For Jari — the adaptor and tester of these recipes, here’s to many more cooking-writing adventures together
Containing Twelve Recipes both Sweet and Savoury
Said Recipes being paired with Strange Tales from the Northern Lakes
by Mistress Ember of-Alder-House.
Imprinted at Fairdon-town, by Marcus Scriven,
for Cloudberry of-Alder-House.
Snow defends us from darkness, blankets us against the demons. Summer is sweet, short and dangerous — in summer, the demons rise from the water. We must always be watchful. We must bring them offerings. But in winter, when the ice forms on the lake, the demons are trapped beneath the water and we have many months’ respite from fear.
I don’t know if this is true for all Lakeside families, but in mine, the first sturdy shimmer of ice on water, the first snowfall, means it’s time to celebrate. First-Winter’s Feast, we call it. We eat all the dainty morsels we’d offer to the demons if the lake-water was still open. Food blooms on the tongue like flowers after months of sharing with monsters.
I want to share one of my favourite recipes with you. The family recipe book has several recipes for First-Winter’s Feast scrawled in it in various hands through the generations. This one is in my great-grandmother’s hand — a spiky, tight script with never a hint of shakiness — and we make it every single year. Damson, blood-apples, and goblin fruit go into this pie. We eat it with thick cream, milked from our cow, Wee Daisy. Goblin Tart — and no, that doesn’t mean it’s made from goblin flesh. Spirits forbid such heresy.
This recipe comes with a story attached, of course. I wouldn’t call this book A Potful of Lakeside Tales for nothing. Twelve recipes, twelve stories. I struggle to imagine how these tattered handwritten pages will ever transform into a printed book, like the two volumes we keep in pride of place on the shelf with other family heirlooms, but I will write as long as I have paper and my oak-gall ink remains wet. My niece Cloudberry has promised she’ll see this printed in Fairdon-town, where she moved last year.
This first story is one my grandmother told me; it happened to her own mother. I never met Great-Grandma Fern, but from all I’ve heard, and based on her determined handwriting, she was quite the character.
Fern was a wilful child, a dangerous thing to be when demons can rise from the lake and claim a person as offering if they deem their other gifts insufficient. Fern loved the woods, the hidden treasures of moss and berries and sunlight on leaves. The moss was greenest near the lake; she crept there in secret, closer to the lake than she should go. Her family would search for her when she went wandering. Eyes wide with fear, they’d find Fern ensconced in some quiet nook, nestled on a throne of moss, chattering away with the birds and squirrels.
“A right goblin-child you are!” her father chided her. “Stay near the house!”
Yet her parents didn’t entirely forbid her from wandering, for Fern had a knack for finding the choicest fruits, the juiciest berries, the freshest mushrooms. The demons, even then, wanted the best offerings. They’d get dangerous if they felt they were being slighted; if the offering-stone at the border of wood and lake had a single worm-gnawed raspberry among its bounty, they would retaliate. Fern gathered flawless riches, and the demons slavered at the forest delights she brought to them.
Fern was twelve years old, going on thirteen, her childhood stubbornness melting into the stubbornness of a grown person. She tired of catering all summer long to the demons’ desires. “I want to eat the darkest bilberries straight off the twig,” she muttered to herself. “I want Mother to bake a tart with the best fruit, not just the leftovers.” She swore to herself she’d make it happen. She’d thwart the demons, and her family would gorge themselves with fresh fruit even in the winter season of frozen lakes.
She passed the offering stone, didn’t dare spit on it despite her anger. She didn’t want misfortune for her family; she wanted a tart with all the fresh fruits of the forest glades. Fern knew where she was going, and she knew it was forbidden. She climbed over rocks and jutting tree roots until she reached the ancient taboo nooks of the forest. She reached a clearing ringed by oak, rowan, and birch as brethren, where stones were set in a spiral. No weeds grew on the spiral path; no moss grew on the scrubbed-clean stones.
Fern walked the spiral path, growing dizzier than the spiral itself warranted. (You never step straight through a spiral path even if the stones are but small. That’s an ancient magic whose breaking causes great penalties. You must go the long way, the spiral way.) She swallowed her fear and wended her way to the centre.
The sunlight dimmed. Fern smoothed her skirts and did not put her hands in the pockets beneath. “Hello?” she said, barely more than a whisper. “Are you… here?”
What if we are, came a hollow rustling all around her.
“Mother says I should never come here,” said Fern. “That this is goblin land, and sacred. But I need help. I don’t have money, but I’ll pay you with whatever you please.” (She was still but a child, and had no notion of how badly this promise could have cost her. We all know that sort of tale.)
The rustling became pleased, although how Fern knew this she couldn’t tell. Her eyes were confounded for a moment — a stray gust of wind, or magic — and when she rubbed them and could see again, she found that the larger boulders around the stone spiral no longer bore the mask of insentient granite. They had shifted, become people — rough-hewn, round-nosed people. The sight stole her breath away. She’d heard many a tale of goblins, their odd ways and ancient magic, how they sometimes helped humans and sometimes acted in mischief. Still: they weren’t demons. They did not demand constant sacrifice. They did not ruin the lives of everyone around Lakeside.
“Well, child,” said the flintiest of the goblins. “What help do you need?”
