I openly confess to being such an adult (…young adult). Although I like to mix up my daily eating menus, peanut butter and jellies often appear in the line-up probably more consistently than any other item. As I’ve said before, it’s one of the best traveling snacks (disregarding the squishable factor and soaked bread issue which can be avoided with smart construction). In fact, this simple snack (or meal) sustained me for most of my travels abroad this summer when we were on-the-go or when a true sit down meal wasn’t possible. They were eaten so often that preparing them and eating them wasn’t just that – it was promoted to a ‘Peanut Butter and Jelly Party’. It is still unsure if this title was created to celebrate the sandwich or to make the disappointing reality that we were going to eat a PB&J for yet another snack/meal a little more tolerable. I’d like to think of it as the former. Needless to say I’ve had my experience with this American food staple.
I don’t remember the first time I ever ate a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I’m sure I was young, and I’m sure it was on white bread with Skippy or Jiff on one side, and good old Concord grape jelly on the other. Nowadays we have a plethora of other options ranging from all different types of bread, jams, jellies, preserves, and even peanut butter spreads (Crunchy? Smooth? No Salt? Organic? Natural? No stir? Grind your own?? Decisions, decisions!) So the other day when my friend David and I started to pack our lunch for our afternoon of sightseeing in the Colorado Springs area, we suddenly became inspired by this surplus of options…and took it to the next level.
We took out the strawberry and raspberry jams and grape jelly from the fridge and sat them on the counter. We couldn’t decide which one to choose for our lunch. ‘How about we do all of them and see which one we like best?’ David suggested. A food taste-test game?! I’m sure my eyes started sparkling. ‘I’ve done something like this before!’ I said, as I remembered sending my friend Charlie off on a road trip with two PB&J’s made with different J’s in each. ‘When you eat them try to see if you can guess which is which, and then call me to tell me how it went!’ Sometimes I wonder how my friends put up with me and my food antics, bless their hearts.
Of course I instantly supported David’s idea. I’m not sure how it all progressed after this since it happened so quickly, but we somehow realized that the taste test had to go beyond the bounds of jams and jellies. Before we knew it every condiment was coming out of the refrigerator. We started conservatively with honey, brown sugar, craisins…and then we threw our cautions to the wind and out came the carrots, barbeque sauce, mustard, and red pepper flakes. There was no stopping us now! We found ourselves in the middle of a true test kitchen science experiment, and we couldn’t have been more excited to be the scientists.
We decided on using one type of peanut butter (natural and crunchy…the only way to go in my book. My friend Charlotte, another PB&J aficionado, agrees) and one type of multigrain bread for the base of our creations. We did end up using sundried tomato and basil tortillas for four of the pairings though, mostly because we were curious about a different vehicle for the ingredients (…and we ran out of the bread). Here were the finalists for the ‘PB&…’ pairings that were made on the bread:
3) Raspberry Jam
5) Brown Sugar
6) Life cereal
7) Spicy Brown Mustard
8) Stubb’s Barbecue Sauce
9) Feta cheese
10) Cream cheese
5) Brown Sugar
6) Life cereal
7) Spicy Brown Mustard
8) Stubb’s Barbecue Sauce
9) Feta cheese
10) Cream cheese
These last four were made on the tortillas:
After our sandwich making was complete, I realized we still had one butt (or heal) of the bread left. It was obvious that it had to be used creatively. It had to involve some sort of ingredient(s) we hadn’t used yet, which made it a bonus. We decided that we would each make a concoction (limited to two ingredients in addition to the peanut butter) without the other person’s knowledge, who would then have to guess what the new ingredients were upon eating it. Hence the mystery part…which made it that much more of a bonus.
We decided to call it the:
15) Bread-butt Mystery Bonus Round (x2)
Each combination was placed inside a plastic baggy along with a piece of paper labeled with what ingredient pairing was included with the PB in the sandwich. We filled our water bottles and grabbed the half gallon of freshly pressed apple cider I had recently gotten from the farmer’s market in Salida, CO…a perfect palate cleanser between tastings, we thought. Now all we had to do was find the perfect eating venue.
After hiking up to Helen Hunt Falls in North Cheyenne Park, our stomachs were officially grumbling as we drove to the Garden of the Gods. We parked the car and walked towards the gigantic red rocks jutting out of the ground that stood before us. Mounted against the green of the scattered trees, the bright blue sky, and the white clouds, these rock formations were more than impressive. Our chosen picnic area was next to one of the rock walls where the formation of the rock had made a nice bench-like place for us to sit. David spread the test subjects out along one of the rock edges while I got my pen and notebook ready for data collection. It was time to eat.
These are the notes that I took as we munched and discussed:
1) Strawberry Jam: slight bread soakage – added not too much but the right amount of moisture in the bread. No distinctive strawberry taste though, just a sweetness against the salty PB
2) Grape Jelly: ‘a classic for a reason’, definite jelly texture as opposed to thicker and opaque jams, more of a sugary corn syrup taste
3) Raspberry Jam: great raspberry taste - compliments the PB perfectly and still holds is own flavor – two distinct tastes that go together well
4) Honey: not much moisture = some major mouth stickage, brings out nuttiness of the PB, good pairing but would be even better with another flavor to bounce off of (banana, raisins…etc)
5) Brown Sugar: became slightly liquidy when came in contact with the PB which was enjoyable, but still a bit dry. Not all was absorbed, so the brown sugar withheld the grainy sugar texture which made a satisfying chew (reminded you there was something more than just peanut butter texture in the sandwich) ‘It’s kind of tastes like a cookie, but it’s a sandwich!’
