DIY Cheeseboard (& jealousy)

We offer a meat and cheese board appetizer at work.

Every time someone orders it, I turn green with envy.

Meats.

Cheeses.

Assorted fruits and accoutrement.

It’s delectable. Delicious. The height of “I’m enjoying this meal out at a restaurant. Someone else is doing the dishes. I’m having a second glass of wine.”

Let’s recreate that at home, shall we?

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How To: Season a Cast Iron Skillet

You ever just date someone who is so wrong for you? From the get go? There are signs it’s not going to work, obvious reasons they’re not the one, red flags popping up left and right.

I’ve ignored those sings and reasons before. Breezed right on by those red flags. It’s almost a right of passage – to chase, pursue, and date a dude that isn’t a good choice. Most women I know have done it. And are better for it. Because what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.

My Cast Iron Skillet, before

One dude in particular made me so strong that by now I should be able to lift a Buick over my head. Game playing, antagonizing, ignoring, disrespecting. The whole nine yards. But I was young, I thought I could get him to change.

I was an idiot.

The final nail in the coffin was when I saw how he treated his grandmother’s cast iron skillet. If he was disrespectful to me then what he did to this poor pan was unconscionable.

We had cooked burgers over a fire in the backyard (because A: his kitchen was disgusting beyond belief and B: he wasn’t sensible enough to own a working grill) and afterwards he left the pan outside. For three days. While it rained.

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Coconut Icebox Cake (& light)

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.

We hugged.

I breathed in deep.

“How’re you doing?” he asked.

“Better now.”

No tears.

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.”

I accepted the box, and the spoon inside.

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The Lillet Rosé Martini (& a birthday)

Today is a very special day.

The Lillet Rosé Martini via Midwest Nice Blog

Today is my dear, sweet friend Elise’s birthday.

This woman came into my life five years ago and has done nothing but brighten it and believe in me.

The Lillet Rosé Martini via Midwest Nice Blog

She is smart, hard working, gentle, and honest. She is strong and sure of herself in a way most people in their 20s are not (hey, yeah, that includes me).

Elise is also generous beyond measure. Last month, I had tickets to a show in Chicago over Labor Day weekend. Elise was headed back East to spend the holiday with her family. She made time to have dinner with me and leave her house key for the weekend so I had somewhere warm (and free) to stay before catching her flight, lugging her suitcase downtown all the way.

The Lillet Rosé Martini via Midwest Nice Blog

A few more things about Elise: she loves to knit, the show NCIS, the color pink, and delicious food. Her sense of style is impeccable and her family ties are strong. She is a skilled baker in her own right and loves soft pretzels and her dog with equal measure.

She is an original.

As is this drink.

The Lillet Rosé Martini via Midwest Nice Blog

Or, at least, it’s original to the steakhouse where I plied the bartender for the recipe. I’ll be taking her there tonight to celebrate this auspicious day. The day when the world was given the gift of Elise.

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King Cake Layer Cake

I did a bad thing.

King Cake Layer Cake | via Midwest Nice Blog

I changed King Cake. Into a layer cake. The horror! The horror! I can hear my NOLA friends (Hi Megan! Hi Justin! Hi Ben! Hi Cole!) rolling their eyes and blanching at the thought.

King Cake Layer Cake | via Midwest Nice Blog

Lord forgive me.

King Cake Layer Cake | via Midwest Nice Blog

Eating a slice of this cake may go a long way towards forgiveness. It’s got all the aspects of the traditional King Cake – brown sugar, pecans, cinnamon, sprinkles. But I did away with the yeasted, brioche-esque dough (because I’m lazy) and soaked the whole thing in a bourbon syrup (because Bourbon Street). There’s still a baby hidden among the layers, he’s under the light and airy sorta-Swiss buttercream.

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Sweet Potato Cake with Toasted Marshmallow Frosting

Spring weather definitely isn’t for me. With the ups and downs and dramatic changes in the forecast at a moments notice, it’s too much. Cold in the morning, too hot in the afternoon, rain whenever. It’s a lot to plan for. Will I need an umbrella? Will I be too cold after work? Are my shoes waterproof? There are outfits to choose, light layers to build, jackets to carry around. Geez Louise.

Sweet Potato Cake with Toasted Marshmallow Frosting | via Midwest Nice Blog

Yes, I’m aware how self-indulgent and ridiculous I’m being, but I have a point thankyouverymuch.

Sweet Potato Cake with Toasted Marshmallow Frosting | via Midwest Nice Blog

You see, the yo-yoing weather also means yo-yoing cravings. When it’s chilly I want soup, when it’s warmer I want salads, sometimes I’m craving hearty comfort and others I want light and lean.

Sweet Potato Cake with Toasted Marshmallow Frosting | via Midwest Nice Blog

Which is what led to this beauty’s creation. The flavors are most definitely fall and winter inspired – hearty sweet potatoes with warm spices, but give a nod to light and lean spring too with airy marshmallow frosting. If you don’t have a kitchen torch, you don’t need to toast the frosting, but it adds that “sitting ‘round the campfire on a warm summer night” feel to truly make this cake fit for all seasons.

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