“The demons.” Fern hesitated. “The demons in the lake. They demand all our best fruit, and we go without. I want fresh fruit so that my mother can make a tart and we can eat it all ourselves.”
Odd goblin. Everyone knew what demons were. Fern explained as if to her youngest brother: “The demons that live in the lake. They hate us humans, so they make us give them tribute and in return they don’t kill our cows and cause sickness.”
“Hmm,” said the flintiest goblin. The others hmmed in chorus. “Demons. It’s a long time since any of us went to the lake, but we knew them as limnlings. Demons, is it? Seems we’ve been asleep a while, siblings,” the goblin said to the granite crowd.
“So it does.” One of the other goblins raised their head, the stone neck screeching in protest. “Last I heard, the human-things loved fish above all things and swam in the lake summerlong.”
Fern huffed in disbelief. Swimming in the lake? Eating fish? What nonsense. There might be old tales telling of such things, but no one she knew had ever done such. Not even brash Uncle Rush.
(Later in life, my grandmother told me, Fern would spend whole days spinning theories of Lakeside’s long history with the demons: What if things hadn’t always been so bad? What if something happened to spark enmity and things grew putrid, like fruit left on the table in high summer? What might be done? Wouldn’t it be nice to live without fear? An old woman’s ramblings, my grandmother said. Living in Lakeside’s rich lands meant sacrifices. The demons were evil, always had been, and that was that.)
Fern, wisely, was polite to the goblins. “However things may have been in the past, I’m in need of help now, goodfolk. You have powerful magic. The whole forest whispers of it.” She wasn’t trying to flatter them, but a pleased hum ran through the goblins. “Is there any way to keep some fruit hidden and fresh so that my mother can make a tart of it when the lake freezes over? We always have to make do with dried fruit.”
“We have spells,” said the goblin who had spoken first. “We’ll cook you up a cantrip.”
Easy, thought Fern triumphantly.
“In return, you will revere us. We don’t need tribute like some puny god, but we’d like a bow and prayer every now and then. Revere us until you have your first child. We’re not demanding.”
It sounded demanding enough to Fern, barely thirteen: prayers to the goblins for many years. But the thought of fruit tart compelled her. “I’ll do it,” she said. She received their cantrip, an ugly misshapen thing like a tree root gone wrong, and their blessings, murmured in stone voices.
She returned home to the sound of frantic hallooing, her family searching for her. She’d been gone the whole day; it had felt like barely an hour. She dodged questions and tucked the cantrip into the darkest corner of the root cellar. Over the summer, she hid some of the tastiest berries and damsons and blood-apples there in a wooden box. The cantrip kept them just-picked fresh; equally, it kept the demons from noticing that someone had pilfered part of their tribute. Without such magic, the demons can tell when offerings are kept back, after all. Fern sent out prayers and reverent bows aplenty to the goblins.
When the lake froze over that year, Fern presented her finds to the family. Her mother was horrified: “Just think of what would have happened had the goblins been wrong! Fern, we could have lost you to the demons like Willow from South End!”
But her mother hummed cheerfully as she skimmed cream off milk vats; as she made a crust; as she quartered the fruit.
While the tart was being assembled, Fern heard a strange scraping at the door. Her heart hammered wildly in her chest: for sure it was the demons, somehow having escaped their cage of ice. They’d found her out. They would take her into the cold depths.
She opened the door anyway. It was her responsibility. The family mustn’t suffer for her sake.
On the doorstep, a cluster of strange spiky fruit awaited her. Fern had never seen the like. The fruits’ skin glistened dark with a sheen like a magpie’s wing. She gathered it all into her apron and peered out into the twilight. Frost-mist was rising from the snowy forest floor, but she glimpsed the movement of something huge in the shadow of trees from the corner of her eye, and heard a rasping sound, rocks scuffing against each other.
“Thank you,” she called out into the gathering evening, and bowed for good measure.
Fern brought the goblins’ gift to her mother. The tart was almost filled to the brim with fresh fruit.
“Goblin fruit,” said her mother reverently, weighing one of them in her hand. “Real goblin fruit. Fern…” Her mother frowned. “They came to the door? When will they come to take you away?”
“They won’t take me away,” Fern said. “The goblins seem like good people, Mum. I simply promised to remember and revere them until my firstborn child arrives. It’s a fair bargain for fresh fruit — and I never asked for any goblin fruit, either. They just gave it to us.”
Her mother shook her head, muttering under her breath about the dangers of trusting such creatures; but she sliced up the goblin fruit and added it to the tart. At that First-Winter’s Feast, everyone ate their fill of savoury treats, but had plenty of room left for the goblin tart. Summer lingered in its taste, brought everyone memories of the sweetness of that season with none of the bitterness of sacrifice and fear.
Goblin fruit still appears on the doorstep every time we’re about to make Goblin Tart. We don’t know how the goblins find out when we’re making it, but what matters is that they do: the tart would not be the same without that tangy, magic-zesty fruit. If you don’t have access to goblin fruit, and I understand most people will not, you can substitute it with a combination of ripe peaches with plenty of lemon zest grated in. It’s not the same, but it’s the closest approximation I’ve been able to find.
As for Fern’s bargain with the goblins? By the time her firstborn child was due, when she’d partnered with a young man from across the lake, my great-grandfather Heron, her bows and small prayers had become woven into the fabric of her days. She didn’t stop keeping her reverences once the child was born; the goblins still brought fruit every time the fruit tart was underway, after all, and she respected them for it.
