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Amy Potter and the Monkey of Salvation: an America's Test Kitchen Adventure

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The test kitchen was full of wonderful smells, from savory sauteed garlic to sweet melting chocolate, and everything in between. Amy couldn't think of any place she'd rather be, even if her job at the moment was wiping down one of the stations, which came with only the attendant scent of cleaning solution. It didn't matter. Amy was living the dream. The past six weeks had been the best of her life. As an intern, she got to hang out in the same workspace as her heroes, and sometimes even assist them with tasks.

Yesterday she'd helped style food for a photo shoot for one of Julia's recipes. When she was done, Julia had patted her on the shoulder and said, "Good work." Good work! Julia Collin-Davison had said that! To Amy!

Some of the cleaning fluid sluiced onto the floor. Amy sighed, and snapped out her daydream. She should really focus better. Doing her best was absolutely imperative if she wanted the kitchen to keep her. Most interns went home after three months, but a very select few sometimes got invited to stay as assistants. Amy knew she'd have to do something majorly impressive if she wanted to make that happen.

As she reached into the soapy water to retrieve the sponge, the bucket started to wobble. Oh no. It was happening again. Amy squeezed her eyes shut, hoping she was wrong, but the man's voice came all the same. It was deep and sardonic, and it said, "I'm the bucket you left carelessly at the edge of the counter."

"No, you're not," Amy said. She opened her eyes and glared at the man sitting cross-legged on the counter. This awful blond-haired man in a rumpled suit seemed to be following her everywhere since she started at the test kitchen. He just popped into existence out of nowhere, made terrible things happen, and then vanished before anyone else saw him. Today his suit coat's sleeves were pushed up past his elbows, and he was covered in artistically arrayed soapsuds. Amy glared even harder. "Go away."

The man just smirked. "I'm starting to wobble, just waiting for something to shake me off the edge, where I'll spill slick water everywhere and someone might trip and--"

Amy shoved her sponge in his mouth to shut him up. It was, she had learned, very important to stop him from saying whatever horrible thing he had in mind. Then she grabbed the bucket, and carefully lowered it to the floor. She focused hard, making sure the bucket wasn't cracking, or sitting on a stray banana peel or whatever. These things were unlikely, but Amy had learned that unlikely did not mean impossible. Not where this guy was concerned.

"Okay," Amy said. "The bucket is perfectly stable, and I am going to finish cleaning with no mishaps."

"I like to see a young person with a positive attitude," said another voice. This one was also male, but very different from the terrible man. Amy looked up, aghast to find Christopher Kimball standing over her. He was wearing his apron and bow tie, and from the looks of it, he'd just come out of a filming session. There was a bit of makeup visible on his face, especially around the eyes.

"Sir," said Amy. "I was just cleaning up."

"Missed a spot," he said, pointing to the small puddle on the floor. He grinned as Amy hastened to wipe it up. "That's the spirit! So. How would you like to take on an extra task?"

Amy rose to her feet so fast she almost stumbled. "Extra task?" she asked. She could hear the desperation in her voice. Way to play it cool, Potter, she thought. But Christopher didn't seem to mind. He nodded approvingly at her eager tone.

"One of our sponsors has a granddaughter who loves Harry Potter," he said.

"Sir?" Amy blinked in confusion. America's Test Kitchen prided itself on not bowing to pressure from sponsors.

Christopher smiled. "It's not like we're endorsing their products or anything like that, but this sponsor has been very supportive of our show, and we'd like to do something to show our appreciation. So! We've offered to cater the granddaughter's birthday party. It's in a month, in Waltham. You'll have free reign over all the supplies and equipment in our kitchen, but you'll need to do any planning and testing after your normal hours are over. On the day of the party, you'll go to the site with the food and make sure it is presented properly. Any gratuities the parents wish to provide will be split evenly among the catering staff."

Amy blinked harder. She seemed to have lost the ability to speak. Christopher went on, unfazed. "You don't have to do this, of course, and there's no penalty if you decline. If you complete this successfully, you'll have that much more glow in your letter of recommendation when your time here is up, but it's not mandatory. So. Are you interested?"

"I--wh--I mean yes. Yes, sir," Amy stammered.

"Excellent," said Christopher. "I'll be interested to see what you plan."

***

Time flew even faster in the second half of Amy's internship than it had during the first half. She spent her days doing the usual intern tasks: food prep, styling, cleaning, and so on. But the evenings were a joy. She worked on Harry Potter themed party foods every day, even coming in on her off days to get extra kitchen time. It was truly exhilarating.

She spent the first while testing chocolate cupcake recipes for the cauldron cakes. The party was going to have a Hogwarts Express theme, she decided, which meant lots of portable sweets and snacks that kids could eat at the table or while roaming around. The cupcakes were a big hit with the tasters in almost every version, but she finally settled on an extra fudgy variety with a rich buttercream frosting--kids would like fun and sweet over elegant and complex, she thought. She'd even added a sprinkling of edible glitter to the top to make them look like they were brewing magical potions.

