5. The Beauty From The First Class And Her Dessert Set
Dear passengers, thank you for traveling with us. This is the last stop for this train. Please present your tickets at the ticket gate. This train will depart back to Woodford immediately after some routine maintenance. Please take care to not leave any baggage behind.
Also, if there are any customers who want to order anything not on the standard menu of the Coffee Shop 「Swallow」, please make a reservation in advance.
On a certain afternoon…
「Huh? Make… a reservation?」
The Station Master, a man sporting a white mustache and always wearing a double-breasted suit with a stand-up collar and gold buttons, made a request that left Takumi confused. Sensing that, he placed his uniform cap on the table next to a cup of cinnamon coffee he was currently enjoying, and proceeded to explain in a gentle voice.
「Well, it’s a request from a passenger, you see. Apparently, they heard about your coffee shop and expressed interest in visiting this place at least once. That person made plans to come here in three days on the second train. I’ll be here as well, so can you please make a reservation for two people?」
「Certainly, but if they’re arriving on the second train, I’m afraid it’ll be too late for lunch… Since I can’t offer the usual lunch menu for them, so would it be better if I made something else?」
「Actually, they already chose their meal. Having realized that the lunch would be over by then, so they are fine with having a light snack instead. They said that food like tacos and chips is boring, however, and they wanted something they’d never eaten before, something surprising. What do you think? Can you do it?」
Takumi crossed his arms with a groan.
「Hmm, that’s quite a tall order… Considering what I’ve been serving so far, the best I could do is change the filling of the sandwich roll. But that’d be dull as well, wouldn’t it?」
The Station Master nodded in agreement.
「In that case… Hmmm… I can’t think of anything at the moment. Sorry…」
「How ‘bout a cake set then-nya~? Nya-ah, station master, long time no see-nanonya~.」
Nyaachi suddenly jumped out from behind, surprising Takumi a little, but he hid it by scolding her and lifting her by the scruff of the neck.
「Hey, don’t sneak up and jump on people out of the blue.」
「Nyaa~. But I wanted to join you guys because it sounded fun-nya!」
She looked slightly contrite as she dangled in the air, so Takumi released his hold on her neck and asked about her suggestion.
「So, what was it that you suggested? A cake set?」
「Nyeah! Cakes-nya! Coffee shops have to serve cake-nya! I used to order cake sets from a shop I frequented-nya~!」
「Well, if you put it that way… But baking a cake requires flour…」
When he had first started this coffee shop, Takumi had considered including cakes in the menu, but there was a huge barrier preventing him from baking them in “this world”. He couldn’t get his hands on the key ingredient – wheat flour. Apparently, wheat wasn’t grown in “this world”. People here used corn flour for their staple foods, bread and tortilla. And while corn flour was not bad, unlike wheat flour, it didn’t contain gluten. That made it difficult to achieve the usual, moist, soft texture in a cake. Corn flour also had a distinct flavor of its namesake plant, which was a fine peculiarity for pastry and normal meals, but became a problem in desserts like cakes. Currently, the closest thing to a proper cake Takumi could make was “firm pancakes”.
If he could obtain flour similar to wheat flour, he could not only make cakes, but also increase the repertoire of dishes he could make… It was frustrating, and this frustration resurfaced on Takumi’s face in this moment. It didn’t escape the Station Master’s notice.
「Hmm… Can’t you do it with this flour?」
The Station Master pointed at the lunch menu. Takumi followed the finger with his eyes, but he didn’t properly process the words.
「You mean the patta (potato) in the curry? Sure, you could process it into potato starch but, unfortunately, that can’t be used for baking cakes.」
「No, no. Not that. This arroz. Isn’t it a type of grain too?」
Takumi was surprised by the Station Master’s words. Why didn’t he think of it before…? Arroz was a white, long, slender grain found in golden husks that were sown in spring and harvested in autumn – basically, rice. In “this world”, after harvesting and drying them, they removed the husks and boiled the white grains in water or soup. He even routinely used it in 「Swallow」for his rice meals in the “Lunch Set A”.