But the child grew strange, quiet and inward-gazing. He had granite-grey eyes and liked to sit in the woods still as a stone, listening to something no one else could hear. So different from Fern and her belly-laughing Heron was their child that she grew worried. She’d heard old tales of changelings, and became convinced that the goblins had switched her firstborn to one of their own. Her mother chastised her: some children are quieter, stranger, without any goblin interventions. Still, Fern never quite learnt to love her firstborn, my taciturn great-uncle with the sad eyes, and her prayers to the goblins withered.
Goblin bargains never come without a price.
5 oz butter
a pinch of salt
3/4 cup fine sugar
1 large egg
1 3/4 cups flour
Let the butter soften a little so that it’s easier to handle. Add salt and cream, mix until completely smooth. Add sugar and beat until fluffy. Add egg and continue beating until uniform. Mix in half of the flour and mix until just incorporated. Try not to overwork the dough. Add the remaining flour and mix until it forms a ball. Cover and place the dough somewhere cool until firm.
Lightly butter a 9″ pie pan. Use half of the dough for one pie. Lightly dust your table with flour and roll the dough until it is smooth, round, and about 1/8″ thick. Place the dough disc onto the pie pan and press it to the edges. The dough will shrink in the oven, so it can come up to a bit above the edge of the pan. Prick the dough with a fork to ensure it doesn’t rise in the oven. Let it rest in a cool place for an hour before baking.
Line the bottom of the pie with a parchment paper and fill the pan with pie stones. (These are small, round and clean pebbles used solely for the purpose of baking pies like this. If your family doesn’t have a jar of pie stones, you can use dried beans or peas, just make sure they’re clean.) Bake the pie in a medium hot oven for 20 minutes, then remove the pie stones and continue baking for another 10 minutes until the crust is beautiful light golden brown. After baking, let the crust cool completely before filling.
1 cup whole milk
1 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup sugar, divided
Pinch of salt
3 tablespoons wheat flour
5 egg yolks
4 tablespoons cold butter, cut into chunks
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla bean paste
In a heavy pot, combine milk and cream. Split the vanilla bean in half, scrape the seeds from the bean, and add to the mixture. Heat the mixture until you see the first bubbles forming, then immediately remove from heat.
In a heat-proof bowl, whisk together sugar, salt, wheat flour, and egg yolks until the mixture is light and creamy. Temper the eggs by slowly ladling one third of the hot milk into the egg mixture, whisking constantly. Pour the tempered egg mixture back into the milk and continue to heat, whisking constantly, until thickened.
Remove the cream from the heat and while constantly whisking, add the butter one chunk at a time. Keep whisking until all the butter has melted and the cream is smooth and even. Let cool completely. Before using, remove the vanilla bean from the cream.
5 goblin fruits, sliced (can be replaced with peaches and grated lemon zest)
2 cups damsons, pitted and halved
2 blood apples, cored and sliced
1/2 cup blueberries
1/4 cup raspberries
1/2 cup smooth apricot preserves
When the crust and the cream are completely cool, spread the cream over the bottom of the crust. Arrange the fruit decoratively in concentric circles over the cream. Melt the apricot preserves in a small pan, whisking constantly to get as smooth a consistency as possible. Paint the fruit with a thin, glistening jelly glaze. Let the glaze cool briefly before serving.
This recipe, Tear-Salted Perch (with Shallow Pickles), is one of several written down by an ancestor of mine. We don’t know their name, even — all we know is that they started the recipe book that is my family’s heirloom. They wrote three centuries ago, and although our family’s oral traditions reach back into the past, the genealogical intricacies have not survived.
Why am I picking this particular recipe to represent my nameless ancestor — especially since I have never made it myself, fish being out of bounds to us Lakesiders? (More on that below. I realise people from the Wide World may not understand.)
The reason is simple: I want to remember this ancestor, and Tear-Salted Perch is unique for containing the only message from them that is not a recipe. You see, a poem of sorts is scrawled in the margins next to the recipe. A charm, almost. It’s short and sweet like summer:
the relentless calm of the summerlake
in early morning, fog still lingering
as my boat cleaves the water
in grief’s depths even beauty
will stab the heart
up come the tears
up come the nets, silver with fish
in the rising sun’s light
up come the water-folk,
teeth gnashing, eyes flashing,
to greet me
I sing them thanks
for the fish-bounty
they sing me sudden joy
and respite from weeping
When I first learnt to decipher the old language, I read this scrap of verse in disbelief. Giving thanks to the demons? The demons singing a person joy? Impossible. Their eerie songs only bring us fear and ill fortune.
For a long time, I thought I must have misunderstood my ancestor’s words. But I’ve done my research and my modernisation above is correct. My grieving ancestor (why they grieved, I will never know) cast nets into the lake like it was nothing. They went fishing, they gave thanks to the demons, the demons wished them joy. These words are a glimpse into another world.
We don’t eat the fish of the lake, you see. We never even row on the lake, let alone cast nets like our forebears did, like my ancestor did. Here at Lakeside, the demons will rise up and take any fisher to the unknowable depths. They hate us and won’t tolerate us in their territory. Hushed stories of those foolish enough to try are told to children after dark.
