A 2002 survey turned up a remarkable statistic: the average American will eat 1500 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches before graduating from high school. A sandwich so ubiquitous certainly deserves some scrutiny.
The first known recipe for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich was published in 1901 in The Boston Cooking School Magazine of Culinary Science and Domestic Economics. The author suggested pairing peanut butter with crab apple or currant jelly, which was unusual for the time. Peanut butter, which was considered a delicacy, was usually served as a savory food. New York’s Vanity Fair Tea-Room served its peanut butter with watercress while Ye Olde English Coffee House had a peanut butter and pimento sandwich on the menu.
The advent of commercial peanut butter (made possible by peanut-grinding machines) and pre-sliced bread transformed this once-fancy fare into the food of the people, but that’s no reason to leave it to its fate. It’s time to turn back the clock and give this splendid sandwich the respect it deserves.
You don’t have to grind your own peanut butter (although you certainly could). Nor do you need to make jam from scratch. And baking your own bread is entirely unnecessary. But if you want to make a truly great PB&J, you have to begin with great ingredients.
That means that you will have no use for squishy bread, the kind that makes great little bb’s when rolled between your fingers. What you want is sturdy white bread from a bakery: a Pullman loaf, sandwich white, sourdough, even challah or brioche provided they’re sliced fairly thickly.
Now spread one side of the bread with a layer of sweet butter. You won’t believe how much more delicious this makes peanut butter taste. Spread the best peanut butter you can buy—the kind made with nearly nothing but peanuts—on top in a good thick layer. Sprinkle on a little big, flakey salt; this will send little saline sparks shooting through your mouth each time you come across one.
Spread the other piece of bread with really good strawberry jam. Yes, the sandwich calls for jelly, but jam, the kind with pieces of fruit, is absolutely essential. (Raspberry jam is marginally acceptable, but grape jelly is not. As for the jams that are not red: You’re kidding, right?) For my taste the perfect proportion is about twice as much peanut butter as jam, but you may be of another opinion.
If you are going to eat your sandwich immediately, cut off the crusts and put the sandwich in the microwave for about 8 seconds. This will melt the ingredients into a texture so sexy you will barely recognize the innocent sandwich of your childhood. It will transform the flavors too, marrying them into perfect harmony.
If you’re saving your sandwich for later, pull out a roll of wax paper and wrap your sandwich right. Listen to the musical crinkle it makes as you fold it around the sandwich. Appreciate its smoothly seductive texture. Pick it up and look at the way it diffuses the light. Wax paper is so lovely that when I have nothing else to worry about, I’ve been known to fret over its inevitable demise.
Variation: The Max Special
My first husband was very fond of a sandwich that his family called the Max Special; at the time it seemed unbearably weird. But it’s grown on me over the years.
Spread a slice of bread with mayonnaise. Top with slices of pimento-stuffed olives.
Spread the other side of the bread with peanut butter. Sandwich the two together. Go ahead. Be brave. Take a bite.