Sunday, December 16, 2012

Canadian Christmas Tart

The oven timer dinged.
            In an almost pavlovian response, Carmen jumped up from her seat. She placed her tiny hands in the large oven mitts, reached for the oven door, then paused.
            She had made lemon hazelnut tarts dozens of times with her grandmother, but this one was special. It was the first she had made completely on her own. The sense of responsibility was almost overwhelming, the weight of tradition crushing her young mind like walnuts in a nutcracker. Had she folded the eggs properly? Did she butter the pan sufficiently? Were the peaks of the meringue stiff enough?
            “The meringue!” she yelled to the empty room. Her grandmother had told her countless times how important timing was in baking. It was almost an hour until midnight, and if the tart wasn’t successful there wouldn’t be enough time to bake another.
            She opened the oven door, reached in with the over-sized mitts, and pulled out the tart. Carmen sighed in relief as she looked at the pie. The meringue had just started cracking. Her grandmother had said this was the sign of a well made tart. She giggled with glee as she set it on the counter to cool. Soon it would be placed out by the Christmas tree, a thank you for the merry gift giver.
            Her mother walked in just as she closed the oven door. She looked at the tart on the counter and beamed.
            “Très magnifique, ma fille! The viceregal consort would be proud.”
            A large smile filled Carmen’s face, then quickly faded.
            “Thank you, mama. But it is not the same, not without Mémé.” She dropped her head so her mother wouldn’t see the budding tear drops.
            She was surprised to find a pair of arms lovingly embracing her. A product of the Institut Villa Pierrefeu, her mother was the epitome of virtue, elegance, and sadly, emotional aloofness.
            “Let it out, ma fille, let it out.” Carmen felt her mother’s gentle hand caress her hair as she softly hummed Gloria, her grandmother’s favorite carol. This last gesture broke Carmen’s resolve, small streams running down her face.
            As she finished the song, her mother held up a handkerchief. As Carmen wiped her face, her mother spoke again.
            “Did you know that your grandmémé started the tradition of this tart?”
Carmen nodded.
            “When I asked her why we couldn’t have bûche de Noël or tourte à la viande like the other children, do you know what she said?”
            “No one was ever special by being just like everyone else.”
            “You were listening to her tales? Then know that she treasured you very dearly. You are the only one who can carry on this tradition.”
            “But why can’t you, mama?”
            “Have you ever seen me making food myself?”
            Carmen thought hard. Louis was the chef her parents had hired last year, but before that it had always been her grandmother doing the cooking and baking.
            “But didn’t she teach you?”
            “Oh she tried, ma fille, she tried.” Her mother started chuckling. “After the fourth time of the oven catching fire, we talked, and decided the kitchen was not a place I belonged in.”
            Carmen started giggling at the thought of her austere mother setting a confection aflame.
            “When she first took up residence with us, shortly after you were born, she insisted on doing all of the cooking and baking. She said she had to make up for the time she spent as the Châtelaine of Rideau Hall.” Her mother held her hands while smiling at her softly. “Enough of the past. There is still the réveillon to finish here in the present. When we are done, the tart will be cooled, and we can then leave it out for Père Noël.”
            Carmen smiled and nodded silently. She glanced back at the tart as she followed her mother out of the kitchen. She was the only one, she thought to herself, and smiled.