I think something changed between my ancestor’s time and ours. Something happened to make the demons angry. I need to find out what it is.
I need to make things right again.
So, this recipe is not for my people. It’s for those who can find fish without punishment, who may read the printed version of this book, if it’s ever distributed beyond the Lakeside like my niece Cloudberry promised. Please send me a letter and tell me if the fish tastes good.
I like to imagine this ancestor of mine, this fisher, humming gently as they mix up the cucumber salad. They seal it into a glass jar, get their fishing gear out (hooks, I hear, are used, and some sort of pole), go to the lakeside where the trees’ autumn colours are reflected in the water. They’re fearless, for there is nothing to fear. Grieving some unknown sorrow, but choosing to deal with their grief by grounding, they leave the jar in the shallow water by the shore — cool water, to keep the cucumber crunchy — and hop into their wooden boat. Coming back with a fresh catch of fish, they light a small fire by the shore. The demons sing to them all the while, bringing comfort (heretical thought!). My ancestor does whatever it is one does to prepare fish; they fry the perch on their fire. They toast some bread. They take up the cucumber salad from the shallows — hands safe in the water — and feast on the fish, listening to the demons’ song.
For the pickles:
2 cloves garlic
1 tsp salt
4 tbsp mayonnaise
1/2 tsp vinegar
1/2 tsp sugar
For the perch:
1 perch fillet (or two small)
1 tbsp sea salt
1 tsp sugar
1 cup water
oil for frying
a knob of butter
fresh herbs, such as thyme, marjoram or rosemary
Start by preparing the pickles. Slice cucumber, onion, and garlic thinly. Sprinkle with salt, mix well, and set aside for half an hour.
Drain all the gathered liquid and pat dry with a clean towel. Mix the rest of the pickle ingredients with the salted cucumber mixture. Leave in a cold place for at least two hours.
Go and catch some fish. Scale, fillet, and debone the fish.
For brine: Mix salt, sugar, and water. Heat the mixture until all the solids have dissolved. Cool down to room temperature. Submerge the fillets completely in the brine for an hour.
Remove the fillets from the brine and pat dry. You want the fillets to be as dry as possible. After patting the fish dry, run the edge of a knife against the skin to scrape off every last drop of moisture. Sprinkle the flesh side with freshly ground black pepper.
Heat some oil in a cast iron pan until shimmering. Add the fillets skin side down and press them firmly but gently for half a minute to prevent the skin from curling up. Reduce the heat to medium. Fry the fillets for 2—4 minutes, depending on the size. For the crispiest skin you want to fry them almost all the way skin side down.
When the fillets are nearly done, toss in the knob of butter and fresh herbs. Baste the fillets with the butter until almost done, then flip over and give the flesh side just a brief kiss from the pan to get some beautiful colour.
To serve: Gather a hefty pile of pickles on one side of the plate. Set the perch flesh side down next to the pickles so that the pickling liquid flavours the fish while it sits on the plate. Place a few thick slices of dark sweet rye bread on the side of the plate and dig in.
The woods are a refuge. The more trees between you and the water-demons, the better.
Our family’s home lies closer to the water than most do. We know it’s not safe. But it’s home, it’s been home for generations. The timbers of this house were felled many centuries ago, and even the additional outhouses were built long before my family started writing down our history. We don’t use the old sauna at the water’s edge, it’s been abandoned for longer than memory can reach; but our family’s roots grow deep here. We endure the demons’ mischief and misery more than many Lakesiders do. They creep with dripping feet to our doorstep, they demand offerings every day. It’s why First-Winter’s Feast is such a reprieve for us. Why we love winter’s frosty breath.
The position of this house is yet another clue that things were once different between the demons and us Lakeside dwellers. Other older houses are close, too. New houses are always built further away from the lake.
It was not always this way.
Every Lakeside family has a recipe for Winter Log. Ours is called Arborescent Cake because Grandmother Elderflower was more well-read than most women of her generation, and all her recipes include some adjective that no one else can understand. When he was young, my Uncle Moss (he went off to become an artist in the Wide World) incurred Grandmother’s wrath by writing an explanation in the margin, together with a drawing of a tree: “by arborescent, Mother means tree-like”.
Grandmother Elderflower didn’t like cheating like this. “Look it up in the Dictionary,” she used to say, pointing to the thick tome she’d purchased from a travelling saleswoman. “Educate yourselves, children. Education will take you away from the Lakeside, away from the demons.” (She was pleased when Uncle Moss went off into the Wide World, although I don’t think she ever quite grasped what an artist does.)
Back to our Arborescent Cake. It’s called arborescent because it’s shaped like a tree branch, as tradition dictates. You can’t have a log cake for Yule that isn’t shaped like, well, a log.
Grandmother Elderflower’s Arborescent Cake is sweeter than some families’ versions, but it’s the special ingredient that makes it unique. I’m sure she never used the original variant of the ingredient like I did, though. Grandmother Elderflower was always a sensible soul, and I think I’ve inherited Great-Grandma Fern’s wildness.
Now that Grandmother Elderflower is dead (spirits rest her soul), I’ve chosen to reveal her special ingredient, because it’s integral to the recipe. And to my story.
