When it comes to cooking, I don’t mind a little complexity. You can call it fuss if you want. I’m not put off by a picky technique or an extra step. Separate the eggs? Okay. Toast the nuts first? Sure thing. If it adds to the flavor of the finished dish, I’m on board. But when it comes to eating, I like things simple. I love appetizers because your gratification arrives in a single bite. I dig pizza because the toppings all come at you together. A drumette of roasted chicken sitting precariously atop a mound of braised greens in a puddle of puree? I’m sure it’s delicious, but it’s a little fancy for me. At the point that it comes off the heat, I’m ready to put it in my mouth, plating-be-damned (obligatory self-deprecating note: it’s clear, given this, why I haven’t yet managed to squirm my way onto Tastespotting or Foodgawker).
So this week, faced with this month’s Twelve Loaves challenge of baking a loaf of my choosing, I started thinking about the humble sandwich. Now, I know, a sandwich isn’t exactly challenging to put together. But I’m a little anal-retentive about some things, and one of them is the old classic pb&j. Here’s the issue: I like my peanut butter on both sides. That means you have to put it on first. But then, you can’t just dunk that peanut-buttery knife into your jam jar! Cross-contamination! So you have to decide: do I get a different knife? Or do I take an extra few seconds and rinse off the peanut butter knife (and peanut butter doesn’t just rinse off like that, you know)? I know, this is a silly non-problem to have. But it led to a delicious idea: what if the bread itself were already infused with peanut butter and jelly, making spreading, smearing, and layering all unnecessary?
What arose from this self-indulgent, first-world-problems sort of pondering was a moist, deeply tawny loaf, dense in the best kind of way, with a mild but definite peanut flavor. I flattened it into a rectangle and spread it thickly with jam before rolling it up and twisting it to create a swirl: a thick artery of gloppy, sticky strawberry so pervasive it cracked the crust and oozed forth into barest caramelization. The borders of the jam swirl maintained just a little doughiness from the extra moisture, echoing the effect the jam would have on the bread after sitting in your lunchbox all morning, and at these doughy, almost under-baked pockets, the peanut butter taste was most pronounced. With butter, peanut butter, an egg, and milk in the dough, this is a rich bread, though not as indulgent as brioche. It’s a perfect mid-morning or mid-afternoon snack, and the best news of all is: it’s instant gratification – a sandwich in one step! No spreading required; all you have to do is cut a slice.
Note: I do not like, nor have I ever liked, crunchy peanut butter. I don’t even really care for peanuts in their original form (I know, the fact that I like peanut butter despite this makes me a bit odd. On the flip side, I could go the rest of my life without tomato sauce but I can’t wait for the first big brandywine or sweet Cherokee purple heirloom of the summer. Go figure). However, if you wanted to ramp up the peanut flavor in this bread, I’d advise you to do one of two things: 1.) instead of smearing the top of the loaf with butter just before baking, smear it with chunky peanut butter you’ve heated in the microwave for a few seconds (heating it will help it spread better). 2.) if the idea of smearing melty, sticky peanut butter doesn’t appeal to you, use regular butter, but drizzle on a few tablespoons of finely chopped peanuts. This will give you a crunchy peanut-y hit every time you take a bite of crust.
¼ cup warm water
2 tsp yeast
2 tsp sugar
¼ cup scalded milk, cooled (microwave or heat on the stovetop until the barest simmer, then cool.)
½ cup very soft butter, divided
¼ cup smooth peanut butter
¼ cup sugar
2 tsp vanilla, divided
1 tsp salt
2-2¼ cups bread flour
1 cup strawberry preserves, or your favorite flavor
- In the bowl of your stand mixer (or a large bowl), combine the yeast, 2 tsp sugar, and warm water. Let stand 5 minutes or so until the yeast becomes bubbly.
- Meanwhile, scald the milk, then let it cool. I like to add the peanut butter and a ¼ cup of the butter to it and stir – this helps incorporate them into the dough more easily AND it cools the milk down faster. Double duty is always good!
- When the milk has cooled to just above room temperature and the yeast is bubbly and smells like baking bread, add the milk, peanut butter, ¼ cup of the butter, egg, remaining sugar, and 1 tsp vanilla to the yeast and mix with the paddle attachment or a sturdy whisk until incorporated but still lumpy.
- Add the salt and about 1½ cups of the flour and mix again, still using the paddle attachment, until the flour is evenly damp. If you are using a stand mixer, switch to a dough hook and begin kneading on medium-low speed. If you are not using a stand mixer, dump the dough out onto a well-floured board, sprinkle it with a bit more flour, and begin kneading by hand. If the dough is too sticky to knead productively, add flour ¼ cup at a time until it is workable. I ended up using a total of 2 cups of flour.
- Knead for 8-10 minutes, or until the dough becomes smooth, shiny, and elastic. At this point, relocate it to a lightly oiled bowl and cover it with a taut layer of plastic wrap. Let rise in a warm place for 2 hours. It will double or almost double in size in this time.
- When the dough has risen and is close to double the size of the original ball, deflate it gently with your fist and then let it sit for 10 minutes. While it gets its breath back, place the jam or preserves you’ll be using in a small bowl and heat it just until it loosens up a bit – this will make it easier to spread. Add the remaining 1 tsp vanilla to the warm jam and combine with a fork.
- Once the dough has rested, turn it out onto a floured board and roll it into a rectangle of about 12×18 inches. Spread this rectangle with the jam mixture, leaving a border of at least ½ an inch on all sides. This will prevent the filling from leaking out as you roll it up.
- Starting on the shorter edge in the middle (so you’ll end up with a log about 12 inches long), begin rolling up the dough into a tube, moving back and forth between middle and ends to create an even log. When you get to the end, seal the long edge by pinching the dough together with your fingertips. This will keep the loaf together as it bakes.
- Twist the whole log six or seven times. This distributes the jam through the center of the dough, so that your baked loaf will have a beautiful sweet swirl throughout.
- Smear a 9×5 inch loaf pan with about 1 TB of the remaining butter, then snuggle the log of dough into it. Scrunch it up a bit – that’s okay, it will fill out the pan when it bakes – and set it aside to rise again for 30 minutes.
- While the dough rises, preheat your oven to 350F.
- When the dough has risen, rub the top with the remaining 3 TB butter (or chunky peanut butter, if you wish), and bake for 30-45 minutes.
Note: this bread’s doneness is difficult to test. Because the jam is interspersed throughout, the finished loaf can seem a bit doughy. If you have an instant read thermometer, try to insert it in an area that is just bread, not jam. (I had some difficulty doing this, as you can see from the small holes on the top of the loaf in some of the photos above.) You are aiming for a temperature of between 190-200F. I must admit, though, I don’t mind this loaf a bit underdone – I think it captures the softness and almost-soggy glory of a simple pb&j from childhood. And really, that’s what this bread should be about.