Panini literally means “little breads,” according to the Joy of Cooking, but it is a common Italian word for sandwiches. Served in restaurants, a panini usually is a grilled sandwich.
However, these are not your standard grilled-cheese creations. More often than not, paninis are made with as little butter or vegetable oil as possible, making them a lower-fat alternative to the classic grilled cheese.
Last week, Panera Bread jumped into the panini business with their “hot, robust sandwiches.” The four Toledo-area bakery cafes are now serving three hot-off-the-grill meal options. Using their Asiago cheese focaccia (Italian flat bread) and the rosemary and onion focaccia - which also is sold in the bakery - the shops are grilling the sandwiches on a hot press. Each is $5.95 and served with chips.
Frontega Chicken is smoked and pulled white meat chicken, red onion, mozzarella, sliced tomato, fresh basil, and chipotle mayo on rosemary and onion focaccia.
Portobello & Mozzarella uses garlic-roasted portobello mushrooms marinated in balsamic vinaigrette with fresh whole-milk mozzarella, caramelized onions, and fresh basil on rosemary and onion focaccia.
Cuban Pork & Ham is made with smoked pork tenderloin, sliced ham, Swiss cheese, thick-sliced dill pickle chips, chipotle mayo, and spiced mustard on the asiago cheese focaccia.
That the Cuban sandwich combines pork and pickle may surprise some people. “According to Scott Davis at corporate headquarters, they researched the sandwich in the Cuban community of South Florida,” said Kevin Lent, of the Panera, Inc., franchise, the Wholesome Group. The group owns and operates the Northwest Ohio locations, and those soon to be opened in Southeast Michigan.
“The tartness of the dill offsets the spiciness of the pork and mustard. It was tested for six months in the Florida market. We try to stay traditional to the sandwich, but put a Panera spin on it by adding the Asiago cheese focaccia.”
Actually, the panini was introduced last August, when it was available to franchisees. But Mr. Lent was busy opening four locations of Panera Bread in less than one year.
“I did not want to add another piece [to the operation],” he said. “I wanted to do it right. This sandwich is more labor-intensive. It is our only hot sandwich.”
One employee at each location assembles this sandwich. Then it is held in a mini proof box for 45 minutes to bring it up to 150 degrees. Next it is placed in a grill press long enough to brown the bread, less than two minutes.
“It is still greaseless,” said Mr. Lent.
Using Panera's recipe for Tomato, Salami, and Spinach Panini, you can improvise and make your own at home with a skillet coated with nonstick cooking spray. Note, you will have to flip the sandwich. A panini press grills the top and bottom simultaneously.
Indeed, the popularity of panini sandwiches may be a forecast of next Christmas's hottest appliance: the panini grill press for the home kitchen. Wait and see.
Tomato, Salami, and Spinach Panini
1 rosemary and onion focaccia, split horizontally
1/2 cup Panera Bread Dipping Sauce for bread, or a tomato sauce with herbs
1 pound hard Italian salami, thinly sliced
1/2 pound fresh, baby spinach leaves
1 small red onion, thinly sliced
1/3 pound provolone cheese, thinly sliced
Spread dipping sauce or fresh tomato sauce on cut sides of split focaccia. Arrange half of cheese slices on bottom piece of focaccia. Add a layer of spinach, salami, red onion, and the remaining cheese. Place the top of the focaccia on the sandwich. Cut into quarters.
Spray a large, heavy skillet with nonstick cooking spray and heat over medium heat. Add the sandwiches to the pan. Press down frequently and firmly with the back of spatula until the bread is toasted, about 3 to 4 minutes. Carefully turn the sandwiches over and heat the other sides, again pressing firmly with the spatula for an additional 3 to 4 minutes.
Yield: 4 servings
Source: Panera Bread
Kathie Smith is The Blade's food editor. E-mail her at email@example.com.