            With a heavy sigh, Carmen trod her way into the kitchen, letting the door swing freely closed behind her. The réveillon had all but exhausted her. Had she taken another bite, she was afraid her corset would have burst. The only food she cared about now was one she had no plans of eating immediately.
            She walked over and placed her slender hands on both sides of the now cooled tart. Deftly she removed it from the tart pan and placed it upon a silver serving dish. The crust was a perfect shade of gold while the meringue had a warm tinting of hazel, just like the delicious nuts that were baked inside. Mémé would have been proud indeed.
            “I almost forgot!” Carmen exclaimed in shock.
            She went over to an old, faded chartreuse cupboard and slid open the lowest drawer. She pulled forth a single small mug and small porcelain plate. Closing the drawer, she practically skipped back to the tart. She gazed at the former mason jar turned mug. A small glass handle was affixed by the same nameless craftsman who had etched the snowflake patterns on it, or so her grandmémé had told her. The plate had a single green ring painted crudely along the edge with an equally crude lone sprig of holly was painted slightly off center. Her grandmémé had told Carmen that she had bought both items many years ago, when she herself was a young girl. Regardless of their actual worth, to Carmen they were priceless heirlooms.
            She picked up a large chef’s knife and small silver pie server. She ‘blessed’ the cake quickly, as her grandmémé had taught her, then ever so delicately made the first slice into the fresh tart. It wasn’t until she slid the knife free and exhaled that Carmen realized she had been holding her breath. She could feel her pulse quicken with anticipation. Carefully she made the second cut, the knife seeming to stick briefly as if it had caught something, only to cleave the crust cleanly an instant later.
            Sudden fear began to rise up.
            Was the crust overcooked? Was the knife some how dull? Would the piece come out cleanly?
            Carmen once again held her breath as she slid the server carefully under the piece. She waited for the obstacle of a burnt crust to block her progress, but it was nowhere to be found. She gulped hard as she steadied herself. With the anxious concentration of a surgeon, she slowly lifted the piece. A huge smile enveloped her face as she saw that both sides were cleanly cut.
            Carmen placed the slice on the plate, and removed the server. She then went over to the refrigerator and produced a tall carafe filled with a pale yellow liquid that smelled strongly of nutmeg. Her mother, in a rare moment of capriciousness, called it ‘virgin nog’ and claimed that their regular eggnog might result in a slightly inebriated Santa, and that could have dire consequences such as falling off a roof or crashing his sleigh. While she didn’t want any part of a Christmas catastrophe, Carmen couldn’t help but giggle at the thought of an intoxicated gift bringer stumbling out of a fireplace.
            After filling the mug, she went to the fridge to return the carafe. As she stood in front of the open icebox door, she once again smelled the sweet aroma inside the carafe.
            Glancing around quickly, a devilish grin crossed her face.
            One little sip wouldn’t hurt, right?
            As soon as she swallowed her body felt warm, her mouth and throat assaulted by an unexpected sensation. Coughing roughly, she placed the vessel in the fridge, trying in vain to compose herself. Carmen coughed once more harshly and found her breath again.
            Who knew removing the alcohol from eggnog made it so harsh.
            She placed both plate and mug on a small silver tray and carried them out of the kitchen. The dining room was already empty, the adults having retired for the night as usual. She made her way to the sitting room where the great Christmas tree stood trimmed in silver and gold ornaments with strands of pale blue lights.
            Carmen set the tray on the end table next to the large armchair her father usually sat in. She took a step back, beaming at the small display. She wondered to herself what the reaction on Santa’s face would be when he tried her tart. She wondered if he would be able to tell the difference. Would he like it? Would he spit it out in disgust? Would she receive nothing but lumps of coal as a result? As thoughts began swirling in her head, she felt her balance start to wobble.
            She caught herself on the arm of the large chair as the spinning slowly stopped. Carmen lifted her head up, once again staring at the slice of tart and nog-filled mug on the small silver tray.
            What if she didn’t have to wait?
            A devilish grin once again filled the young girl’s face. She went over to the sofa and grabbed the throw off the back along with one of the large, ornamental pillows. She then found a spot deep in the shadows of the far side of the room. As she hunkered down, propping the pillow against her back, she covered herself with the large throw, leaving just enough of a space to view the table and the tree.
            Carmen jumped at the chime of the old grandfather clock. It was half past one and there were still no present.
            He would come soon—she was sure of it. She yawned in spite of her determination. Hopefully very soon. She was in the middle of a second yawn when another sound brought her to full alert.
            It was a faint muffled noise from the direction of the fireplace. As she was straining to see in the pale blue glow of the tree lights a sudden whump almost made her scream. Carmen watched breathlessly as a rotund, hoary man garbed in scarlet stepped out from the shadows onto the hearth, an immense satchel slung across his back.
            He made his way towards the tree, stopping in front of the end table with the small silver serving tray on it. He placed his bag on the floor and gave a hearty, familiar laugh. The jolly old elf picked up the glass mug and took a sip, then gave another hearty laugh as he set it back on the tray. He then reached for the slice of tart.
            A fork!
            Carmen knew she had forgotten something. As beads of sweat formed on her brow, she was instantly relieved. The venerable benefactor simply picked up the entire slice with his bare hand. She could feel her heart race speed up as the piece moved towards his mouth. As he bit down she felt herself swallowing reflexively.
            The eternal elf dropped the slice and grabbed his throat, the heirloom plate shattering on the floor. Immediately, he began pounding his chest, then punching his stomach. He stumbled around, seeming to lose his balance, then promptly fell over, flipping over the small silver serving tray as he fell, sending the antique mug flying across the room to shatter against the far wall.
            An intense fear mixed with realization sent a jumbled mix of emotions through Carmen’s body. She had forgotten to chop the hazelnuts, she coldly realized. When she had cut the slice it must have been one of the nuts being pushed aside that had interrupted the knife.
            She had forgotten to chop the nuts, and as a result she had just killed Santa Claus.
An eerie long silence passed before she started to move. She stood up, slowly, and made her way to where the body of the beloved figure now lay lifeless.
            Tentatively, she reached out her hand. With a single finger, she poked the old man’s belly, withdrawing it instantly. She poked a second, then third time, and still he did not respond. Tears welled up in her eyes as she dropped to her knees.
            “Why?” she screamed. She pounded her tiny fist against the broad barrel of a chest. She looked up at the ceiling. “Why?” she creaked inaudibly.
            The grandfather clock seemed to answer.
            It had all happened so fast—
            Carmen’s thoughts stopped.
            Just what time was it?
            Shouldn’t it be only two?
            What’s going on here?
            Now she knew something was amiss
            It was still dark outside.
            Was she . . .
            With the last chime, time seemed to slow down. Carmen felt her senses becoming odd and disjointed. She had the sensation of swimming. Suddenly, she was viewing the room and scene from above herself. She was paralyzed and couldn’t move. Nothing seemed right.

