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Try mini herb-cheese popovers for winter gatherings

Recipe: Just a bite's worth and easy to make

These little popovers will go fast at any gathering. They feature three cheeses and winter savory, but can be customized for any tastes.

These little popovers will go fast at any gathering. They feature three cheeses and winter savory, but can be customized for any tastes. Kathy Morrison

Ever made popovers? The ingredients are so ordinary, but the results are fantastic: Puffy, doughy and crunchy all at once. They can be savory or sweet -- delicious alongside soup or chili this time of year, or split open for a slathering of jam.

Popover ingredients
Flour, milk, eggs plus flavorings go into popovers.

I typically use a standard 12-cup muffin pan, though I do own a classic popover pan, which makes six high-hat popovers at a time. But I got to thinking: How about making popovers in a mini muffin pan? That would produce at least two dozen, which could be served at a potluck or game day gathering.

I settled on a combination of cheeses for the flavoring, along with a lesser known but excellent herb: Winter savory. This plant is an easy-care perennial that resembles thyme but is sturdier. Mine gets an occasional shearing, but otherwise it's happy to be left alone in its planter. The flavor is stronger than thyme, so it's an excellent accent to many cheeses and to winter favorites such as stew.

The cups on my mini muffin pans are just about 1 inch deep. If you don't have that size pan available, this recipe will work in the standard muffin pan; adjusted baking times are included below. I mix my batter in a blender, but this works just fine blended with a hand mixer or a whisk. 

Note: Be sure to grease the pans with butter or oil, and dust the cups with flour, grated cheese (as done here) or sugar -- popovers are notorious for sticking, even in nonstick pans.

Herb and cheese popover bites

Two springs of leafy herbs
That's winter savory on the left, thyme on the right.

Makes 24-plus bites or 12 standard muffin-size popovers

Ingredients:

1 tablespoon unsalted butter, melted, plus more butter for the pans (or use a neutral cooking oil on the pans if you prefer)

2 tablespoons Parmesan cheese for pans (optional, but use some flour if not using cheese)

1 cup milk (dairy or non-dairy, any kind except nonfat), room temperature

1 cup all-purpose flour

Pinch of salt

Pinch of freshly ground pepper

Pinch of cayenne pepper (optional)

2 large eggs, room temperature, lightly beaten

For filling:

1 tablespoon brick-style cream cheese (not the whipped or tub kind), softened

Popovers being filled
A generous 1/4 teaspoon of filling goes in each cup.
(I used a 1/2 teaspoon to scoop.)

3 tablespoons grated Cheddar cheese

3 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese

1/2 to 1 teaspoon fresh winter savory or thyme leaves, chopped

Instructions:

Preheat oven to 450 degrees F. Grease the cups of two mini muffin pans (24 cups total) with butter or oil and sprinkle about 1/4 teaspoon grated Parmesan in the bottom of each one.

Blend together the milk and the melted butter. Whisk the flour and the seasonings together, and add slowly to the milk mixture. (Using the blender, I add about a third of the dry ingredients at a time, scraping down the blender after adding each third.) 

Then add the eggs and blend thoroughly but don't whip the mixture.

Let the batter rest while mixing the filling: In a small bowl, mash together the cream cheese, Cheddar cheese and 3 tablespoons grated Parmesan until blended. Stir in the chopped herbs.

Pour just enough batter into the muffin cups to cover the bottoms. Add a generous 1/4 teaspoon of the cheese mixture to each cup, then top with batter almost to the top edge of the cup. (Any extra batter can be baked in a greased custard cup, ramekin or other small baking dish.)

Place the pans on a middle rack in the oven and bake for 10 minutes. (Avoid opening the oven while it's at 450 degrees until the 10 minutes are up: This is crucial for the popovers to rise.) Lower the temperature to 350 degrees and continue baking 7-9 minutes until popovers are brown and crisp (for this you can check).

Popovers baked and tipped in pan
Tip the mini popovers to release any steam.

Remove to cooling rack. Run a blunt knife or small spatula around the edges of the cups and tip the popovers up to release any steam. Serve soon, warm or room temperature. They can be reheated by wrapping in foil and placing in a 350 oven for a few minutes.

To bake in a standard muffin pan: Bake at 450 degrees for 15 minutes, then 15 to 20 minutes at 350 degrees. Proceed as above.

Sweet herb variation: Dust the cups with granulated sugar instead of Parmesan. Don't use black pepper or cayenne in the flour. For the filling, combine 3 tablespoons softened cream cheese with a pinch of salt, a pinch of sugar, 1 teaspoon lemon or lime zest and 1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme or lemon verbena. Bake as above.

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Dig In: Garden Checklist

For week of March 3:

* Celebrate the city flower! Catch the 100th Sacramento Camellia Show 3 to 6 p.m. Saturday, March 2, and 10 a.m to 5 p.m. Sunday, March 3, at the Scottish Rite Center, 6151 H St., Sacramento. Admission is free.

* Between showers, pick up fallen camellia blooms; that helps cut down on the spread of blossom blight that prematurely browns petals.

* Feed camellias after they bloom with fertilizer formulated for acid-loving plants.

* Camellias need little pruning. Remove dead wood and shape, if necessary.

* Tread lightly or not at all on wet ground; it compacts soil.

* Avoid digging in wet soil, too; wait until it clumps in your hand but doesn’t feel squishy.

* Note spots in your garden that stay wet after storms; improve drainage with the addition of organic matter such as compost.

* Keep an eye out for leaning trunks or ground disturbances around a tree’s base, a sign of shifting roots in the wet soil.

* Fertilize roses, annual flowers and berries as spring growth begins to appear.

* If aphids are attracted to new growth, knock them off with a strong spray of water or insecticidal soap. To make your own “bug soap,” use two tablespoons liquid soap – not detergent – to one quart water in a spray bottle. Shake it up before use. Among the liquid soaps that seem most effective are Dr. Bronner’s Pure-Castile Soaps; try the peppermint scent.

* Pull weeds now! Don’t let them get started. Take a hoe and whack them as soon as they sprout.

* Prune and fertilize spring-flowering shrubs after bloom.

* Cut back and fertilize perennial herbs to encourage new growth.

* Make plans for your summer garden. Once the soil is ready, start adding amendments such as compost.

* Indoors, start seeds for summer favorites such as tomatoes, peppers and squash as well as summer flowers.

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