad cold, made worse by stress and over-working," the doctor pronounced. "Go home, have a good rest, and do absolutely no work at all, and you should be right as rain in a few days. I'm very much afraid you might have passed it on to everyone around you, though."
The Head Cook winced. "If I'd known it was infectious I'd have made the cake at home."
"No making cakes for you until you're better!" the doctor said sternly.
"So you say, but– "
"That. Is. Final."
"I don't think you understand–"
The doctor pinned her with a disapproving look that made her feel like a toddler throwing a tantrum.
The Head Cook waited only until the doctor had left before exploding. "How dare he treat me like a child? Doesn't he know how important this is? I have to make that cake!"
Some of the kitchen staff privately thought that the Head Cook was making a mountain out of a molehill. No cake, no matter who it was for, was worth this much bother.
"Write instructions for the rest of us to follow," said a serving girl with more sense than the others. "Then we can still say you made the cake."
"You'll all make a mess of things, I just know you will," the Head Cook moaned. "You'll confuse baking powder with baking soda, or put the wrong filling in it, or bake it too long, or not bake it long enough. Even if I wrote a recipe you'd do something wrong. And what will the Queen say?"
"We'll explain everything to the Queen," the serving girl hastened to reassure her. "If worst comes to worst, we can order a cake from the best baker we can find."
The Head Cook had reluctantly gone home after – for the first time in her life – writing down the recipe for her famous cake, and the kitchen staff were left with a dilemma. They had so little time. How did they make a cake up to the Head Cook's standards? Especially when they had never made the cake before and would have no time for practice attempts, or retries if something went wrong?
"Well?" barked one of the cooks, when it became apparent no one was going to make the first move. "Are we going to stand here staring at each other until tomorrow? Let's get to work! What's the first item on the recipe? 'Five carrots, grated thinly.' Go and fetch the carrots, will you?" This was addressed to a serving boy hovering around nervously. "'8 oz. each raspberries, strawberries and cherries.' Someone go and fetch those."
Within minutes the preparations for the cake were underway. One person fetched a mixing bowl, another found the required sort of flour, and yet another carefully retrieved a number of eggs from the fridge – a task that was easier said than done, considering how many people were rushing to and fro in the kitchen.
The cook who had started giving orders was in charge of the operation, if only because no one wanted the confusion and disorder that would result from an attempt to take over. She mixed flour, eggs and oil, added water, and yelled instructions with a will. The kitchen staff hurried hither and thither, and if some of them occasionally grumbled to themselves about dictatorial cooks, they took care to keep their voices down.
Finally, the cake was in the oven, and everyone heaved a sigh of relief.
"That's one crisis averted," a serving girl said thankfully. "Try not to let it burn, and this birthday might not be a disaster after all."
The next day dawned. The Queen's birthday party commenced. And in the middle of the table, in its usual place, was the Head Cook's famous cake.
And if this year it wasn't truly the Head Cook's cake, well, no one but the kitchen staff were any the wiser.