Grinding it into powder created rice flour, and Takumi was sure it could be used similarly to wheat flour. Rice didn’t contain gluten either, so it’d be hard to make noodles or bread, but he didn’t see any problems making cakes, which usually used low-gluten flour varieties anyway. Therefore, the barrier of “not having proper flour for a cake” was gone… The frustrating jigsaw was beginning to come together within Takumi’s mind.
「Thank you so much! I’m happy to finally be able to come up with something! Can you leave everything to us?」
Seeing Takumi finally smiling again, the Station Master nodded in satisfaction.
「Certainly. I’ll be looking forward to the result.」
「Nyaachi will help a lot too-nya~! I’ll eat a loooot of cake-nya~!」
「Can you even call that helping? Well… I’ll count on you to help me taste-test them, at least.」
He patted Nyaachi’s head as he said that. After all, if he could make cakes that satisfied Nyaachi, he was sure the customers would be happy too… Takumi’s confidence in Nyaachi’s tongue was absolute.
◇ ◇ ◇
From that night on, Takumi started to work on a prototype and soon a large, white mass wrapped with a thin, white linen which had been prepared a while ago lay on the kitchen table under the faint light of the lamp. He scooped up a bit of it with a spoon to have a taste. His mouth filled with the rich flavor of milk, and the citrus juice that was mixed in gave a refreshing scent. Takumi nodded at the white lump, the main ingredient of the upcoming dish, and headed for the pantry.
Out of the cabinet there, he took out fresh cream and eggs, on which he had stocked up on this morning, as well as sugar ( that in “this world” had a light brown tint and was characterized by a strong flavour ), and, lastly, arroz already ground into flour. He had done that quite recently, using a quern installed in the kitchen, but it was very hard work even after he thought of heating it up with fire. ‘After today, if I need to use it in large quantities, I will have to get it made elsewhere,’ he thought.
His usual black apron on, Takumi gathered all the ingredients he required and began the work. First of all, he put the ‘white mass’ from before into a bowl and beat it with a whisk, watching as it gradually broke down into a paste. Then, he mixed in plenty of sugar. Next he cracked open the eggs and added them in as well. After that, he added the arroz flour. He was stirring the mixture well all the time while adding the ingredients, so the paste gradually smoothened. Once satisfied with the texture, he added what he expected to be the right amount of the fresh cream and mixed that in with a whisk too. Finally, he poured the batter into a rectangular metal mould, knocked it onto the table a few times to release the trapped air, and placed it into the oven stove preheated to a low temperature.
Carefully observing the strength of the fire, Takumi added firewood to the oven stove.It was quite an advanced implement for this era, a result of a special request he lodged with the Station Master. However, modern additions such as a switch to control the temperature didn’t exist, so the adjustments had to be made by manually adding firewood. Therefore, in a situation like this, where he needed to keep the temperature low so that the cake baked thoroughly, it was especially necessary to pay close attention and make constant minute adjustments to the flame. Until the cake was baked, Takumi would not leave the oven stove even for a moment.
The baking process was done only after the biggest hourglass in the kitchen had run out three times. When he took out the result from the oven stove, he saw that the creamy batter that had only filled up half of the mould before baking, had risen to 1.5 times the height of the mould and was now topped with a light-brown crust. Takumi pierced it with a thin, wooden skewer to check whether it had baked thoroughly. Everything appeared to be fine. With a sigh of relief, he moved the freshly baked cake onto the kitchen table. He carefully washed the whisk, bowls, and then tidied up the kitchen while waiting for it to cool down. The batter did slightly deflate as the cake cooled, but it was well within expectations. He ran the sides of the mould with a kitchen knife to make taking the contents out easier. This caused a pale yellow substance, akin to custard cream, to emerge from the cake. Takumi worked on the edges of the end product for a while longer and, after being satisfied with the results, he called out for Nyaachi. The catgirl was resting at the bottom of the second floor’s staircase, so it wasn’t long before he could hear energetic footsteps coming from that direction.