Next came candies. Chocolate frogs were simple, just good chocolate in frog molds. Jelly slugs were a bit more challenging. After playing with several different ratios of gelatin to water and flavoring (and after cleaning up one unfortunate explosion when a certain blond guy had shown up with a special sticky coating and talked some nonsense about volatile sugar), she finally settled on one adapted from, of all places, a Terry Pratchett fan page recipe for wine gums. It worked well, pleased tasters, and was neither too chewy nor too runny. Licorice wands, Amy settled on buying. Sacrilege? Maybe, but she got gourmet licorice, so that had to count for something.

Then came the hard part: pumpkin pasties.

In the books, Harry and his friends ordered those on the train, but no one ever described them. Amy started by researching pasties, which were a traditional Cornish pastry pie thing, sort of like Hot Pockets. The most common ones were savory meat pies, but there were sweet ones, too. Most of the Harry Potter recipes in books and online seemed to point in the sweet direction, so Amy tried that first. She tried several variations, from traditional pumpkin pie in a typical pie crust to more experimental options, substituting puff pastry for pie crust and, in one notable case, adding pineapple to the filling. That last was a giant flop. The others were okay, but no one ever seemed very excited about them. The most warm reception from testers was, "Well, that's pretty good, I guess..." Not terribly encouraging. Amy needed to wow these kids and their parents. She needed everything to taste so good that Christopher himself would want to eat it. Which meant she needed to go back to the drawing board.

A week before the party her breakthrough came. It was 8:30pm, and Amy was in the kitchen with just one other chef, an assistant named LaTanya, who was working on perfecting a curried lentil soup. "Watch it for me for a minute?" LaTanya asked. "I have to go grab some fresh cilantro from the pantry."

Amy nodded, happy to help another chef whenever she could. But of course the second LaTanya's back was turned, who showed up but that guy. The horrible one. He grabbed the spoon from the soup pot and turned the flame to high, smiling malevolently all the while. "I'm the soup you left unattended, just for a second, but long enough for the lentils to build pressure and start splattering as they boil," he said.

"Give me the spoon right now," Amy said.

"Pop!" the man exclaimed, and then laughed like a naughty four-year-old. "Pop! Pop! Soon the bottom will start burning, and then, maybe, if we're really lucky, somehow, a kitchen fire will start! And then--" His fiendish monologue was cut short when Amy smacked him with one oven-mitted hand. The padding meant she didn't do as much damage as she might have liked, but it startled him into silence for a second, and that was long enough for her to yank the spoon from his hand and start undoing the damage. She turned the flame down and began stirring with an intensity unmatched by any soup stirrer before or since.

"This soup is fine," she said, wincing as a stray splatter burned a bit of her forearm. "I am stirring it, and it is is cooking evenly, and not burning. It will taste brilliant."

"Thanks," said LaTanya. She walked over and set a bunch of fresh cilantro on the counter where the awful guy had been sitting seconds before. "I think it's so cute that you talk to your food when you're cooking."

"Uh, yeah, cute. Right." Amy didn't dare explain the truth. She wiped up the splattered lentil from the counter quietly, hiding her dismay at the sight of the pasties she'd just pulled from the oven. They were covered in soup, every last one. Her shoulders drooped, and she scraped them into the bin, except for one, which she felt compelled to try.

The salvaged pasty was awful. Puff pastry deflated under the thick wetness of the soup, and the sweet cheesecake-like filling clashed horribly with the lentils, but it gave Amy a flash of inspiration. Curry and pumpkin went well together, and curry was definitely part of modern British cuisine. Maybe she'd been trying the wrong tack entirely with the sweet pie angle. Maybe savory was the way to go.

***

The day of the party dawned sunny and clear. Amy woke up in her tiny sublet bedroom in a dodgy part of Allston with a light heart. She didn't even mind that her two roommates (both undergrads at BU) hadn't cleaned up after their beer-filled "study session" the night before. This was not a day for complaining. It was a day for triumph.

The kitchen was hopping with activity, and Amy cheerfully joined the fray, prepping her pasties and frosting her cauldron cakes. At noon, she oversaw the loading of the party food into a white van, and by one o'clock, she was happily ensconced in the luxurious custom kitchen at the sponsor's daughter's home. Kids would be arriving at two, and everything was going exactly as planned.

