My Favorite PB&J

Throughout my childhood, I took for granted that everyone enjoyed peanut butter and jelly sandwiches the way my family made them. Not every time (but a good percentage of the time) I had this quintessential kid favorite, it was fried. You read that correctly—a fried peanut butter and jelly. 😋

I don’t mean greasy, county fair-style of battered-and-fried. This PB&J sandwich is assembled as usual, and then buttered on both sides and placed on a pan or griddle like a grilled cheese sandwich. The reward for patience while it cooked was a golden and crispy crust, with peanut butter and jelly melted together inside—a sticky, gooey, delicious mess of flavor.

You make me so very happy!

I was at least halfway into my 20s before I realized that a fried PB&J was not a standard sandwich for everyone else, and I’m thrilled to have been let in on this flavorful secret sandwich at such a young age. This sandwich is helping me wrap up Better Breakfast Month, and I believe it qualifies as a “better” breakfast item for a few reasons:

  1. It’s quick and easy to make
  2. Kids and grownups alike will enjoy it
  3. It’s a fun and elegant twist on an ordinary PB&J
  4. It has whole grains, fiber, protein and fruit, which makes it nutritious (that’s my story and I’m sticking with it)
…and utterly DELICIOUS!

Making a fried PB&J is really as simple as I just described, and you certainly don’t need a recipe to do it. What I will offer instead is my guide to making the most memorable fried PB&J, because the ingredients you choose can make or break your first taste impression of this sandwich, which is, quite frankly, dangling right on the edge of the dessert category. Let’s begin with the foundation of any good sandwich:

The Bread

In my (trying to be) humble opinion, a homemade artisan-style bread will yield the best results. You guys know I’m all about sourdough, and this is the bread I’ll be using here, but I know not everyone has time to invest in learning or making naturally leavened bread. You can use store-bought bread to make a top-notch fried PB&J, provided you choose a suitable type. Hopefully, you are not still purchasing the long, skinny, plastic-wrapped loaves that are found in aisle 12 of the supermarket—but if you are, please stop. Cheap packaged breads are made of cheap, stripped-down ingredients, and the  texture is all wrong for sandwiches, toast—well for anything, really.

I love Maurizio Leo’s sourdough recipe that I’ve linked above because it makes the best sandwiches (and the best toast). It uses a simple but unusual step of pre-cooking a portion of the flour, which enhances the final texture into something that is gelatinized and chewy yet tender, and 100% perfect for sandwiches. To be fair, the recipe is not for beginners, but if you have some experience with sourdough, I hope you’ll try it. Maurizio’s recipe makes two loaves, but I usually halve the recipe, and I bake it in a covered Pullman pan, which gives me perfectly square slices.

If your supermarket has a bakery, pick up a good, simple artisan loaf—preferably something partially whole grain, with a soft “crumb” (that’s a bread-nerd term for the interior texture of the bread) and a firm, slightly chewy crust. No nuts or seeds or anything extra—just a classic bread is fine. All your sandwiches henceforth will thank you.

The Peanut Butter

Every PB&J (fried or otherwise) I had as a kid was made with conventional supermarket peanut butter, namely the brand that the (allegedly) choosy mothers chose. But I have not bought that stuff in years because it contains sugar, plus hydrogenated oils that are blended in to keep the natural oils of the peanuts from separating. I discovered long ago the simple pleasure of a natural peanut butter, made from only peanuts and salt. Sure, you’ll have to stir it (but only once) and keep it in the refrigerator, but it’s only 90 extra seconds spent to protect your body from the hazards of trans fats. There’s the question of smooth vs. crunchy, and I’m going with crunchy because I love the added texture of the little peanut pieces. You decide.

The Jelly

The PB&J of my childhood was usually made with grape jelly, and I’ll admit that I still have a special place in my heart for the flavor of good old Welch’s. It may have something to do with the fact that I grew up a few miles down the road from their original headquarters in Westfield, New York. Concord grapes are a native grape, and they were everywhere in my neck of the woods—my best friend’s family even had concord vines growing on a pergola over their backyard patio. Sandy and I used to pick the grapes straight off the vine in late summer and squish the seedy insides into our mouths, tossing aside the bitter, astringent skins and then spitting out the seeds. I can still taste those grapes!

Today, it’s all but impossible to find a grape jelly that doesn’t list high fructose corn syrup in the first two ingredients, and that is a huge problem for me. This is an ingredient that did not exist at all in previous generations, but food manufacturers lean on it heavily today because it’s cheaper and easier to use than sugar. But it’s fake, and I’m not having it on my sandwich. Pick up a jar of handmade jelly at the farmer’s market or diligently inspect the ingredient labels in the supermarket if you’re as concerned about this issue as I am.

As an adult, I’ve developed a fondness for other flavors of jams and preserves, my favorites being raspberry, fig and cherry. For this fried PB&J, seedless is best, so I’m going with cherry preserves, and I’ve carefully selected a brand that is sweetened with real sugar. There are chunks of cherry in these preserves, too, so I know it will be delicious.

