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A few of years ago, back when I was still working in a developmental neuroscience lab (sounds fancy, but you can think of it as “playing with tadpole neurons”), I was given a travel stipend to head to San Diego for a conference. To put this trip in perspective for those of you who are jet-setters, I had never in my life been west of Missouri. Even that 12-hour Missouri trip had always been taken by car; I had only been on a plane once when I was 8 years old. I was also 22 years old and poor, so the last thing I expected was to suddenly be able to fly off to beautiful California for a visit.
Apart from being terrified of the plane, I was over the moon about traveling 2,500 miles away from everything familiar. I traced the distance on maps and looked through photos of the city, trying to get a grasp on the journey I was about to embark upon. My awesome sister, Sarah, volunteered to fly out and show me around, since she loves the city.
Every part of that trip was incredible: walking into the raspberry scented hotel lobby each night and seeing the lights of downtown all around my window, walking past flowers that seemed overwhelmed by their own huge blooms, eating pastries above the surf in La Jolla — and the HILLS! Hills like I’d never seen, rolling all around with houses creeping stealthily up their sides and staring off into the Pacific Ocean.
My sister rented a convertible and even though it was November, we drove with the top down to Coronado Island. We stopped into a little restaurant, Cafe 1134, for lunch. We weren’t expecting much, but ordered some panini. As we each took our first bites, our eyes met, and we realized we had just walked into something special. These were no ordinary panini. These were extraordinary panini: warm, melty, amazing! Even after a fancy seafood dinner, pasta in Little Italy, breakfast by the shore, and an Indian feast in La Jolla, we both still think of those panini as one of the best meals we ate in San Diego.
They’re just sandwiches, right? Wrong! They can be transcendental.
What perfect, amazing timing for this post. I’m so excited to share with you that I’m about to embark upon my second journey to the West Coast. I’ve just been chosen as the Nature’s Pride Bread Ambassador and awarded a trip to San Francisco.
How fitting is it that, just as I’ve discovered I’ll be returning to California, I’ve also found another transcendental panini — this time from my own kitchen, with my own homemade croissants! My sister Sarah isn’t going to believe me when I say that these are as good (if not better) than the panini at Cafe 1134, but perhaps I’ll make her a believer with a bite!
Everything about this panini is incredible. The buttery, fresh croissants embrace crisp apples, creamy brie, toasted pecans, bright rosemary, and a drizzle of sweet honey. The flavors melt and meld into a gorgeous medley of sweet and savory. I swooned. I devoured. I wished I hadn’t frozen the rest of the croissants.
Have you made your croissants yet? I’ll let you in on a little secret: I tried “handmade” croissants from a Charlotte bakery, and scout’s honor, homemade was about a billion times better. That being said, making these panini is an urgent matter. Even if you have to pick up some croissants from your local bakery to try this, you should do so as soon as possible!
What are your special travel memories? What food reminds you of your trip?
Apple, Brie, and Toasted Pecan Panini
Recipe by: Willow Bird Baking
Yield: 3 panini
3 big croissants (preferably homemade!)
1 large apple (I use Gala), cored and sliced relatively thin
2 teaspoons chopped rosemary
1 8-ounce round of brie, sliced
1/2 cup pecans, chopped
honey for drizzling
Toast the pecans: Place nuts in a dry skillet over medium-high heat and stir constantly. Once they begin to toast (when you start to smell them), shake pan to ensure all sides of the nuts are toasted evenly and none of them burn. Pour out onto a plate to cool while you assemble the sandwiches.
Preheat panini press to medium and spray with cooking spray. Slice croissants open and layer brie slices, apple slices, a small handful of nuts, a generous pinch of the chopped rosemary, and one more slice of brie on top. Drizzle with honey and replace the top of the croissant. Grill on panini press for a few minutes, checking periodically, until cheese is starting to melt and croissant is toasted. I finish mine in the microwave for about 15 seconds to get the cheesy nice and melty. Serve warm.