「Hub~by! Did you call? You called, right?!」
Nyaachi arrived at the table with sparkling eyes, almost as if she had been made to wait for the prototype forever. Takumi poured her some cinnamon coffee, which had been warming up on the oven stove and awaited the reaction, wondering what kind of words would he receive for his effort.
Three more times did this scene repeat after that night but, finally, a dish fit to be served to a customer was added to the Swallow’s menu.
◇ ◇ ◇
The second train on the designated day arrived on time. Takumi left the usual ticket checks to the station master, and was working on the dish for the expected customer. A few minutes after the arrival of the engine, the bell at the door of the Swallow rang.
「So this is the rumoured shop. It is rather small, but does it not just give off a good vibe?」
The lady who entered was tall and slim, with a figure not unlike that of a model. Her straight, jet-black hair was long enough to reach her waist, and while her apparel of a white blouse and black, long pants was simple, she had an extraordinary air about her. The Station Master, a tall and sturdily-built man, quite good looking too despite his advanced years, followed the woman in. Seeing them stand next to each other was like witnessing a scene from a movie.
「Ah, are you the customers who made a reservation? We have been waiting for you-nya! Please, your seats are over here.」
Nyaachi guided the lady and the Station Master to a table with a “Reserved” sign. The man gallantly escorted his companion to the table and offered her a chair. She nodded before taking a seat. The woman acted casual, but her actions were elegant without a fault, hinting at a noble background. Then, she spoke.
「I am Sophia. Uncle, the Station Master, has always taken care of me. You must be Nyaachi-chan, right?」
「Y-yes, that’s right! Nyaachi is Nyaachi! Co-coming all the way here to eat… T-thank you very much!」
Whether due to nervousness or being awed by the lady’s elegance, Nyaachi uncharacteristically stuttered at her greeting. This caused Sophia to raise a hand to her own mouth and giggle.
「She is cheerful indeed, just like you said, Uncle. Nyaachi-chan, I will be in your care.」
「Got it-nya! Please treat me well too! Can I confirm your order? The reservation was for two sets of cake, right? Erm… As for drinks, there is coffee, milk and for today, naranja juice. Which would you both like-nya?」
「Hmmm… Which drink would you recommend to pair with the cake?」
「Well, all of the cake we will serve today is delicious, so nyaa would go for a cup of coffee-nya. But, I’m sure it will go well with milk or naranja juice too!」
「Thank you. In that case, I will have a coffee. How about you, Uncle?」
「Hmm, then I shall also have a coffee.」
「We will have two cups of coffee please.」
「Got it-nya! So it will be two sets of cake with coffee. Purr-lease wait a moment~」
Nyaachi wrote down the orders on a piece of paper, bowed, and headed towards the counter by the kitchen. Looking at her back, one could see her black cat ears twitching as she walked, and watching this made Sophia smile.
「You seem to be having fun.」
Mused the Station Master.
「I am. It was just as I imagined from Uncle’s stories. No, she is much more charming and interesting than that. Ahh, I wish they had opened this shop in our town…」
「Well, this too is fate. For our Harper Town, this must have had to happen.」
Sophia pondered over those words a little, then sprawled her body over the table and began to grumble, as if the elegance from before had been nothing but an illusion.
「Ahhh, I wonder whether there is a good destiny in store for me… If possible, I’d like a handsome bachelor, who is well-rounded, hardworking at home and in the office, and also happy to help me in raising the kids…」
「Isn’t that a little bit greedy? No, wait, isn’t that just what you wish for?」
「Tehe, did it show?」
Having cracked the joke, Sophia stuck out her tongue at the strained smile of the Station Master. They continued chatting until Nyaachi emerged carrying a tray while being followed by a man wearing a black cafe apron. That man was Takumi.
