We're having an in-office happy hour on Thursday to welcome our new global CEO (he's based out of India), and as the office booze pusher (i.e. I organize an in-office happy hour the last Thursday of every month), I was given free rein to set up something nice. I knew immediately that I wanted to go with Pastoral, my favorite cheese/wine place in the city. I looked at their catering menu, which I've used before, to see if any of their cheese trays struck my fancy. These trays are so beautiful, you guys, but they're expensive, so we don't normally use them for run-of-the-mill happy hours. I liked a few, but the "American Artisans" one had cheeses from Kentucky, Vermont and California, and I really wanted to feature the Midwest a little more (we have good things here too!) so I went to the store and asked them to work with me on a custom cheese tray. They were delighted to, and this is what we ended up with:

1. Milton Creamery's Prairie Breeze Cheddar (Iowa)

Their site description reads: The unique flavors of this cheddar exemplify how the creativity and imagination of American cheesemakers can result in unexpected and exceptional cheese. Both sharp and nutty, creamy and crystalline, Prairie Breeze is made by Galen Musser, the son of Milton Creamery's owner. Less than a year after Milton Creamery opened, Galen took over the cheesemaking process at the young age of 16, and just a few years later, his Prairie Breeze took the Best Cheddar award at the American Cheese Society's 2009 competition. Made with fresh milk from neighboring Amish farmers who hand milk their cows, we are glad this Davenport Farmers' Market favorite has moved into the national spotlight. Try pairing Prairie Breeze with a fruit forward Merlot. (Author's note: This is one of my go-to cheeses for a cheese plate. It's sharp enough to be great without being overly strong. This and Widmer's are my favorite cheddars around.)

2. Upland Dairy's Pleasant Ridge Reserve (Wisconsin)

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Voted the No. 1 cheese out of several hundred by the American Cheese Society in 2001, 2005 and 2010, this Wisconsin farmstead cheese is fashioned in the style of the finest European Gruyeres. Nutty, rich and earthy with a satisfying, complex finish. As delicious on a cheese board as melted in your favorite cheese recipe. Seasonally made at Mike and Carol Gingrich's Uplands Dairy by cheesemaker Andy Hatch. Pastoral's fromager, Cesar Olivares, hand-selected one of the 2010 season's the most outstanding batches of Pleasant Ridge for our cheese case. Taste the delicate, nuanced flavors from the cows' diet of lush, rolling pastures in this American treasure! (Author's note: You guys, please do not take this suggestion and cook with this cheese. It's too delicious to be mixed with anything. I had some of the Extra Reserve last month and it was the greatest thing I've ever tasted. If it's available near you, buy it!)

3. Marieke Smoked Cumin Gouda (Wisconsin)

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This younger award-winning gouda is subtly smoked over real wood, bringing a deeper note to the cumin-y aromatics. Cumin is used regularly to spice gouda in the Netherlands, as the earthier spices play delightfully with the nutty lactic tones that gave this cheese its fame. (Author's note: this is one we found at their Artisan Producer Festival. I wanted something with a little pizzazz to the arrangement, and this one is really good. They also do a raspberry flavored one that isn't too strongly fruity...neither flavorings seem to be used to hide inferior cheese, as is often the case. The plain stuff is just as delicious.)

4. Wabash Cannonball (Indiana)

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Judy Schad, owner of Capriole, is a pioneer in the recent American artisan cheesemaking movement. Beginning with the desire to create a sustainable lifestyle for her family, Judy started making handmade goat cheese using the milk from her farm's goats in the late 1970s. Today, that herd of goats has grown to over 400 Alpine, Saanen and Nubian goats, yet her dedication to farmstead cheesemaking and respect for her land and animals remains the same. The Wabash Cannonball is a fantastic example of the delightful variance that is characteristic of artisan products. With a texture ranging from chalky to smooth and flavors that are earthy and lemony, this ash-coated, soft-ripened boulet carries the expression of the land of Wabash River Valley to your table. (Author's note: this is just a really good ash-rind goat cheese. I originally wanted to showcase my home state (Nebraska) with Dutch Girl Creamery's fresh chevre coated with pink peppercorn and herbs, but they didn't have enough for a whole tray.

The cheese will be accompanied by their amazing black olive tapenade, baguette and flatbread crackers, spiced almonds and dried cherries. I also did a charcuterie tray with two local meats (one from Indiana and one from Chicago) and then two from Utah's Creminelli Fine Meats, which are amazing, which will be accompanied by piquillo peppers, pickled artichoke hearts, stone ground mustard and baguette. Then I got a few little crostini bites, one with chevre and blood orange fennel tapenade, and another with proscuitto, parmesan and oven roasted tomatoes. On top of all that, I got a bunch of nice wine, too...mostly red since hardly anyone in our office drinks white. Not local, alas, as the Midwest isn't producing much great wine right now, but a lot of stuff I've tried before, so I'm pretty pleased. Hopefully everything will go well!

If you have any amazing cheeses or artisan food products you think I MUST know about, please share in the comments! I love talking about wine and cheese. :)