Not because it’s not good. It is! My friends and family and random strangers who I share my wares with all enjoy what I make. They are enthusiastic and emphatic in their praise.
I am, however, my harshest critic. Always have been, (probably) always will be. (I shudder to think at someone being harsher to me than I am.) I’ve got a bad case of perfectionism with a touch of the imposter syndrome – so even if a dessert is good, even great, I think it can be better.
And now, there’s this cake. A cake so good it sold out in one night the first time I made it (something my coconut icebox cake was also capable of). A cake so good I waited an entire year to make it again, because I just had to make it again. A cake so good even I like it.
Here I am combining my love for a show that’s been off the air for years with my inability to maintain momentum on here. Huzzah! I’m also combining booze and bacon into one singular dessert. Double huzzah!
Or, as Ron Swanson would say, bully for me!
This cake was inspired by the great Mr. Swanson himself – full of Lagavulin, candied bacon, and half a banana. Because you might need potassium. (If you understand that reference, God bless you. And if you don’t, I’m sorry and watch the show already.)
Crossing the state line was like passing through a filter. Everything became a little more golden, the edges softer. If I hadn’t recognized the light, the way the winter sun shined down on the road, I would’ve thought the lack of sleep and excessive time alone had finally taken it’s toll on my addled brain.
But I knew this light. I had seen it before. For years. It was dusk in South Carolina. Wintertime.
I breathed in deep.
The next morning I rose before the sun, the closed blinds in my room producing a whisper of silvery light. Dawn was coming. I watched it appear over the fields of my family’s farm. The start of my first day back. I knew exactly where to begin, too.
I parked my car in its usual place – un-shaded and exposed, guaranteed to warm up inside. The asphalt was already absorbing the heat, the light.
I forced myself to pass the back door. I wasn’t an employee anymore, this entrance wasn’t mine. Instead, I went in through the coffee shop. A regular customer.
“What’re you doing here?” Katie asked, both enthusiastic and incredulous as only she can be. I hugged her tight, tears welling up, my heart in my throat, unable to answer her question.
I saw a flash of blue-blonde hair out the corner of my eye, seconds later a gentle tap on my shoulder. I turned to see Jen, beaming – she knew I was coming, the only one who’d been aware I’d appear that afternoon. She enveloped me in a hug with her long arms. The tears spilled over as we spun.
The spinning ended and I faced the kitchen. Kris stood there, behind the gleaming prep table. He gave me a happy pout, a fake-frown transforming into a smile, and headed down the hall toward me. Now the tears were flowing more than falling. My shoulders shook, heaving sobs as we embraced.
Collecting myself, I went to order coffee. I let the familiar sounds wash over me – the steaming milk, the keyboard clatters, Lindsey and Callie’s sweet voices. I leaned against the coffee bar – cool cement in contrast with soft wood – the color of honey.
I sensed Alex before I saw him, turned to see him standing behind me in the doorway. One step, two steps to close the gap.
I breathed in deep.
“How’re you doing?” he asked.
Instead light. Lightness in his presence, in being back at GB&D, being home.
“So…uhh…I don’t know what your plans are while you’re here, but…do you want to make some desserts?”
Nothing would make me happier.
That decided, I took up residence at the corner table. Alex’s favorite spot. The place we had my interview.
Surrounded on both sides by windows it had the best view of the goings on both in and out of the restaurant. The afternoon sun slanted in through the panes, the décor seemingly picked out to compliment the rays – copper and plants and brick absorbing and reflecting in just the right way. The room itself hugged me, putting me at ease. The line grew, shrank, grew. I watched Jen. Alex. Kris. Katie. I cried. I ate the best burger I’d had in months.
In the morning, I returned, ready to work. But my station wasn’t where it used to be. A lot had changed in six months. Remodeling, rearranging. Alex’s quest for the perfectly situated kitchen never quite accomplished.
I found the mixer in the Annex (named after Toby’s haunt in The Office), set it up on top of the new freezer, collected the ingredients and myself. The freshly painted walls glowed white-blue under the fluorescent lights. At the right angle, I could make out the paint drips from the old mural that lay underneath – round faces with even rounder eyes. My nerves bounced around all the silver and steel in the room.
Muscle memory and music overtook my senses. It took some getting used to – new things in new places, old things long discarded. After a few starts and stutters (and a loan of coconut milk from Kris), I had assembled my coconut icebox cake – a guaranteed crowd pleaser.
Dinner service that night was like I’d never experienced. The switch to table service had made all the difference. The pendant lamps glowed softly, warmth in the winter night, the din of diners never rising above the dim light – a constant measure of contentment.
The icebox cake sold out by Saturday night. Despite the abundance of short ribs and fried biscuits – I felt lighter yet still.
Commuting Sunday morning was as it ever was. Slowly creeping out of the driveway and down the nearly empty highway. Headlights passing me on one side, taillights guiding me on the other.