Grandmother Elderflower modified this recipe based on an ancient find in her friends’ heirloom commonplace books. In her notes for the recipe, she says: “Birch sap is what makes this cake truly unparagoned. Obfuscatingly, in the oldest accounts I have located, the sap must be drawn specifically from trees whose roots trail into the lake. The lake! — whose waters conceal demons’ grasping claws, demons who will drag you under if you trespass upon their aquatic territory. In other words, no prudent person would ever attempt to obtain their birch sap with such risk involved. Besides, my Arborescent Cake tastes utterly delectable with sap from birches that are a safe distance away from the water. No danger is involved in the making of this cake.”
I could have obeyed Grandmother Elderflower’s dictum, of course. She was a brilliant cook, and her Arborescent Cake melted in our mouths every time she made it. I miss her; I miss her Arborescent Cake; but when I saw her notes while preparing this recipe book, I couldn’t help but go even further.
It’s always been my weakness: wanting to know what really happened. Making the best possible recipe based on real historical practices. So of course I needed to see if the recipe could be further improved by gathering sap from birches whose roots reach into the lake. I had to get the sap well on time, of course. Arborescent Cake is made for Yule, but the sap needs to be gathered the previous spring. That’s why it’s a special ingredient, after all.
No, I didn’t tell anyone what I was going to do. I didn’t need my sister-in-law, brother, or niblings to worry. Auntie Ember spends a lot of time outdoors: no one knows where I am much of the time, and I like it that way.
That morning I tapped one of the birches further away from the lake just in case my experiment went badly wrong — you can’t make Grandmother Elderflower’s Arborescent Cake without any sap at all, and I needed to offer the demons the first sap of the season anyway. After I’d tapped the safe birch and taken some of the clear liquid to the offering stone in a shallow bowl, I gathered my courage.
I wrapped my shawl tighter around my neck, slipped my tapping supplies back into the scruffy embroidered pocket tied around my waist. (My niece Cloudberry’s childhood embroidery: uneven stitches, strangely shaped daisies, and a lot of earnest love.) The wind slapped my cheeks with a wisp of leftover winter, but it was time. The sap was rising. It had to be rising also in the lakeside trees, even if they were contaminated by the demons’ touch.
My steps grew hesitant as I approached the lake. It was a fortuitous time of day; the demons seem to sleep around midday. But my stomach clenched with fear. Ember of-Alder-House, there’s something wrong with you, I told myself. No one goes near the water voluntarily. We slip to the offering stone and quickly back. We don’t touch the lakewater. We don’t touch what has touched the water.
Gathering sap from trees that practically bathed in the lake: utter folly.
But I went anyway.
The lake was blustery, waves scudding across the surface. The wind was even colder here. Traces of ice still limned the shore although the ground had thawed. All I could hear was the wind, the blown-wild water, the trees’ still-bare branches rustling. Nothing was amiss, no sign of demons. Not a single wet breath or whiff of clammy weed-hair.
I chose my birch: a tall, ancient individual with thick roots snaking all the way into the water. I spiralled a hole into the papery birch-bark. Even though the tree was lake-contaminated, I whispered my apologies and thanks to the tree as I turned the handle of my auger. Respect is important when you live in the woods.
Inserting a hollow reed into the hole I’d drilled, I slipped a small bottle around it and tied the glass firmly to the birch’s trunk. I didn’t dare leave it there all day to collect the sap — that way the demons would surely notice my activity and retaliate. Luckily, you only need four ounces of sap for Arborescent Cake, and I was certainly not going to drink this possibly cursed sap by the pint like usual. I would stay for only as long as it took to get what I needed.
The sap dripped into the bottle, sluggish. My gaze kept flitting to the lake.
We strive not to clap eyes on the demons. It’s superstition that merely seeing a demon will cause you bad luck; they cause enough harm overtly, no need for such nebulous things as luck to be affected. Still, I don’t know anyone who’s actually seen a demon, more than a brief flash of eyes in the water at least. We know they look hideous and terrifying and nothing like us. That’s enough. So we’re told.
The small bottle was half full. I had my eyes on the clear sap, dripping, dripping; the wind rattled the dry birch-branches; the lake-water lapped at the smooth rocks on the shore.
So I didn’t notice the rush of movement until it was too late.
A prickling at the back of the head told me I was being watched. Slowly I turned, dread filling me like sap fills a waiting bottle.
Its skin shone like fishes’ scales. Its feet and hands were webbed, the webbing glistening like snow-diamonds. It was smaller than I expected, more my size than the hulking terrors that all the Lakeside talked about. Skinnier than me, though. I thought they’d all be well-fed on our offerings. It had crept out of the water, was crouched on the wet rock next to my tree, staring at the sap slowly dripping into the bottle. Its eyes were sorrow-deep and dark.
I stood transfixed. My limbs felt stone-heavy, like one of Great-Grandma Fern’s goblins. We stared at each other, the demon and I. I may have imagined it, but I thought the demon’s eyes were wide with fear just as mine were.
My hands trembled. Should I snatch the half-filled bottle and run? Would that offend the demon even worse than seeing a human so close to the lake?
The demon opened its mouth to reveal thin, sharp teeth. A small sound escaped me, the yelp of prey before a hunter.
Another sound emerged from the demon’s mouth. Rasping, breathy, as if something were wrong with its throat. But it was far from the blood-curdling scream I’d imagined. Its teeth were knives but it was just standing there, palms open, staring at me and making those sounds.
