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The Secret Ingredient

By Laura Schaefer, Sujean Rim

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

We live in stirring times—tea-stirring times.

—CHRISTOPHER ISHERWOOD

The pumpkin bar with cream cheese frosting from Murphy Farms is the pinnacle of bakery perfection. After a swallow of peach iced tea from my light green water bottle, I grinned at Zoe and took a giant bite.

There were exactly six glorious weeks of summer left to enjoy, and the Madison Farmer’s Market on the capitol square was packed with market goers, flowers, veggies, fruit, and signs. We were right in the middle of it all. I gobbled up my bar and tucked into a container of delectable cottage cheese next. After that, a bag of strawberries awaited. I planned to eat every last one of them before my brothers—or worse, Zach Anderson—tracked us down.

“But how do you even know he’s down here?” Zoe was asking me. “Wouldn’t he rather run through a mud puddle after a Frisbee than look for fresh herbs?”

“Yes,” I said. “But he’s been bugging me all week at the Leaf, and I accidentally told him I was coming here today. It’s like he is incapable of leaving me alone for two hours.”

Zoe giggled. “Aw, that’s kind of sweet.”

“No, it isn’t! The worst part is, the customers think he’s an actual Leaf employee! So if he says something ridiculous, it makes the shop look bad.”

Zoe opened her mouth to reply, but then spotted some truly gorgeous tomatoes. They were just coming into season, and their ruby red color was definitely turning everyone’s heads. “Ooh, I’m going to get some of these.”

We carefully chose three of the best-looking ones and put them in Zoe’s canvas bag. Just then, the crowd cleared up a little and we heard a piercing shriek. A very familiar piercing shriek. “Heeeeeeeeeeeey!”

“Genna!” Zoe and I both yelled. We turned around and there she was, arms outstretched in a show-stopping pose. We raced over to give her a hug and practically knocked over a toddler who tried to get between us.

“Aughhhhh!” we screamed.

“You’re home a day early!” I cried. I couldn’t believe it. We weren’t expecting her until tomorrow.

“I know! I got an earlier flight. I went right to the Steeping Leaf, and Louisa said you were down here,” she said from behind ginormous white sunglasses. A few people grumbled as they tried to get around Gen, who had her hands on her hips and a big grin on her face.

“I can’t believe you found us so easily,” I said.

“I just looked for your hair, Annie!” We giggled. It was so humid, my curly red hair was taking up more space than a small stroller. I saw a college girl trying to sample some cheese shoot us a glare.

“I think we’re kind of blocking the way,” Zoe said reasonably. We were creating a major bottleneck on the packed sidewalk, so she led us off the square and onto the lush green capitol lawn, where we collapsed into a Teashop Girls pile of happiness.

“You look great, Gen,” I said. She did. Her hair had highlights in it, and she wore a magenta shirt dress with a tiny short-sleeved jacket over it.

“Thanks! I missed you guys so much!” We group-hugged again.

“So what did you do? How was the food? Did you like the teachers?” I wanted to hear everything about camp. Starting with the standing ovations, right down to the mosquito bites.

“Aughhhhhhhh!” Genna exclaimed and bolted up from the grass. Zo and I looked at her, puzzled, until she pulled a new phone out of the pocket of her jacket. She texted madly for a moment and then sunk back down to the grass contentedly. “He misses me. I knew it. I have to get back to New York as soon as possible.”

“Who?” Zoe asked.

“James. This guy I met. He’s amazing,” Genna said. She sounded so happy; like if she was a soda, she’d be bubbling right out of the can. “Your hair is so long!”

Zoe absentmindedly adjusted her headband. “Yeah, I guess it is.”

I still didn’t have a phone or a boyfriend or any chance of getting either one anytime soon, so I rolled my eyes the teeniest bit. Zoe laughed and took a bite of her pumpkin bar. It was a little smushed from all of the hugging. “Gen. We’ve finally got you back. You’re not running away again,” she said in a definite way, and carefully wiped her mouth with a napkin in case there were any specks of frosting left behind. I didn’t think to grab a napkin myself … oops.

“Now the summer is perfect,” I said. Zoe dug through her canvas bag to inspect some fresh herbs she’d bought earlier—basil, parsley, and chives.

“You can have half for your next scone,” she said, and suddenly stopped what she was doing to touch my arm. She grinned. “Tell Genna about the contest! I’ll go get her a pumpkin bar.” Zoe hurried off, gracefully weaving her way through the crowd back to the Murphy Farms stand.

“Well … Duchess Teas, one of our big tea suppliers at the Leaf, is running a scone competition for young bakers,” I said, clapping my hands together excitedly. “I entered and Louisa is helping me. We have three weeks and, uh, six days left to build a food blog and get followers. The five blogs with the most followers get to go to Chicago in September for a bake-off. We need to invent the best-tasting scone in the world!”

“Oooh, that sounds fabulous,” Genna said breathily. Her eyes sparkled as much as her glittery nail polish, and I thought about how very, very much I’d missed her all of these weeks. Thank goodness she was back.

“Tell her about the prize.” Zoe returned, handed Genna a bar, and poked my leg with her flip-flop–clad toe.

“This is the best part for sure.” I nodded so hard my hair bounced. “The winners get four tickets to London for an all-expenses-paid high tea vacation! Louisa and I already decided, of course, that if we win, we’re taking you and Zoe.”

“Oh YEAH!” With that, Genna jumped up again, this time pulling Zo and I with her. We all whooped and jumped around until we realized people might be watching us. Giggling, we sat down on the grass and leaned back, enjoying the sunshine on our faces. “So, have you started already? What kind of scone do you think you’ll make? What’s the blog address? How did you find out about it? Can I help?” Genna’s questions tumbled out a mile a minute.

