Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Panera Bread...and More

I was recently given the opportunity to have lunch at my local Panera Bakery Cafe to try one of their newly developed soups.  I've been going to Panera for a few years now, as it's one of my go-to spots when one of my BFF's and myself get together for lunch.

I went on a late afternoon, after the always busy lunch rush.  Panera has a 'You Pick 2' option that includes a cup of soup and a half of any of their cafe sandwiches.  I chose the Sonoma Chicken Stew and paired it with the Turkey Asiago sandwich.  While I waited for my order to arrive, I enjoyed one of the perks of living in Los Angeles.  Invariably, wherever you go, one of the many conversations you will overhear includes 'the industry.'  At the next table over, I eavesdropped on two young couples discussing where they should go to shoot the next scene in their movie.  After a few minutes of discussion, they all agreed it could be done at one of their apartments.  Be sure to look out for this next blockbuster.

My meal arrived and I went right to the soup.  The Sonoma Chicken Stew has a very flavorful creamy base full of shredded chicken, peas, carrots, and potatoes.  I have to tell you, I was amazed at the carrots.  They looked like little marbles.  I visited the Panera website and discovered that those carrots are called Thumbelina carrots.  You learn something new every day!  The soup also had a slight sweetness to it that I learned was due to the sweet cream added to it.  It was an unusual addition, but one that lent itself to the sweetness of the carrots.  The half sandwich made it a perfect size for lunch or a light dinner.  The Asiago focaccia is delicious, aged and smoky in all the right places.

On any given day, Panera serves six different soups from the Sonoma Chicken Stew to French Onion to Vegetarian Creamy Tomato and more.  You can check out their website to see the daily options, download their menu, or check out the short videos they have on the soups.

[Disclosure:  This is a sponsored post that includes product and/or monetary compensation.   This is my first sponsored post and I chose to do it because, as I stated above, I have been eating at Panera Bakery Cafe for years and would not recommend the restaurant and/or their food if I didn't feel the product deserves recognition.]

Thursday, November 22, 2012

'Tis the Season, Part Two

[Note:  I started writing this post yesterday, hence the 'Thanksgiving Eve' mention.  I'm letting it be.  To everyone out there...Have a beautiful Thanksgiving, full of too  much food and thankful to be surrounded by family and friends.]

 Here we are on Thanksgiving Eve where people are busy preparing for one of the biggest eating holidays of the year, if not the biggest.  The good china is coming out for the table, people are fighting the craziness of the grocery stores, and kitchens are Command Central for the festivities.

I am not making dinner for Thanksgiving, but I am responsible for bringing appetizers for thirteen, which is an infinitely easier task than dinner.  There's a good chance that during this holiday season, I will make a turkey breast so I can have my own cache of leftovers and make stock.  But before any of that happens, let's go back a couple of weeks to my last post.  It was all about the pumpkin and I warned you that there would probably be another pumpkin post because I still had pumpkin to use.  This is that post.

I made gnocchi once before and for a first attempt it was a little disappointing.  They were heavy little lumps of dough that tasted okay, but beyond that...well, I wasn't happy.  So this time around, instead of using regular all purpose flour I used '00' flour.  A much better choice.  They were hearty without being heavy.  Serving pumpkin gnocchi in a brown butter and sage sauce?  The best choice.

Pumpkin Gnocchi in Brown Butter and Sage Sauce
(Adapted from this recipe)
Serves 2-4

1/2 cup pumpkin puree
2 cups '00' flour  (plus extra for rolling out)
1 egg
1/2 tsp nutmeg
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp pepper
3 Tbsp butter
2 Tbsp sage, chopped

In a bowl, mix the pumpkin, flour, egg, nutmeg, salt and pepper.  With a fork, bring all the ingredients together to give you a sticky, but not overly wet dough.  Add a little more flour by the tablespoon if you need to.  

Working in small portion, roll each piece of dough out into a hotdog shaped log, about 12 inches long.  With a knife or dough scraper, cut the dough into little pillow shapes about and inch long.  On the cut side, press down with the tines of a fork to form ridges and give you that slightly oval shape.  Spread gnocchi on a flour dusted pan until you work through all your dough.

In a pot, bring salted water to a boil and add enough gnocchi, but don't crowd the pot.  The gnocchi will cook within 3-5 minutes and they'll float to the top when they're done.  In a skillet, add the butter and melt over medium high heat.  Allow it to foam and begin to brown.  When little brown bits form and it smells nutty, add the sage.  Let the sage crisp for about 20 seconds, turn off the heat then add the gnocchi.  Mix to coat the pasta and serve.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

'Tis the Season

No, no...don't worry...the tree isn't up, the ornaments and lights are still in their boxes, and there isn't a strip of tinsel to be found anywhere here yet.  It's coming though, faster than you may think.  Thanksgiving is a mere two weeks away and I had already seen the Christmas decorations vying for space right next to the Halloween candy and costumes at Target.  I'm talking about that other indicator of the season, whether you call it the Fall Season or the Thanksgiving Season...I'm talking about pumpkin.