In my panic, it took me a while to realise it was speaking.
The demon was speaking.
In all the tales, no one had said they had language. They were beasts, it was said, taking from us, demanding more and more till we were worn thin with sacrifice. But this one was looking at me and trying to communicate.
“I don’t understand,” I said. Keeping one eye on my sap — past the halfway point — I bottled down my fear and rooted myself to the ground (the treacherous ground where trees kiss the water’s edge). “Say that again?”
The demon stared at me, narrowing those terrible bottomless eyes. It rasped out those sounds again. Somehow, I felt I should understand. That I was on the verge of understanding.
My niece Cloudberry’s clear voice rang out in the air.
The spell broke. I realised I had been trying to talk to a demon, madness, madness. It hadn’t attacked me so far but I was a fool for lingering. The bottle of sap was full enough. I untied it from the birch with cautious movements, put a stopper on it.
Sap kept dripping from the birch. I should do something about that; I didn’t want to injure the tree, especially not one whose roots fed on the lake’s cursed water.
I didn’t answer yet. I realised I didn’t want to scare the demon away. Its eyes had grown even wider in fascination as the tree’s wound was revealed. The demon edged closer to the tree, grasping at the bark with its webbed hands and making more of those unintelligible sounds. I retreated with my bottle; the demon was far too close for my liking.
It turned to the birch-wound and licked the bark. Its tongue was long and translucent; I could see the veins within, reddish and blue. After a moment, it licked its lips. Turned to me. Its otherworldly eyes were crinkled with simple pleasure.
“Auntie Ember! Where are you?”
The demon startled like a wild deer at this third intrusion, my niece’s voice much closer than before. Its fish-scale skin shimmered in the light as it dived into the lake with a smooth splash.
The ripples spread out. I watched until the water calmed, my heart beating loudly in my chest. I had never stood by the water for so long. Strange: now that I had actually seen a demon, the lakeside felt less threatening.
But I had to get back to the house. I had what I wanted: sap from a tree whose roots drink lakewater. My niece was calling for me; I was needed, probably to prepare the midday meal; I should go and prepare the sap for cold storage and save it for Yule.
Oh — the birch. I needed to stopper the bark. Returning to the tree, I halted in my steps.
Where the demon had licked it, the birch bark had healed. Only a small scar remained where I’d tapped the tree: as if I’d done the tapping a year ago, not mere moments.
The demon healed that birch. I think about this a lot. I thought about it as I muttered the family spell that keeps sap good for the long months from spring till Yule, as I placed the small bottle in the back of our earth cellar. I thought about it every time I neared the lakeside. I thought about it again when I prepared Arborescent Cake that Yule, as I poured in the special sap.
That demon hadn’t hurt me. It hadn’t been angry to see me so close to the lake. It hadn’t demanded anything more as tribute than the sap it had licked from the birch itself. Its spittle had healed the tree.
The demon had spoken — a language I didn’t understand, but a language.
That year, the cake made with sap from that lakeside birch turned out melt-in-your-mouth delicious. I’ve never received more compliments for my Arborescent Cake, and I doubt I will unless I brave the lake-birches again some year. The cake was a perfect balance of spices and the cream cheese we made from Daisy’s milk and (oh Yule extravagance!) chocolate and pistachios bought from our travelling salesperson. And that sap, bringing a strange freshness to it all, weaving a spell.
I didn’t tell anyone I’d seen a demon, didn’t tell them where the sap was from. Let them think it was from a safe tree. The demon had received its dues, after all.
2 1/2 oz butter
2 1/2 oz chocolate
1 tbsp vanilla extract
5 large eggs
4 oz sugar
4 oz shore birch sap
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
a pinch of salt
3/4 cup flour
In a small pot, melt the butter, then remove from heat and add the chocolate. Whisk until smooth.
Mix together eggs, sugar, salt, baking powder, and baking soda. Whisk hard until the consistency is foamy and thick. This will take a long time, but you need to get the mixture to double in volume.
Keep on whisking and add the sap and the chocolate mixture. Then finally sift in the flour and mix without beating too much. Immediately pour the mixture on a parchment paper lined baking tray.
Bake in moderately hot oven for about 12 minutes. The cake should still be soft enough to retain a shallow impression when poked with a finger. Immediately after removing the cake from the oven, cover tightly with another parchment paper to prevent it from drying out while cooling. Let the cake rest until it is cool enough not to melt the filling.
1 lb cream cheese
1/2 cup pistachios (without shells)
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup raspberry jam
Lightly crush the pistachios. Don’t go too fine so you get a nice mouthfeel from them. In a separate bowl, mix together cream cheese and sugar and whip until softened. Mix in the crushed pistachios.
12 oz chocolate
12 oz cream
Heat the cream carefully until simmering. Remove from heat and mix in the chocolate. Let cool for a few hours until it has a spreadable consistency.
Flip the cake tray over so that the cake is lying on the covering parchment paper upside down. Peel off the bottom parchment paper. Spread the filling in an even layer that covers the whole cake. Make a little groove in the filling running lengthwise through the whole cake and fill the groove with raspberry jam.
