Now that I hope you have that annoyingly funny song stuck in your head, we can move on to the real focus for today: Peanut Butter and Jelly Bars. As "gourmet" as I like to eat, simply put, there really is nothing like a good peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Classic, unpretentious, just two pieces of soft white bread filled with creamy (our preference over crunchy) peanut butter and sweet, sticky jelly. Really, anything with peanut butter is good by me (we usually have two or more containers of various nut butters open at any given time, and we're lucky if they last a week).
Many years ago, we sampled a delicious dessert based on this oh-so-popular sandwich at a potluck dinner, and thankfully, J was smart enough to ask for the recipe. Barefoot Contessa herself was behind the addicting peanut butter and jelly bars that we have since wanted to recreate. However, it is difficult to make an extremely rich dessert and justify keeping it around the house until it is gone (unless it's snowing outside, of course). This past weekend, we were invited to attend a bridal shower in honor of one of our very best friends, and asked to bring a dish to share. We debated many items but finally settled on the PB&J bars... really, four years of dreaming about them was long enough. As the bridal shower was taking place in Gainesville, we had the pleasure of using our parents kitchen (and all of the memory evoking baking apparatuses (apparati?): hello, big yellow mixing bowl and old wooden spoon!)
Peanut Butter and Jelly Bars
2 sticks unsalted butter, room temperature
1.5 cups sugar
1 tsp. vanilla extract
2 large eggs, room temperature
2 cups (18 oz; a small jar) creamy peanut butter (recommended: the fake kind)
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp. baking powder
1.5 tsp. kosher salt
1.5 cups (18 oz; a small jar) jelly or jam
2/3 cups peanuts (we used honey roasted), chopped
Preheat the oven to 350. Prepare your baking pan, a 9 by 13" cake pan. The directions from the website linked above were very vague, so we did a little research to better understand what we needed to do. Basically, you want to line the pan with parchment paper. However, if you just stick the paper in, it doesn't stay put very well. To aid the process, butter or grease the pan, bottom and sides, and then smooth the paper onto the now sticky surface until it fully lines the pan. Then, butter the top of the parchment paper (the whole thing, bottom and sides) and coat with flour. If you aren't too concerned about the appearance of your bars, you could skip the parchment paper and butter and flour the pan itself. However, the parchment paper makes it very easy to remove the bars for the last bit of cooling without ruining them.
The recipe also calls for the following mixing to be done using an electric stand mixer. Our parents don't have one, and we considered using a hand held electric mixer, but in the end used old-fashioned "elbow grease." Cream the butter and sugar together until it is a smooth light yellow (delicious) mess. Add the vanilla, the eggs, and the peanut butter, and mix until everything is incorporated well-- it takes a few minutes. Ina Garten (is that really her name?) recommends Skippy peanut butter, but we couldn't bring ourselves to do that-- we wanted to use organic, pure peanut butter but the price difference had us choosing Publix brand regular creamy peanut butter (Note: Peanut butter really should be peanuts and salt, nothing else. But perhaps we are nut butter snobs).
In another small bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, and salt. In small batches, add the flour to the butter mixture, stirring to combine after each addition. Your dough is now done! Spread approximately 2/3rds of the mix into the prepared pan, using spoons, spatulas, butter knives, and fingers to create a smooth, even surface.
Then, spread your jelly or jam on top of this layer. We chose Polaner's grape jelly (with fiber! Yeah, nutrition!)- we typically eat apricot jam, but wanted a dark color to be visible against the brown bar base, and the recipe suggested raspberry (which may have made a more "sophisticated" bar), but we wanted the classic of all classics- grape. We used a bit less than the recommended amount- a jar is only 15.5 ounces instead of the requested 18, but it worked out fine.
After spreading on the jelly, take the remaining dough and place small pinches/balls/blobs of dough all over the jelly. It doesn't have to be pretty, or perfect, but it should be fairly well covered when you're done. The baking process will settle these blobs down a bit, but not completely. Finally, sprinkle the peanuts over the top (or leave them out if you wish), and bake at 350 for 40 minutes, or until golden brown.
Allow to cool, and then lift onto a smooth surface using the parchment paper as "handles." Cut into bar size pieces- the recipe states that it yields 24 bars, but these would be pretty large bars (about 2" by 3.5"). We cut each of the suggested bars in half, allowing many more pieces of peanut butter and jelly delight.
The final outcome: delicious. As desserts go, these aren't too sweet, but in this case, it works well as it allows the peanut butter flavor to really shine. The base of the bar is a bit like peanut butter fudge- dense with just a bit of crumble. The jelly flavor is present, but does take a back seat to the peanut butter, and the chunks of dough and peanuts on top are a little crunchy. My mom wondered what they would be like with crunchy peanut butter- I am sure just as delicious, if that's your thing. I highly recommend taking the path we chose, and making these if you have an event or a large group to disperse them among, because you may or may not want to consume the entire pan yourself.