The Butter

To grill the sandwich, you’ll need to lightly butter both sides, and I do not recommend margarine or any other kind of butter substitute, unless you are dairy restricted. The milk solids in butter contribute to the lovely browning on the crust and, unfortunately, a substitute will not have the same crispy result. But if your only choice is plant-based butter, you will still enjoy this sandwich for the flavor and the incredible ooey-gooey texture that results from heating the peanut butter and jelly together.

I can’t stand the suspense, and my laptop can’t stand my drooling, so let’s get to it.

For best results, use modest amounts of both peanut butter and jelly. They will marry together so well under the gentle heat of the griddle, but too much of either will cause the filling to seep out everywhere. Keep the griddle level on a medium-low heat, for slow and even browning. This gives the filling time to properly warm so the peanut butter and jelly become like one. Turn the sandwich carefully so it doesn’t slide apart. And for sure, allow it to cool a couple of minutes, so the sandwich is “set up” properly when you cut into it. Plus, if you give into temptation and bite into it too quickly, you’ll burn the roof of your mouth. Trust me on this; warm is good, hot is painful.

This fried PB&J makes me so very happy, with each buttery crisp bite, and the warm nutty, fruity filling makes me feel like I’m nine years old again. In a good way. 😉 Each time I make one, I try to eat it slowly so I can hang onto that feeling. The other beauty of this sandwich is that it works for breakfast, lunch, dinner, late-night snack or any other time your sweet tooth and hunger collide.

Please let me know if you try it, and feel free to share in the comments any fun twists your family made on a classic comfort food!


Sourdough English Muffins

Who doesn’t love an English muffin? It’s a terrific change-up from the usual toasted bread for breakfast, and at our house, we’re eating a lot of them lately. They’re quick and simple to make, with or without a stand mixer, and you don’t even need to turn on your oven. My recipe makes 12, and though that may seem like a lot for one household, I’ll note that these muffins aren’t just for breakfast. They also make exceptional burger buns, and my husband uses them to make sandwiches to take to work for lunch, too!

My inspiration recipe comes from King Arthur Flour, my favorite brand. And while I would certainly disclose any financial agreements with vendors, I will be clear to say that KAF is not paying me to brag about their products (not yet, anyway, but I’m open, baking team). I just like them, and I trust their website for products, baking ideas and help when I need it.

Their recipe for Sourdough English Muffins does require the use of ripe (fed) sourdough starter, and although it typically calls for addition of commercial yeast (for quicker rise), it’s possible to omit it, and I’ve adjusted for that in my notes below. If you don’t have a starter, their yeast-risen English muffins are great, too. It’s tough to find yeast during the COVID-19 pandemic, but if you happen to have some in your pantry, you’re golden. Here’s a tip—you can ration your yeast by halving the amount called for in the recipe; just give it more time to rise. This is true for virtually any yeast recipe, by the way.

Let’s Get Cooking!

Because the KAF recipe yields 24 English muffins (holy moly, that’s a lot!), I’ve taken the liberty of adjusting all the ingredients by half. Additionally, I always swap in some portion of whole grain flour in place of white, and I usually add some milled flax seed because I cannot leave well enough alone. You decide, based on your own experience and comfort level. If you notice grainy spots in my technique photos, this is the reason. They literally are grainy spots.

When these are completely cooled, you can put them in a sealed plastic bag. They’ll keep on the counter for up to a week, or you can put them in the freezer. No need to thaw them before toasting.

I hope they turn out great for you!

Ingredients and Tools

(weight measurement included for seasoned bakers; if you’re baking these for the first time, please see notes section for tips on the best way to accurately measure your flour for baking)

1/2 cup (114g) ripe sourdough starter* (stirred down before measuring – see notes)
1 cup (227g) warm filtered water (ideally, about 110° F)
1/2 tsp instant yeast (optional, for quicker rise)
1 Tbsp. (12g) sugar
3 1/2 cups (422g) all-purpose flour* (see notes for measuring and substitutions)
1/4 cup (22g) nonfat dry milk* (see notes if you don’t have this)
1 1/2 tsp. fine sea salt
2 Tbsp. (28g) butter, room temperature
Additional flour for dusting counter for kneading
Cornmeal for dusting muffins before baking

*Notes

  • If you don’t have a kitchen scale, use this method for accurately measuring flour in baking
  • For sourdough science nerds who may be wondering, my starter is 100% hydration; I feed it (once or twice a week) 90/10 high protein bread flour/freshly milled rye flour
  • You may substitute whole wheat flour up to 1/3 of the total amount of flour
  • If you don’t have nonfat dry milk, adjust the water to 3/4 cup and use 1/4 cup regular milk along with it

Stand mixer or large bowl and heavy wooden spoon
Plastic wrap and clean lightweight kitchen towels
Electric griddle or pan for stove-top “baking”
Heat-safe spatula for turning
Cooling rack for finished muffins

Instructions

In a mixing bowl, bring your starter to room temperature, or at least allow some of the refrigerator chill to wear off. Combine with warm water until it’s an even slurry, and stir in the sugar (and instant yeast, if using) a minute or so to dissolve sugar.