            The oven timer dinged.
            In an almost pavlovian response, Carmen jumped up from her seat. She was reaching for the oven mitts when she froze. Then she laughed. What a horrible, terrible dream she had just had.
            She opened the oven door, reached in with the over-sized mitts, and pulled out the tart. Carmen sighed in relief as she looked at the pie. The meringue had just started cracking. Her grandmother had said this was the sign of a well made tart. She giggled with glee as she set it on the counter to cool. She placed the oven mitts on the counter.
            “Mama, mama,” she cried out, half laughing to herself. Her mother would scold her for having such a dark dream.
            Her jovial mood was shattered as she entered the dining room. Several RCMP agents were in the room. One was speaking with her mother, who was seated at the table, sobbing profusely.
            “There she is!” one of the officers shouted. Instantly she was surrounded, her hands placed behind her back. The officers placed handcuffs on her wrists as they lead her out of the dining room.
            “Mama!” Carmen yelled. Her face was covered in tears.
            “Vous êtes mort pour moi! I have no daughter.” With that she spat on the young girl.             “Remove her from my sight.”
            “Mama!” she cried again, but her plea went ignored.
            Wordlessly the police led her through the house, past the sitting room.
            As she walked past she looked up to see more police and photographers surrounding the body.
            The grandfather clock seemed to reply.
            This was all too horrible.
            This was all too cruel.
            If only Mémé were still here, none of this would have happened.
            They were at the front door.
The police officer opened it.
            There, standing outside, was not more police officers. It was not a media circus. There simply stood a small, yet regal bearing old lady. She smiled softly at Carmen.
            “Mémé!” Carmen exclaimed.
            “What are you doing? Why are you not enjoying the morning?”
            Confused, Carmen blinked wordlessly at the matron.
            “Do you really believe this is happening?”
            With the last question, a familiar sensation returned to Carmen. Once again, her senses became disjointed. Once again, she had the sensation of swimming. As her whole world started to darken she looked at the old woman again.
            “Joyeux Noël,” Carmen heard faintly.
            Carmen sat up with a start. She was in the sitting room. She looked over to see the front of the tree filled with presents. Gone were the shattered heirlooms, gone was the overturned serving tray, gone was the tragic scene she had so vividly experienced.
            Carmen walked over to the now empty plate and mug. All that remained was a small folded piece of paper on the plate, her name written upon it in an exquisite golden script.
            Thank you, it read, your Mémé would be proud.
            Carmen collapsed into the large armchair, tears of joy running down her face.           


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