After several failed attempts at curried pumpkin pasties, Amy had seen a vintage recipe from the 1940s on an Australian video blog, and she'd found that worked marvelously. It was a savory filling, but not curried, and it had ham in it, which meant Christopher would probably love it. The way to his heart was definitely through pork as far as Amy could tell. He was apparently going be at the party later to check in, too, so he'd definitely have a chance to sample them. She couldn't resist grinning as she placed them in the oven. Guests should start to arrive just as the first batch of pasties was ready to come out. Amy had two more prepped for baking, and she planned to serve them all warm throughout the afternoon. She straightened her official America's Test Kitchen apron, and popped a pointed witch hat onto her head. This was going to be fun.

***

The trouble started around three. Amy was just setting the second batch of pasties out on a wire rack to cool when the all too familiar voice of a certain awful man rose from beside her.

"I'm the loose dog who wandered in when one of the kids came looking for a drink," he said. He was on his hands and knees this time, crawling on the floor, and he was wearing a collar with ominously jingling tags. He panted ostentatiously for effect. "I'm so hungry for ham-filled pastries that I will accidentally knock you into the hot baking sheet and make you burn--"

"Can it," Amy said. She shoved a hot pasty into his mouth, and he cried out in pain.

The birthday girl's mother came in just at that moment, looking none too pleased about the steaming lump of food on her floor. "Are you yelling at me, and throwing things in my kitchen?" she asked.

"Oh, no. I'm sorry, ma'am," Amy said. "I just... burned myself and dropped one of the pasties by accident."

The mother looked skeptical, so Amy kept thinking as quick as she could. "I... didn't want to swear in front of the children, so I said the first non-swear word that came to mind. I'll have it cleaned up immediately."

"See that you do," the mother said. The doorbell rang before that conversation could go any further, and the mother excused herself to welcome the new guests.

"Stupid guy," Amy muttered. She'd thought that she'd be safe from him here, since the only place she'd ever seen him was in the test kitchen, but apparently that was a false hope. Still, it was only one lost pasty. Not the end of the world. She cleaned it up and got back on track, with only a slight wince when she heard Christopher's voice coming from the front hall. Apparently he was the new arrival. Well, at least he hadn't seen the fallen pasty...

Twenty minutes later it was cake time. All the kids and adults gathered around the long oak table in the lavish dining room to watch the birthday girl blow out her candles. She had a special Hogwarts seal cake, which was twice the size of a normal cauldron cake. It was just right to hold eleven candles around the edge. Amy brought it in and set it before the child.

And then she heard the voice.

"I'm the Slytherin house sympathizer who never wanted to come to his stupid cousin's party in the first place," it said.

"Oh no," Amy said, and turned around in horror. The man was standing behind her, his usual dark suit adorned with a green and silver Slytherin scarf.

"I won't be happy until I've ruined everything, so I'm going to charge the table and break all the heirloom china in the room. But first--what's that noise?" he asked.

Amy's eyes widened as a chittering monkey in a wizard's robe ambled into the room behind the awful man. It pulled a wand from one sleeve and pointed at him, hooting purposefully. The awful man's body stiffened and jumped, and then he fell face first onto the Persian rug beside the china cabinet, his scarf fanning out around his head.

"Nice work, Trunk Monkey," Christopher said. Amy hadn't seen him approach, but he was suddenly right next to her, dressed up like Professor Dumbledore with a fake beard and everything. The monkey gave him a high five, and Amy struggled not to faint. Everyone at the table looked as though they hadn't noticed anything amiss. The birthday girl blew out her candles, and the party applauded and tucked into their cake.

"Sir?" Amy asked. "You can... you can see that guy?"

Christopher peered at Amy over his half-moon spectacles. "Unfortunately. He seems to be particularly obsessed with brilliant people. Awful nuisance."

"What just happened?" Amy asked.

"Ah," said Christopher. "I do love to see healthy scientific curiosity in young people. I should have expected that. I've had my eye on you, after all. As it happens, the Trunk Monkey is a wonderful innovation in Suburban Auto Group's cars. He takes care of pesky problems when they arise, and test kitchen members have all found him useful at one point or another. The wizarding model, which I ordered especially for this party, has a wand with a taser inside, perfect enacting silent stupefy spells."

"You anticipated needing to stupefy someone?" Amy asked.

Christopher's eyes twinkled. "Do I seem like the kind of person who puts up with Mayhem?"

"Well, no, of course not," said Amy.

"Exactly right. I believe in an orderly kitchen and an orderly life. Now, let's have some of that delicious cake, shall we?"

Amy rushed to get a cauldron cake for him.

"Thank you, Amy is it?"

"Yes, sir," Amy said. "Amy Potter."

"Potter, eh? Fitting name." Christopher chuckled. "Trunk Monkey, take the stunned nuisance to the car and keep an eye on him." The monkey bowed and dragged the awful man out of the room as Amy watched, mouth agape.

Christpher clapped Amy on the back and handed her another plate. "All right, Potter. Time to relax and enjoy the results of your kitchen wizardry."