In a separate bowl, combine flour, dry milk and sea salt until well blended. Add to the wet mixture and stir with a heavy wooden spoon or blend in stand mixer until all dry ingredients are incorporated. Switch to kneading hook or turn the dough out onto a floured countertop. Knead until the dough feels a little less shaggy and more organized. Cover with plastic wrap and let it rest about 20 minutes.

Stretch out the dough and spread the soft butter over it. The KAF recipe suggests adding the butter at the start, but I’ve learned to add fats after the flour is fully hydrated, so this is my method. Fold the dough up with butter inside and continue kneading, about 10 minutes by hand or 5 to 6 minutes by machine with dough hook. This part will get messy, but keep at it and eventually, the butter will work its way through the entire dough. You want smooth and even dough—soft and slightly tacky, but not sticky. Shape dough into a tight ball (if you imagine squeezing it around and toward the bottom, you’ll get a feel for this), place it in a lightly oiled bowl and turn to coat, then cover the bowl with plastic wrap or lid and let it rise at room temperature until it’s puffy and nearly doubled in size. If your room is warm and you used additional yeast, this will be about 60 minutes. If you didn’t use yeast, it may be a couple of hours—give it the time it needs. Gently deflate the dough by pushing the center with your closed fist (one day soon, I’ll explain why I hate the term “punching down your dough”). With lightly oiled hands, reshape it into a ball, cover the bowl and put it into the refrigerator overnight. This step is beneficial either way, but especially important if you did not add yeast. Sourdough bakers already know that cold fermentation is a magical thing, and this down time in the fridge will result in extra flavor and improved texture.

In the morning, turn the cold dough out onto a lightly floured countertop and cut it into 12 roughly equal pieces. The simplest way I’ve found to do this is the cut the ball in half, then each half into halves, and each resulting half into thirds, like 12 little pieces of pizza. Shape each wedge into a tight ball, and flatten each ball with your fingertips onto a piece of parchment paper, sprinkled lightly with corn meal. They should measure about 3 1/4” across, or the size of—you guessed it—an English muffin! You will probably want to do two cookie sheets, each holding 6 muffins. Sprinkle the tops of the muffins with additional corn meal.

If the dough is still cold, it will probably shrink back—that’s OK. Cover them with plastic and let them rest 15 minutes to relax the gluten, then flatten them again. Cover the muffins with loose plastic wrap, lay a clean lightweight kitchen towel over the plastic and allow the muffins some privacy in a warm (but not hot) spot in your kitchen. I usually slide the pans into the oven, where it’s quiet and not at all drafty.

About 2 hours later, your muffins should look soft and puffy. My last batch rose to about 1/2” thickness, but they will puff more when you introduce them to heat.

If you have an electric griddle, heat it to about 325° F. If not, you can do it stove-top in a cast iron pan or griddle over medium-low heat. Our gas range has a “griddle in the middle” that allows me to do 6 muffins at a time; in a skillet, you’ll probably want to limit to 3 at once. I kept the flame pretty low because it’s better to cook them a tiny bit longer than to burn them.

I squeezed my camera underneath the griddle so you can see how low I set the flame. If you’re cooking your muffins stove-top, give the pan or griddle plenty of time to reach consistent heat.

When the griddle or pan is radiating consistent heat (you should be able to feel it easily with your hand about 6” above), gently place the muffins onto the surface. They will puff a bit more as they cook, but they won’t spread outward the way cookies do. Still, try to keep a bit of room between them so you can wiggle in a spatula when it’s time to turn them over.

After about 7 minutes, your muffins are probably ready to turn. Check by gently lifting up one edge and peeking underneath. If it looks golden and toasty, it’s time! Gently turn them without flipping too hard—you don’t want to deflate them in the process.

Give the second side about 6 more minutes, then check for doneness and remove them to a cooling rack to calm down. The sides of the muffins will still feel a bit soft, and that can be a little unnerving until you’ve made them a few times. Here’s a simple tip for testing doneness: when you turn over the first muffin, tap the cooked side lightly with your fingernail or the tip of your spatula. If it sounds hollow, you’re good. If it still feels a little soft or spongy, they probably need another minute. To be certain, you can slide the finished muffins onto a cookie sheet and into a pre-warmed 350° F oven for a few minutes to finish any raw insides.

When the muffins have completely cooled (and please, not one second sooner), use the tines of a fork to split through to the middle, all the way around.

Fork-splitting the muffins creates a perfect texture inside, and ensures plenty of pockets for butter or jam. Be certain they are completely cool before splitting them.

This will allow you to easily break them open later, for the beautiful nooks and crannies that I’m probably not allowed to talk about because of trademark rules.

But just look—can you think of a better way to describe those butter-loving pockets?

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