「My name is Takumi. I am both the shop manager and the acting station master. Harper Town and the coffee shop “Swallow” bid both of you a warm welcome.」
「I am Sophia and I have been looking forward to this day very much. Is this the thing called “cake”?」
In front of Sophia there was a modest, square plate made from white porcelain with a wedge-shaped slice of food on it. It looked beautiful, especially the contrast between the light-brown outer shell of the cake and the fluffy, pale-yellow cross section. The plate was garnished with strips of thinly-sliced corn bread and next to it stood a pot filled with pure white, milk-like sauce that somehow seemed floaty. .
「That is correct. Today we present you a baked cheesecake to be eaten with this cream sauce here. The corn bread garnish was baked twice, turning it into rusk; please use it as a palate cleanser… Oh,and I did not put any sugar into the cinnamon coffee as the cake will provide ample sweetness. Please try it like first, but feel free to add in however much you like afterwards. With that said, please enjoy your food.」
After offering the explanation, Takumi bowed and went back with Nyaachi into the kitchen. Sophia looked at the cake set again. It was a dish that she had not seen before, but just the sight of it was stimulating her appetite. At first, she cut a small piece from the tip of the wedge with a fork in order to savour the taste. It felt surprisingly heavy in her hand, she could tell the cake had a solid texture. Then she put the bite-sized triangle into her mouth.
「Oh my, this is so rich!? And so very sweet too!」
Sophia unwittingly voiced her admiration aloud. The first thing she noticed on her tastebuds was the richness of milk, as if only the very essence of it had been extracted. On top of that, the sweetness from the liberally added enriched the flavor even further. This richness was similar to that of a queso, a kind of soft cheese made from raw, pasteurised milk. Perhaps, this “cheesecake” was made from a kind of queso. However, since a typical queso was a type of preserved food, most of them carried the characteristic saltiness and smell. Sophie had no idea how this queso could hold such milky richness inside.
After eating two, three bites, she also noticed a hint of sourness underneath all the sweetness. That refreshing feeling was probably from limon juice. Combining limon into the batter gave the rich flavour a refreshing aftertaste when it would otherwise start to feel heavy after a bit.
After that, Sophia picked up the cup of coffee. Usually, she would add plenty of sugar to enjoy both the sweetness and bitterness of the coffee, but she decided to follow the manager’s suggestion and dink it as it was today. The fragrant aroma of cinnamon in the coffee tickled her nose when she put it to her lips. The first mouthful brought the characteristic bitterness and sourness of the coffee, with a hint of sharp sweetness of the cinnamon. She expected it would be much more bitter and unbearable to drink, but having eaten the baked cheesecake earlier, she did not dislike the coffee at all. Instead, it felt sweet, which was something new to her. She once again realized that the shop owner’s suggestion was correct, there was indeed no need to add sugar.
Sophia returned to the cake and applied the white cream sauce as instructed. The taste was that of a fresh milk, similar yet different to that of the cake. When she added the cornbread garnish to that, the crisp texture and fragrance of the double baked bread combined together to form yet another flavour. Sophia was deeply moved after experiencing this deep, rich taste for the first time. She savoured the last piece slowly, lost in serious thought. Once the last bite was swallowed, she summoned Takumi from behind the counter and greeted him with a passionate hug as soon as he approached.
「Thank you for today, Takumi-san! It was a really wonderful experience!」
Takumi was surprised and embarrassed by the unexpected gesture. It wouldn’t be proper to just push away the customer, so he went along with it this time. The chilling stare he felt on his back was just an unavoidable consequence. After a brief moment he did manage to gently extricate himself from Sophia’s arms.
「What’s most important is that you enjoyed it.」
「This will definitely sell, you know! I could help you with that if that’s okay?」
Takumi actually felt honest happiness hearing Sophia offer to lend a hand, but he also understood the difficulties of the subject, which was why his expression was bitter..