All over the internet, on Pinterest, and in the blogs I read, I've seen recipes with pumpkin--pumpkin roll, pumpkin donut holes, spiced pumpkin muffins, pumpkin- filled ravioli, the traditional pumpkin pie and loads more.  The Pumpkin Spice Latte has been back at Starbucks for at least a month.  So I decided to throw my hat into the ring and submit my take on a pumpkin something or other.  My pumpkin treat for today is pumpkin biscotti, because in my world, there is no such thing as too much biscotti.  I have to give this one to Kenny, lover of all things pumpkin, for giving me the idea to make these.  I definitely owe him a dozen of these cookies.

Being a relative newcomer to the Pumpkin Appreciation Society, I'm impressed with all the ways you can use pumpkin in recipes.  A word of warning, I still have pumpkin puree to use, so sooner rather than later, you just might see another pumpkin recipe here.  But for now, sit down with a cup of coffee, gather your energy for the upcoming hustle and bustle of the holidays, and have a cookie or two.

Pumpkin Biscotti
Adapted from Alice Waters' Anise Almond Biscotti recipe
Makes about 36-40 cookies

2 1/2 cups flour
1 tsp baking powder
2 tsp cinnamon
3 eggs, room temperature
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup pumpkin 

Pre-heat oven to 375 degrees and line a baking sheet with parchment.  In a small bowl, add the flour, baking powder, and cinnamon.  Whisk to mix well.  In another bowl, add the sugar and eggs.  With either a whisk or electric mixer, whisk until pale yellow in colour and light in texture.  Add in the pumpkin and mix well.  Gradually add the flour mixture and stir to combine.  When the dough is mixed, turn out onto a floured board and split into two portions.  Form each portion into a loaf about 12-14 inches long and 2 to 3 inches wide.  Place about 3 inches apart on the cookie sheet and bake for 25 minutes or until bottoms are golden brown.
Remove from oven and let cool for 10 minutes.  Turn oven temperature down to 300 degrees.  Cut loaves into half inch slices and place face down on the cookie sheet.  Leave a little space in between each cookie.  (You may end up needing another cookie sheet for this or doing this in two steps.)  Bake again for another 25-30 minutes, turning the cookies over half way through the baking time.  Remove and cool on baking sheet.  

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Midnight Baking Session #852

There is something really appealing about objects miniaturized.  I loved all the furniture in my dollhouse when I was a little girl.  Every item was just like what we had in the house...just so much smaller.  Did you ever know someone who set up toy trains with the tracks running through a tiny little village?  All the little trees, the general store, the school house, the little people.  The cute factor is so big, it makes me grind my teeth, because it is all so cute and...All.  So.  Tiny.  WAIT!  Hold have to see a shop on Etsy that is beyond cool...everything oh so tiny and more than itty bitty!  See???  Try not to grind your teeth, I dare you!

Think of all the foods you can find in miniature.  Candy bars, you know, 'fun' size bars.  Hamburgers, shrink them down and call them sliders.  Reese's peanut butter cups in tiny, baby form.  Lasagna cupcakes and soup served in shot glasses.  And desserts...lots of desserts.  I think it makes them more palatable, and not just in taste.  Eat a mini fruit tart and have all the indulgence with a quarter of the guilt.

Back in May, I baked mini cupcakes for a baby shower.   A couple of weeks ago I made mini scones, and last night just shy of midnight, I found myself in the kitchen with an itch to bake.  Earlier that morning I made pear sauce from an Asian pear I had in the fruit bowl, and while I would have been just as happy eating it as is, I thought using it as part of something else would be even better.

If you still get your Sunday paper, chances are you also get the Parade magazine.  In the 7 October issue, they featured a basic muffin recipe that looked like a good place to start for what I wanted to make.  They also give  you a load of suggestions for add-ins.  Originally, I was going to make regular sized muffins until I remembered that I bought little condiment cups and had a mini muffin pan that had to be christened on a first use.  And so came the Asian pear almond mini muffins.  There is one problem with making baked goods in mini form though.  It's difficult to eat just one.

Asian Pear Almond Mini Muffins
Adapted from the Basic Breakfast Muffins recipe from Parade
(Makes 24-28 mini or 12 regular muffins)

2 cups flour
1 tbsp baking powder
1/4 cup sugar
3/4 tsp salt
2 eggs
1 cup milk
1/2 cup canola oil
1 tsp vanilla 
1 tsp cinnamon
1 cup Asian pear sauce
1/2 cup sliced almonds, toasted

Pre-heat oven to 400 degrees.  In a small bowl, whisk together the milk, eggs, oil, and vanilla.  In a larger bowl, mix the flour, baking powder, sugar, and salt.  Whisk the wet ingredients into the dry, mixing well to beat out any lumps.  Add the pear sauce and mix to combine.  Finally, add the almonds and mix to incorporate.  

Line a muffin tin with liners or grease the pan with butter.  Fill each spot about 2/3 full of batter.  If you're making mini muffins, bake for 15-16 minutes;  18-20 minutes for regular sized.  

Note:  To make the pear sauce, slice and cube a large Asian pear.  Add the pear, with 1/4 cup sugar, and 1/2 cup water to a saucepan.  Bring to a boil and with a potato masher, smash the fruit, and allow the sauce to thicken.  I added about 1/2 teaspoon of nutmeg to it, cinnamon would also be good.  

Yes, the bottoms got a little too done.  That's what can happen with a new pan and a minute too long!