Jen was awaiting me when I got there – a little late despite my best efforts to be a model pseudo-employee. How many times had I done this? How many times could I still do this? Jen let me take the reigns while she readied the line for service. I fell into the familiar pivot of dough, oil, rack, then back. Again and again. The pile of doughnuts increasing as the daylight did. It crept over the painted farm fields and variety of vegetables on the building next door. A mural celebrating local produce – tinged the softest shade of pink by the rising sun.
“Wow. We have so much time left,” Jen said, pleasantly surprised. Hands on her hips, she surveyed the work we had done. The work she let me do.
That night, when all the guests were gone and all the cleaning done, Alex and I shared a beer. New Glarus Belgian Red. A farewell tradition started the first time I left.
We sat comfortably, watching the cars go by outside. We talked about wine, apartment hunting, heart surgery, and ramen. Every once in awhile, passing headlights would illuminate a different corner of the room, a different feature of his face.
Suddenly, his entire face lit up, not from a headlight but with remembrance. He sprang out of his chair and started rifling on a shelf behind the bar. He returned with a slim, dark blue box. There was a large “GK” embossed on the top, surrounded by the outline of a spoon.
Inside was the Gray Kunz special edition spoon from last year. He took it out and handed it to me. My hand recognized the weight, the length of the handle. But this one felt softer, smoother than the others we kept en masse in the kitchen. It was copper – in fitting with Alex’s obsession. There were other flashes of it all throughout the restaurant – planters and pots and ladles and more. The entire bar front, which he’d made by hand, was distressed copper sheeting.
I rolled the spoon over in my hands as we continued to drink, to talk. About breadboxes, cookbooks, road trips, and regrets. The bottle ran dry long before the conversation would, but we had to concede. It was time to go.
“Here, hold this for me.”
I took the proffered box without thinking, assuming I was only doing a favor. Holding onto it while he cleaned up the glasses, discarded the bottle. The crooked grin and extra sparkle in his eyes gave away what he’d just done.
“No! No! I can’t! This is yours!” I tried to hand it back to him. He shook his head, waved his hands in refusal.
“Amanda. Please, take it. It’s sat in that box for months. I’ve been waiting for the right time to use it. Obviously this is it.”
My little sister’s alarm went off. Again. She didn’t stir. Again. I crawled in beside her, jostling her awake.
“I don’t wanna get up,” she mumbled, rolling over.
“None of us want to be awake, do we?” my mom said, coming into the room. She stood at the foot of the bed, looking down at us. Decision flashed across her face. She smiled. “Make room for Mom!” She crawled in between us, making a sandwich. Daughter, mother, daughter. Not to be left out, Edgar jumped up onto the foot of the bed. He quickly fell back asleep, despite the tossing and turning of three other bodies. My mom faced my sister and I began to scratch her back, an absentminded move I’d picked up from her – years of her tucking us in at night or snuggling on the couch.
I see that moment in my mind’s eye so clearly. Viewing it from the ceiling, watching the scene play out below. My mom turning the other direction, facing me, smiling. My little sister now scratching her back. We laid there for awhile, my foot dangled off the edge of the bed. No one rushed to get up, to start the day. Instead, we laid in silence for a while – our breathing beginning to match Edgar’s steady inhale and exhale.
When people ask me how being home is – I wish I could show them this moment, have them feel what I felt. Because this is how being home is. It’s the opportunity to crawl into my little sister’s bed and joke around with her, the ability to make my mom laugh when I eventually try to dismount from the mattress and land less-than-gracefully on my backside.
The doorbell rang. Edgar barked, all 20 pounds of him behind it, posturing, protecting. The postman was already down our stairs and onto the sidewalk by the time I got to the door. He waved back at me as I stepped outside, socked feet onto snowy stone.
There was a package waiting for me – brown, slightly battered, and heavy. I hauled it inside. I recognized the address, the stickers on the side.
If I thought Edgar had been interested in the mailman, it was nothing compared to how enamored he was the package. I tore into it – he helped. In it we found gifts from Nick – a friend, former coworker, and immensely talented woodworker.
Among the packaging and the padding we found three beautiful cutting boards. I pulled them out, one by one.
The first was a striped one, rectangular, made of different types of wood. The colors ranged from deep and dark to light, nearly white. These came from different trees, different places, coexisting solely as the result of Nick’s own handiwork.
The next was the same shape, but softer, with rounded edges and a warm, rich stain. It felt like butter between my fingers as I slid it from the box. Nick’s logo was burned into the corner, his brand on everything he made.
The last board was even more beautiful in person. A few weeks earlier, Nick had sent me a text, a picture of his creation. The board was outside on his woodpile, hanging from the slim handle.
“It looks like you.”
I knew what he meant in that text. It made even more sense when I finally felt the board, my hands closing around it on the bottom of the box. It was the thickest of the three, made of strong stock. It was solid. Curvy. Unique. It did look like me.
That’s the beautiful thing about being a maker. There’s an ability to turn the medium into a memory – personified and artfully crafted. Craftsmanship like that deserves an equally beautiful baked good.