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Bittersweetby Sarah Ockler
Damsels in Distress
Dark chocolate cupcakes with red peppermint mascarpone icing, edged with chocolate and crushed candy canes
In three years of baking for Hurley's Homestyle Diner in Watonka, New York, I've never met a problem a proper cupcake couldn't fix. And while I haven't quite perfected the recipe to fix my father, I'm totally on the verge.
"Taste this." I pass a warm cupcake across the prep counter to Dani and lick a gob of cherry-vanilla icing from my thumb. "I think it's the one."
My best friend sighs. "That's what you said about the blueberry lemon batch. And the white mocha ones. Have you seen this thing walkin' around behind me? It's the Great Cupcake Booty of Watonka." She turns and shakes it, a few corkscrew curls springing loose from the pile on her head.
"Last one. I promise."
"Nice breakfast. You're lucky I ... mmmph ... oh my God!" Her copper-brown eyes widen as she wolfs down a big bite.
"I used half the sugar this time and buttercream instead of cream cheese. Doesn't compete with the cherry as much."
"Whatever you did, it's delish." She wipes her hands on an apron and goes back to prepping for our open, topping off small glass pitchers of maple syrup. I love baking at the diner on Saturday mornings, especially when Dani's on first shift. There's something peaceful about it--just the two of us here in the stainless steel kitchen, radio on low, the hiss-pop-hiss of the big coffeemakers keeping us company while the winter sky goes from black to lavender to a cool, downy gray.
I rinse the mixing bowls and set them back on the counter, rummaging through my stash for the next batch: eggs, butter, raw cane sugar, cocoa powder, heavy cream, espresso, shaved dark chocolate, a handful of this, a sliver of that, no measuring required. Every cupcake starts out a blank canvas, ingredients unattached to any shared destiny until I turn on the mixer. Now Dani stands on her toes to see into the bowl and together we watch it swirl, streaks of white and pale yellow and black, electric beaters whirring everything into a perfect brown velvet.
"You really are an artist, Cupcake Queen." Dani smiles, hefting the tray of syrups onto her shoulder and pushing through the double doors into the dining room.
Cupcake Queen. I owe the newspaper for that one. "Teen's Talent Turns Struggling Diner into Local Hot Spot: Cupcake Queen Wows Watonka with Zany Creations," by Jack Marshall, staff reporter. The article's preserved in a crooked glass frame on the wall behind the register, right next to an autographed black-and-white photo of Ani DiFranco and three one-dollar bills from Mom's first sale as the new owner. You can see it clearly if you're sitting at the front counter in the seat on the far left--the one with the torn leatherette that pokes the back of your thighs--if you lean over and squint. I don't need to squint, though. I've read it so many times I can recite it backward. Creations zany with Watonka wows queen cupcake: spot hot local into diner struggling turns talent teen's.
I never set out to wow Watonka with zany creations or join the royal court of confectioners. When I first started inventing my cupcakes, it was just something to keep me and Bug--that's what I call Max--from going nuts after Dad moved to Nevada. Whenever we'd start to miss him, I'd lure Bug into the kitchen, and together we'd dig through the pantry for stuff to bake into funny little desserts with made-up names and frosting faces. We'd bring the best ones to the diner for Mom to share with the waitresses and Trick, her cook. Soon the regulars at the counter were sampling them, wanting to know when they'd be on the menu, when they could order a few dozen for their next bridge club party. Somewhere between my first batch of custom Bug-in-the-Mud Cakes and now, somewhere between leaving competitive skating and looking for a place to hide out, somewhere between Dad's departure and Mom finding the strength to get out of bed again, baking cupcakes became a part of me--both a saving grace and a real, moneymaking job.
Staff reporter Jack Marshall didn't ask about any of that stuff, though.
My gaze drifts out the window to the snow falling beneath the lights in the back lot. It's so gray and nondescript outside that I could be anywhere, anytime, and for a second the blankness is so complete that I lose track of the hour and forget where I am. Everything is flip-flopped, like the opposite of déj
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