I was not brought up in a peanut butter house. We are a marmalade family. In fact, I blame these sticky American imports for the sad, sad dip in marmalade’s popularity. Nothing goes quite so well on a piece of toasted white bread like half a pound of butter and a generous spread of marmalade. In fact, just give me five minutes…
Sorry, just popped off for a slice right then. Totally worth it. I actually remember once when I had tragically run out of marmalade, my mates then boyfriend suggested I could just have marmite instead. Needless to say, the relationship didn’t last.
Anyway, back to the subject at hand. As a child, peanut butter was one of those American things that was referred to on TV programmes like Home Improvement or The Simpsons. Like soda, or Hersheys. These things where not our sort of thing. A bag of wine gums, yes. Frozen yoghurt? No.
So having believed that it was an “us” and “them” sort of thing, I was surprised to find out recently that everyone seems to love the stuff. To the extent to having a ranking of peanut butter. A quick straw poll brings up a few favourite varieties. Jif comes up, but I can’t readily get some here. Sunpat chunky also mooted, along with Whole Earth, which is apparently 97% peanuts.
So I’m taking the pb plunge. Because it’s not the most refined of ingredients, I’ve decided I don’t have to make the most refined of dishes. So I am going with that perennial American classic – the “pb and j” – and some peanut butter and chocolate squares.
The Peanut Butter
So, basic taste test to start with. I have, through powers of deduction and general consensus, dismissed smooth peanut butter. I feel that smooth is like wearing armbands, but with peanut butter – you give it to kids to help them learn, then move them onto the real stuff, in the case, crunchy. One of my enthusiasts states she prefers crunchy: “harder to work with, but definitely worth the extra effort”, were her exact words. As if we’re talking about a very fine fabric or a precious metal, used to wrought expensive jewellery . So I’m going crunchy – I think I can handle it.
I couldn’t lay my hands on some Jif. I think it’s an “only available in America” scenario. However, I am armed with a Sun Pat and a Whole Earth. Two very different kettles of fish. One is the sort of typical Americana one would expect: colourful, emblazoned with bright yellow and cheery fonts, is a curvy plastic tub. The other is an organic, health food situation, with fair trade ingredients and green tones, implying it is goodness and naturalness embodied. The ingredients definitely reflect this. One has some lovely E-numbers and sugar. The other is 97% peanuts, with a pinch of salt and little else. There’s no doubt which will be better for me.
So I start with a test off the spoon – pure and unadulterated. I’m about to lose my PB virginity.
For a start, it’s not sweet. I don’t know why I thought it would be. It’s also definitely sticky. I would go as far as viscous. And…well, I don’t know what to say, other than I do not go for another dunk on either. In its plain state, I’ve yet to be converted.
But, because I am a Philistine and have an undeveloped peanut butter palate, I have to admit, I enjoyed the Sunpat a bit more. But this is because of the added sugar, and I am a sugar junkie. I have no doubts that the Whole Earth is a finer product.
I call it this because Emma in Glee called it that in the pilot episode, and I love Emma from Glee. She’s so cute and weird, with good life advice and, let’s face it, brilliant hair. It’s so quiffy and great! See the bounce!
Anyway, I’m keeping this simple here. Sliced white is a given on this one. And due to an accident of fate i.e. the jam available in my fridge, I have gone for a plum jam to accompany my peanut butter. It’s sweet with a hint of tang, so it should work fine.
I assemble with no additional components – I feel this is the moment to keep it simple. The PB&J strikes me as the sort of food one eats when in those precious formative years and it’s vital when recreating the joy of these childhood dishes that ingredients are kept simple and child-like as possible.
It’s not a possessing sight – I’m hoping it’ll come to life in the tasting. After all, this is the dish that is practically raising America (if you judge a country but its sitcoms).
I have to say, I’m enjoying this more than the plain peanut butter. I’m very glad I have to crunchy aspect in there – the jam, smooth peanut butter and spongy white sliced would be a monotonous sludge. It’s the sort of thing I would eat after a very bad day at work, or if I was in the depths of a vicious hangover. It is the epitome of comfort food – sugary, fatty, carb-encased and a little bit shameful.
So, the peanut butter is growing on me. For the final part of this journey of discovery…
Peanut butter squares
In the name of research, my mother and I shared a peanut butter chocolate brownie the day before this expedition. No, of course we didn’t share one cake between two. We also shared a caramel shortbread.
But I digress. It was really delicious. I was pleasantly surprised how well the chocolate and the salty peanut butter blended. But then, I love nothing so dearly as the blessed combination of sweet chocolate and a salty counterpart. So contrasting and yet tantalising!
So, inspired by this, I’ve decided to do some peanut butter squares. I haven’t gone brownie, because the brownie is a whole other discussion for another day. I used a Lorraine Pascale recipe. I’ve never really got into Lorraine. I think it’s possibly because, unlike Nigella, Jamie or Delia, there’s already a one-name “Lorraine”. Lorriane Kelly! She turns up everywhere.
Anyway, Lorraine Pascale provided me with this little number:
- 150g butter – I used unsalted, as there’s enough salt in the biscuits and PB
- 200g digestives
- 300g chunky peanut butter
- 200g light brown sugar
- 200g chocolate – either milk, dark, or a mixture
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
This really is one of the easiest recipes in the world. Lorraine, you’re already endearing yourself to me.
Line a 20cm square tin with greaseproof or baking parchment. As established during the meringues, they do largely the same thing so don’t fret over the difference. I think greaseproof is actually a better and more modern creation.
Whizz biscuits in blender. Digestives crumble dead easily under the slightest pressure (honestly, they’d be hopeless in a hostage situation), so is easy. Even using the fabled Hobbit-blender isn’t a problem. And that is usually a fiasco.
Then melt butter in a pan. Add the sugar, and let it melt. Don’t eat this straight out of the pan: it is yum, but that’s not what we’re aiming for. Add the crumbled digestives, peanut butter and vanilla extract. Give it a good stir. I did this on a low heat to get it all melty and combined.
Pour/spoon mixture into the tin. Press it down and make sure it covers the bottom. If it’s still a bit warm, this is easy as it’ll sort of ooze to fill the shape of its container – it’s physics in action!
Next – melt chocolate. I did a mixture of dark and milk chocolate, meaning a duo of melting pots on the hob. As always, do this very gently and keep an eye on it. If it splits, then it’s useless, and we all know that if you cock up this batch of chocolate, you won’t have any extra ready to hand, and you’ll have to go back to the shops, and it’ll just be a massive pain in the arse.
Once it’s melted, pour on top. In a fit of genius, I have decided to attempt a marbled effect by chucking a bit of each on, drizzling it over and not combining the two sort of chocolate. It would be easier to do one, but check out how amazing and clever doing a mixture makes you look!
Chill in fridge for an hour, or freezer for 30 mins, if you have a freezer, which I don’t. Yeah, that’s right, show off.
Et voila! Dead easy and looks very effective. But as always, the test is in the tasting.
And…oh my god, they are fit. So tasty! The sweetness brought by biscuits and sugar are combined with the salty peanut butter. This, this is the true calling for peanut butter! A frankly impressive chocolate finish. The texture – soft but firm, the chunks breaking up what could be a bland biscuit bottom.
After three, I admit they are a bit rich. Then have a fourth, lie on the sofa with a glass of sub par red wine that I bought to cook with, watch Gone With the Wind, wonder what it’s like to have a 17 inch waist and, as I chuck the last bit down my throat, realise I’ll never know. And grin happily.