Lift one end of the parchment paper under the cake and gently fold it inward until it turns over itself. Try to get a tight log but press gently to avoid cracking the cake. Continue until the whole cake is rolled. Slice off 1/4 of the cake at an angle to serve as a branch for the log. Place both the trunk and the branch on the serving platter and arrange in a log shape. Then cover the whole log with the frosting.
When the frosting is starting to dry and get firmer, scrape the surface with a fork to create a bark-like texture. Garnish with your favourite arboreal decorations and serve. The Arborescent Cake can be made one day in advance if kept in a cool earth cellar.
I’ve spent a lot of my life digging through my family’s archives, deciphering centuries-old hands, interpreting words through jam stains and other spills. Grandmother Elderflower would be proud of me, even though when I was a toddler she reportedly chastened me for slobbering on the Dictionary. I have her to thank for igniting the joy of scholarship in me, even if I never had the chance to go to university in the Wide World. They always needed me too much here at the house. I couldn’t leave, not when there was so much work to be done. (I’m glad my niece has taken a different path.)
This last recipe is my own invention.
It’s for — an experiment, you might call it. I’m not sure it’ll work. I’m leaving these notes with my finished pages for the recipe book in case dear Cloudberry can find a way to get this all to a printing house, just in case I never get back. I’ve been writing this as if it’s already something more than a raggedy booklet of hand-scrawled histories, and I hope these words appear in print one day. Be that as it may, within these pages I’ve given you a choice selection of recipes from my family’s archives. I hope you enjoy them.
I’m proud of the family history I’ve gathered together here, too. The history of the Lakeside.
My strength is in my cooking and silent scholarship, in the family archives I’ve unearthed. This recipe combines both. I’m calling it Reconciliation Dumplings, Served with Sage Sauce. Small dumplings made of wheat and spelt, folded in a handle-like cross shape to make them easy to dip — my mother taught me this fold when I was a child. When you bite into the crust, the savoury filling envelops the mouth with a promise that forest and field will feed you. Mushrooms, three kinds; elk meat, cooked tender; chopped walnuts; our own cheese, from Wee Daisy’s milk, grated in. Dip the dumplings in your sharp, herby sauce (served in a white glazed dish to show off the vibrant green of the sage and lemon balm). The combination of dumpling and dip will uplift the soul and bring a smile onto your face.
I made a test batch yesterday, and a full portion today. I stewed the sins of my family into the mushrooms, I whispered our flawed history into the cheese. I stirred in a pinch of stubbornness and a whole lot of hope. I hope it’s enough to make a difference: an offering made due to curiosity, not fear.
It’s nearing evening. It’s time to steam-fry the dumplings I’ve formed.
It’s time to go to the lakeside.
2 oz spelt flour
8 oz wheat flour
1 tbsp olive oil
7 oz hot water
Mix flours and oil. Add hot water. Knead for 10 minutes. Let the dough rest, covered, for at least half an hour.
half a carrot
fist’s length of leek
3 oakwood mushrooms, about 2 oz
1 big button mushroom, about 3 oz
3 king oyster mushrooms, about 2 1/2 oz
small fistful of walnuts
about 8 oz elk meat
good amounts of earthy cheese
salt, black pepper and sesame oil for seasoning
Mince carrot and leek. Sweat them in a small amount of oil. Finely chop mushrooms, fry them in butter until they are fragrant and golden. Toast the walnuts and mince them. Grate the cheese. Mix everything together with the raw meat, salt generously, and season with pepper and sesame oil. Knead the mixture until tacky.
Bunch of fresh sage, roughly chopped
Bunch of fresh lemon balm, roughly chopped
1 clove garlic, diced
Some walnuts, diced
Extra virgin olive oil
Earthy cheese, grated
Combine the ingredients in a mortar and pound until you have a sauce. Add olive oil as needed to get a good dipping consistency. Season to taste.
Roll the dough thin, cut into suitably sized circles with a mug. Fill the dumplings, fold them into the shape of a cross to make a handle of sorts for ease of dipping. Fry the raw dumplings until the bottom is crisp, then steam them under a lid for about three minutes to cook the filling. Re-fry them in some butter until the bottoms are crispy once more.
Serve fresh out of the pan. Dip dumplings into the sage sauce. Best enjoyed in good company.
It’s time to tell you my final story.
On the summer night I made Reconciliation Dumplings, it was still so light that I needed no lantern, even though the forest was shrouded in that twilight that confounds human eyesight. I reached the lake. I remember the waxing moon’s reflection on darkening water. I remember my whole body trembling with fear even as I set the dumplings, on their large platter with the small glazed-white bowl of sauce, onto the offering stone. So far, I was acting according to tradition. Every new recipe you try out, the first portion must be given to the demons.
But this recipe had a different purpose.
I raised my voice like you never, ever do on the waterside. “Limnlings,” I said. Great-Grandma Fern’s goblins, generations ago, had used that term instead of demon. I suspected it was the older term, the kinder term.
“Limnlings!” I pitched my voice louder. It echoed over the still evening water, the dark depths of the lake. “I don’t know if you can understand me, but I think you may. On some level, at least. I mean no harm. Please — come and enjoy these dumplings with me.”
I waited for a while, falling into a cavern of fear even as I planted my feet more solidly onto the damp moss. I called again. (I heard later that my family heard me calling at the lakeside, but were too afraid to come and rescue me. I don’t begrudge them for it. We have a long history of fearing the lake-dwellers.)