“Um, yes, a delicious one, SteepingLeafScone.com, in Tea Time magazine, and absolutely!” I answered.

“We’re actually going to buy some ingredients here,” Zoe added. “Berries and Hook’s cheeses and some fresh herbs.”

“Sounds great!” Genna said. I smiled and offered her a heaping spoonful of cottage cheese. She shook her head.

“Your turn. Tell us more about camp,” I demanded.

“Oh my God, you guys, it was completely and totally fabulous,” she said. “Like, the best five weeks of my life. Tucked in the woods, memorizing scenes. I got to pretend to be a waterfall. And then a moose. And then a toothbrush. That was kind of hard, actually. But it was wonderful. And I met all of these great, creative people. I know for sure now … I don’t want to be anything other than an actress. I can even cry on cue. Watch!”

Zoe and I looked at Genna, and within moments, real tears appeared in the corners of her eyes.

“Whoa,” Zoe said.

“How did you do that?” I asked.

“Easy. I just think of having to go to school again.” She grinned, wiped her eyes, and checked her phone before flopping back on the grass. “I wonder if James is looking at the same blue sky,” Gen said dreamily. She laid flat on her back, gazing upward.

“I’m sure he is,” Zoe said indulgently. “So, what’s this James character like?” She laid down too, placing her head close to Genna’s.

“He’s an aspiring playwright. From New York City. Sixteen, but seems much older.”

“He does sound amazing,” I said kindly. I noticed she hadn’t touched the pumpkin bar Zoe had gotten her either. Weird. Mine was gone in four bites.

“Genna, why aren’t you eating your bar? Do you feel okay?”

“My what? Oh yeah. I feel fine. I’m just not…”

I felt something cold dripping on my arm and realized someone was blocking my sun. I turned around, and there was Zach Anderson, soaking wet and standing over me.

“Zach! Stop dripping on me! You smell like the lake.” I glared at him and he moved even closer. “Go away!”

“Just did a few laps out to the float at B. B. Clarke,” he said, pointing to the beach on Lake Monona about six blocks away.

“Couldn’t you dry off before you came looking for me?” I asked. Genna and Zoe scooted away from Mr. Algae, but they were giggling.

“Why aren’t you back at the Leaf by now?” he asked. “You left Louisa alone all morning?”

“I’m sure she’s fine,” I said. “She did run the place for thirty years before me, you know.”

“But all of that gross powdered tea was coming in today, remember?” Ever since his parents bought our building, Zach was at the Leaf almost as much as me these days. He was so annoying, but he did actually help do the dishes sometimes, so I let him hang around.

“Yeah, I’m going to go help her stock when the market’s over. Powdered tea isn’t gross. And seriously, stop dripping on me!” I could see Gen’s eyebrows move sky-high at the familiar—friendly?—way we were talking to each other.

“No way.” Zach shook his head and sprayed me all over again. “Hey, whose pumpkin frosting thing? Can I have it?”

“No … it’s G—,” I started to say.

“Knock yourself out,” she finished, and handed it to him. “I don’t eat things sprinkled with lake water when I can help it.”

“Thumanks,” he mumbled, stuffing the entire thing into his mouth.

“You are disgusting,” I said.

He swallowed, wiped his mouth with his wet T-shirt, and sat down with us. “So I hope I didn’t miss any girl talk,” he said. “Teashop Girl talk, I mean. Annie, tell me, how is that new trainer bra fitting?”

I looked at him in horror and crossed my arms in front of my chest. In unison Zoe and I yelled, “ZACH, GO AWAY!” He grinned and walked off to his bike.

“See you back at the Leaf, Annie Green!” he shouted over his shoulder as he sped away.

“You two are so going to get married,” Genna said to me with a huge smile on her face. “Now, let’s go buy some scone ingredients!”

To Do Saturday, July 25

• Bake a delicious scone

• avoid Zach (perhaps invent Annoying Boy Repellent?)

• get hundreds of blog followers

• Spend as much time with Gen as possible

• Reapply sunscreen constantly

• Buy new clothes for school

• get haircut

Dear readers,

Welcome to my blog! Thank you SO MUCH for visiting. I’m super excited to participate in the Duchess Tea Company Scone Bake-Off. I hope you’ll enjoy following along as I work to create an original, extra-delicious scone. I’ve been eating these yummy tea treats for forever—with clotted cream and jam, of course—because my grandmother Louisa is the owner of Madison’s favorite tea shop, the Steeping Leaf Café on Monroe Street. The shop recently celebrated its thirtieth anniversary in business! Isn’t that cool?? (Team Leaf!)

Anyway, I am the newest barista there, but that doesn’t mean I’m new to tea. My two best friends and I—Louisa calls us the original Teashop Girls—have loved it practically our whole lives. Recently we all worked together to bring new customers into our very favorite place, to make sure that the Steeping Leaf is around for another thirty years. (At least.) I hope that if you live in Madison or nearby, you’ll come by for a nice cuppa. I’d love to read your comments here, but in person’s always best, don’t you think?

Zoe, Genna, and I started a collection of tea memorabilia when we were little kids and put it all in this ginormous tea handbook. I want to share some of our collection with you here. Between posting scone recipes, I’m going to scan in our best vintage tea ads, pictures, and cards. I hope you love it as much as I do. I’ll be sure to keep the handbook in the shop during the scone contest. Please visit me! I’m all ears when it comes to scone recipe suggestions, and I’m there every day this summer.:-) Yay tea, yay scones, yay summer!

Love, Annie

© 2011 Laura Schaefer

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