6) Life cereal: the added crunch was a definite benefit, downfall was the dryness factor. ‘All I need is a glass of milk and I’d be set’ Flavor of the cereal didn’t hold up well against the overpowering PB
7) Spicy Brown Mustard: totally dominant flavor! Attributed it to the pungent vinegar and turmeric in the mustard. Crazy texture – feels like you’re eating a mustard sandwich made with a really thick mustard because of the PB consistency
8) Stubb’s Barbecue Sauce: similar experience to the mustard as the sauce’s flavors were dominant, but not as overpowering over the flavor of the PB as the mustard – can actually taste PB slightly and pairs with the chile powder, paprika, and other spices well. Pretty yummy!
9) Feta cheese: (silence while chewing…) ‘I have no idea what to say…its just straight up strange’. The feta doesn’t taste like feta, the peanut butter tastes more…briney? We’re stumped.
10) Cream cheese: complete melding! No one flavor overpowers the other, but they combine to create a completely new flavor – nuttiness from the PB with the tanginess of the cream cheese. Completely new texture too, the cream cheese makes the PB a little less thick, right in the middle of the consistency of both spreads. Crazy!
Transition to tortillas:
11) Carrot: wow! Saltiness of the PB brings out sweetness of the carrot –freshness of the carrot good contrast with pastiness of the PB. Since carrots were shaved with veggie peeler, the flatness of the carrots with flatness of the tortilla gives uniformity to your bite. All flavors paired well with the herbiness of the tortilla
12) Celery: definite satisfying crunch. Was expecting a fun ‘ants on a log’ alteration flavor, but celery just overpowered all. PB flavor almost completely drowned out – only added a thick texture to the sandwich
13) Red Pepper Flake: two totally separate sensations: just heat in background of the throat and a PB taste, didn’t heighten flavor of the PB. Good building block though, just needed something else to bring them together (salty soy sauce, garlic or ginger…peanut sauce anyone?)
14) Orange flavored Craisins: craisins had a strong flavor (especially from added orange), you get the sweetness of a jam from the craisin, but it makes you want that liquid texture and mouthfeel that jams have and craisins lack.
15) Bread-butt Mystery Bonus Round:
a. David’s creation: dried ground thyme and white pepper! Got the white pepper right away, knew the second ingredient was a dried herb, but didn’t pinpoint it as thyme until the third guess. No melding of flavors here, – just herby, peppery peanut butter – pretty muddy. Again, needed another (sweet?) ingredient to bring them all together.
b. Lizzy’s creation: Honey smoked turkey with chipotle salsa! The turkey was pretty easily decipherable due to aesthetics, but David did well knowing that it was a salsa that was the tomato flavor, specifically the chipotle salsa. ‘pretty salty, strong chipotle flavor, overall not too bad’
After our last bite of mystery concoctions, we sat back and looked at all of the empty plastic baggies strewn before us. ‘Those were a lot of sandwiches…eaten very quickly.’ We rationalized our uncomfortably full stomachs for the sake of science. Finally we were able to sit and digest our thoughts and our food at the same time…we were so full that it was a welcomed time for reflection. Here is what we came up with:
Best Classic Combination: Raspberry Jam. By a landslide really. Mainly because the actual raspberry taste held up against the peanut butter – it wasn’t just a sweet taste whose fruitiness was lost against the nutty peanut butter, which was the case for the rest of the classic combo options.
Best Savory Combination: Barbecue sauce. It was so surprisingly tasty that it convinced me to add a bit of peanut butter to my next homemade BBQ sauce batch since it would not only add a bit of thickness to sauce, but a nice complimentary background flavor. Why not?
Biggest Disappointment: Red Pepper Flakes. I guess we expected some more ‘wow!’ factor with this one, but it just fell flat since the flavors stayed completely separate. Maybe a hot sauce or a spicy chili sauce would be better instead, since the vinegar in them could help wake up your tongue and bring all of the flavors together.
Biggest Surprise: Cream Cheese. We knew the dairy section of the experiment would be an interesting one. The feta was just plain weird, but the cream cheese and PB turned out to be nicely compatible, who knew? I guess if you think about it, with a few more ingredients (powdered sugar, vanilla, butter…) you’d be on your way to a peanut butter type of frosting. I think overall just experiencing both the transformation of taste and texture of these two ingredients made this one really fun to try.
And there we had it, our first official ‘Peanut Butter &… Adventure’ (as we liked to refer to it) was complete. I’m sure this is more than you ever wanted to know or thought you would ever read about Peanut Butter and Jellies, but there’s a lot to learn here. Although the acronym limits you to virtually three ingredients (peanut butter, jelly, and the assumed sandwich bread) now you know that these are not limitations, but mere starting points of where you could take these ingredients.
So the next time you feel a craving come along for that classic childhood comfort food, only to find that someone has left a measly knife-scrape of jam left in the jar in the fridge, don’t give up yet. Or, if you run out of mayo, mustard or any other type of staple condiment, don’t overlook that jar of peanut butter as a possible stand-in. As David and I learned that day, there are a myriad of other pairings that can go along with that trusty jar of peanut butter than just jelly, and it doesn’t need to be between two pieces of bread. All you need is a creative mind and a confident leap into the unfamiliar, because you never know, your standard PB&J may be waiting for its next new acronym.