Thursday, November 01, 2012

Muffins from Panera Bread

Thinking of Panera makes me realize how much times have changed.

The first time I encountered Panera, I was in grad school.  At the time, most cafes did not have wifi, but Panera did.  So sometimes, when I really needed a change of pace, someplace to work other than my apartment or depressing, communal, dark graduate student office, I'd go to Panera.  But going there was a big deal.  It was expensive.  Even if I only got a latte, it was far more expensive than anywhere else I could pick up a coffee drink.  And their food?  Way too pricy.  Going to Panera was a serious splurge, and I probably only did it a handful of times.

I remember loving their shortbread cookies, finding them buttery sweet, and large enough to last me a few treats.  I also remember thinking that some of their bagels, like the french toast or cinnamon crunch versions, particularly when slathered with the honey walnut cream cheese, were pretty awesome.  I don't think I was ever that impressed with their soups or sandwiches, although my parents adorably go to Panera for "date night" and get them.  Ah, life in a small town!

Anyway, it had been ages since I'd "splurged" on Panera, but back in August you may recall that I went on a bit of a birthday crusade, getting all my free birthday treats all over town.  And Panera, unlike many of the others, gave a fair amount of flex time to use the birthday reward.  They also give a free treat when you sign up for their MyPanera card.  So, I got to enjoy not one, but two free baked goods!

Panera is obviously a chain, with the same menu and decor everywhere.  I think the quality and service are pretty standard at all places, as my experiences in San Francisco seemed pretty identical to those I had in Virginia and New Hampshire.  You order at a register, and receive a pager to be notified when your food is ready, which you pick up at the counter.  They have wifi, and assorted seating, ranging from little tables to booths, seating around fireplaces, and outdoor seating.  However, the SF location does also have some local specials, like Giants cookies, so I guess they have some freedom to stray from the generic menu.

The main cafe menu features many sandwiches, salads, and soups, including the popular "You Pick Two" option for the indecisive amongst us, which is what I always got that when I dined there before.  They also make a bunch of coffee drinks, although with one of those push button machines that is somewhere in between a real barista and a totally magic gas station style machine.  Then they have a slew of bagel flavors and cream cheeses, but I wasn't allowed to pick from them for my free treats, which is too bad, since they are what I recall liking.  However, I did get to explore the insanely large selection of baked goods.  They have muffins, scones, danishes, cookies, brownies, etc.  Apparently they also make oatmeal, egg sandwiches, souffles, and all sorts of things I've never seen anyone order.

Anyway, I no longer consider Panera a splurge, nor do I see a reason to ever pick it over anywhere else.  The quality of the ingredients is better than McDonald's obviously, but most local cafes, bakeries, and coffee shops are better, and not more expensive.  I wouldn't be opposed to stopping in if someone else wanted to, and I'll likely wind up at Panera sometime when I visit my parents, but I won't be going out of my way to visit the one in San Francisco.
Wild BlueberryMuffin.  $2.19.
The muffins all looked pretty good, but I was struck by the vibrant blue color of the blueberry muffin.  It also said "made with real wild blueberries", so I thought it would have a chance.  Plus, blueberry is Ojan's favorite muffin, so I knew if I didn't care for it, he might enjoy it.

This muffin was totally and completely mediocre.  Not very moist.  No real flavor.  And the blueberries were tiny little flecks, not whole, juicy berries like I was hoping.  I have no idea where the blue color came from, as it certainly wasn't from blueberry juice.  I even looked up the ingredients online afterwards, expecting to find "blue #2" or something.

I didn't like this at all, and would never get again.  Ok price for a large muffin.
Cobblestone Sweet Roll.  $2.49.
After my failure with the first standard muffin, for my second freebie, I decided to go all out.  This thing looked amazing.  Was it a muffin?  There was far too much icing on it to possibly convince myself it was breakfast.  I decided to treat it as dessert.

They describe it as "Our Cinnamon Raisin bread dough mixed with chunks of apples and spices, topped with streusel and white icing." It sounded great.  It looked great.  But, with every bite I took, I just wanted it to be something more.

The top was fairly crisp, almost like it was dried out and stale, but I got it and had it at 11am, and they say they are baked fresh daily.  It was loaded up with sweet icing, which didn't have much flavor besides sweet, but was fairly tasty.

The inside was more moist, loaded with raisins, and plentiful cinnamon flavor.  I thought the raisins tasted just sweet and generic.  I know that raisins are raisins, but there was something about these that I just didn't care for.  There wasn't much apple, I think I only found a single chunk in the entire thing.

I kept eating it, really really wanting to like it, because it sounded like something I should like, but it just fell short. Meh.

Update: I attended a brunch, and someone brought a bunch of these.  They again looked amazing, so, even though I knew I really didn't like it before, I tried part of another.  Conclusion?  Yup, still not good.  The flavor just isn't there, as there is not much cinnamon flavor, and the icing is just super sweet.  But the biggest issue is that it isn't moist, the entire thing is really dried out.  Looks good, sounds good, but, just isn't.


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