On the third call, they came.
They emerged from the water, their naked skin limned silver in the moonlight. They all looked underfed, huge eyes staring at me. Less than two dozen of them, in all — was this really the extent of their lake-dwelling kind? — but even so, they could easily drag me into the water. The backs of my calves tingled. I wanted to run back to the safety of our house.
But here I was, and here they were. I had invited them. I was perhaps the first human to do so in centuries. They hadn’t yet torn me to pieces with their sharp fishlike teeth, either, although I could smell their hunger and some of them were growling in low voices. They were predators, I was prey. So the stories told. But I thought I heard a rhythm to the growls, and wondered whether or not they might be talking amongst themselves instead.
At the front of this otherworldly delegation stood the creature I had seen in springtime more than a year ago, when I sought my birch-sap from the lakeside tree. The limnlings looked alike to my eyes, but there was a presence to this particular individual that made them stand out to me. My instincts were still telling me to flee, but I remembered how this creature — this person — had croaked out words in their own language, and I stood still.
“This is a peace offering,” I told the limnlings, my arms wide open. Their eyes flashed as if they might understand me after all. “My people have been afraid of yours for centuries, but I found out it was not always so. I don’t know what happened to make the situation what it is now, but I want to make it better. I think it was something my people did.” I gestured to the offering stone with its large platter of dumplings. “Please. Eat with me.”
The limnling I had met before stepped forward, then hesitated. They bared their knife-like teeth and I almost backed off, but I held fast. They hadn’t harmed me the last time, either. I had to trust that. If we didn’t trust each other even once, we’d never stop this cycle of sacrifice and fear.
I picked up a dumpling and waited until the limnling did the same. Then I dipped it in the green sauce, painted dark by the night, to show the limnling how best to enjoy this meal. I waited until the limnling had cautiously dipped the dumpling in and shoved it in their mouth until I took a bite myself.
It was perfect. Cooked into the dumplings were my apologies, the admittance of us Lakesiders’ guilt, our superstitious fear of the limnlings and their ill luck, all the years of watchfulness and being deprived of our best food. I could taste each of these in the filling, but the dipping sauce brought a note of hope to it all.
The limnling wiped their mouth with relish and gestured to the others. I stepped back — only half out of fear — to let the limnlings make swift work of the dumplings arrayed on the platter. I had made the dumplings small, and by fortune, there was enough for all of them with some to spare. My limnling went back for seconds and licked clean the small white sauce dish.
Relief cascaded over me. The limnlings had enjoyed my Reconciliation Dumplings. To this day I’ve never been more proud of my cooking.
Heartened by the food, they tried to talk to me, and I to them. They understood more of my speech than I did of theirs, I think, for their brows were furrowed in concentration as they followed the movement of my lips. I don’t quite know what I managed to get across to them. All I know is that what I was doing mattered.
Now, two years later, my throat still can’t make the sounds that the limnlings’ language needs, nor can they pronounce our words fully. Still, over time I’ve learnt to communicate at least in some way. I’ve learnt some of their history. It’s still not clear to me what precisely caused the rift, but it’s clear that Lakeside-dwellers offended the limnlings, started scorning their piscine gifts. Retaliation after retaliation, until the legend of demons was born and the peaceful beforetimes forgotten.
I’ve helped change that. We still leave some offerings to the limnlings, but they no longer rob us of the freshest and best — they merely wish to share in the bounty of the forest, and in return will bring us fish. Fish! We aren’t yet sure how to prepare the scaly, slippery things, but we’re learning. They taste strange but delicious charred on a fire, although you have to be careful not to choke on their small bones.
We still don’t fish on the lake ourselves, though, nor have we ventured into the water much. Most Lakesiders remain afraid, and call the limnlings demons, although some have listened to me. Old ways are slow to change, but I’m determined to keep changing them for as long as I live. My niece Cloudberry has gone away, but my other niblings remain, and I’ve told them all the stories. The one about the ancestor who fished; the one where I encountered a limnling and lived; and above all the tale of that night, of a shared meal between demon and human. Not the first one, though. There will be more.
I hope my niblings will continue what their Auntie Ember started. I think they will.
Most of the stories in this book were written down before I shared food with the limnlings. I haven’t changed them even though we no longer live that old life of fear. Paper is too scant here in the wild for me to write things down many times; and perhaps there’s some value in preserving the thoughts of another time.
I dip my bare feet into the lakewater sometimes, now, and am only a little afraid of what lies beneath the waves. My family is working on a rowboat. We’ve asked for information about fishing, about waterfaring, from cousins and acquaintances in the Wide World. I will find out what kind of fish a perch is. One day, we’ll ask the limnlings if we may fish on the lake — and when that day comes, I will go out with a fishing rod, and I will finally make my ancestor proud and prepare Tear-Salted Perch on the lakeshore.
Mistress Ember of-Alder-House
1st day of Spring, 1664 by the Southern Reckoning
Copyright 2023 Sara Norja
About the Author
Sara Norja writes in two languages; she was born in England and is settled in Helsinki, Finland. Her short fiction and poetry has appeared in venues including Goblin Fruit, Lackington’s, Fireside and Strange Horizons. Sara is @suchwanderings on Instagram and @saranorja.bsky.social on Bluesky; her website is saranorja.com.