「Thank you very much for such a high appraisal. Sadly, it is difficult to produce this cake in bulk. First of all, the recipe requires homemade cottage cheese made from fresh milk. That kind of cheese, unfortunately, does not last at normal room temperature. In this kind of weather, it wouldn’t last a day. It is possible to prepare things if the customer reserves beforehand and eats it immediately after serving, but it is difficult to have one ready at hand all the time. Also, to be honest, baking a cheesecake like this one takes a lot of time and effort, having to make one everyday would negatively impact the rest of the shop’s offering.」
Sophia listened to his response seriously, and summarised to make sure she understood everything.
「I understand. The problem lies in the unsuitability for storage and short shelf life, as well as the complex manufacturing process, right? Are there any other issues?」
Seeing her enthusiasm, Takumi, who usually did not talk much about the hardships in the kitchen much, carefully told Sophia about all the difficulties one by one.
「Well, yes… other ingredients are a problem too. For this cake, rice flour has to be used… So I used arroz ground into a fine powder, but as you can see, the raw grain is very hard, and I had a hard time grinding it with in a quern. It also needs fresh milk and eggs.」
「I see. But, if it is only for that little arroz powder, it seems manageable more or less. And if it’s still difficult with human labor… What was that new thing called? Steam engine, was it? I’m sure it would be easier with that.」
「Eh? Can you factory-mill arroz into flour? If it is possible, it will be very helpful. I could expand the range of dishes I can make…」
「I have connections and I will ask around. If things works out, I will contact you through Uncle, but I am unsure what can be achieved, so please don’t expect too much.」
Hearing Sophia cheerfully answer that getting rice flour would not be a problem, Takumi exploded with emotions. Unlike the very expensive wheat, which could only be imported, arroz was locally produced and cheap grain. Having easy, daily access to flour made from it would expand the range of dishes far more than ever. Of course, it wouldn’t be a perfect substitute for wheat flour, but it could be used as a coating for deep fried food, and he might even be able to challenge the process of making fermented bread, which had been difficult to make until now. Takumi was already thinking of what to make with the arroz flour.
「Ahem. Takumi-kun, I think it’s time to let go of that hand… Not only might Sophia-san be troubled by it, but I can’t fail to notice some sharp glances coming from over there.」
The kind advice of the Station Master finally brought Takumi back to earth. Only now had he noticed that he had been firmly grasping Sophia’s hand all this time. He let go in a hurry. And when he turned around… His live-in partner was staring at him through extremely narrowed pupils with cat ears standing upright. He was in trouble, and he really needed to solve the misunderstanding properly later… Feeling a chill travel along his spine, he engaged his business demeanor again.
◇ ◇ ◇
Later that evening, Sophia, having already boarded the carriage, had her mind revisit the precious experience at the “Swallow” while her backside was sinking deeply into the soft sofa of the first class cabin.
She was convinced that the biggest problem was prolonging the shelf life of the product, and once a practical solution would be found for that, the rest of the issues would be perfectly manageable.
Suddenly, she recalled a research topic that one of her investment partners was working on. Something about “artificially creating cold air and making ice.” She did not know if it was going to work, but if it did, it would definitely bring about innovative changes to people’s lives. Sophia Marymaid, an up-and-coming female banker, could smell the scent of a “new business” that awaited just behind that horizon.
‘Also, if I come here again next time, I should bring that girl too.’
She recalled the apprentice chef girl who recently came to work at her parents’ house, Nuttel. If she hadn’t heard about this shop from the girl, she might not have come across “Swallow.” The short, two-hour visit in the Cafe had required her to clear a precious half a day of her busy schedule, but Sophia was now convinced that it was more than worth it.
‘However, who would’ve thought that Nyaachi-chan is actually Takumi-san’s wife. If he were single, I would have made a play for him for sure… Oh well, good guys are always taken.’
She had built her achievements by connecting people’s “fates” together with the help of her sharp observational skills, passion, and energy, so she had realized fully that there was nothing “destiny” left for her up that avenue. Nevertheless, Sophia still believed that her “destiny” would come to her one day, and, watching the sunset through the window, she swore to herself that she was going to start working on it right now.