I don’t know about you, but this time of year is a tad depressing for me. It’s gray, it’s cold, it’s either snowing or there’s freezing rain pelting the windows, the Christmas lights are either down already or coming down this week, and most people have tossed their poor little Christmas trees to the curb (not me, however). And at the curb is where they lay, getting splashed by the car tires of passersby sloshing through the puddles of melted snow or rain. Their once proud needles falling off, now surrounding them like the Liliputs surrounding Gulliver as he awakens on the beach. It’s a sad state of affairs. The next “holiday” isn’t until February 14th, and that leaves over one month of dark, cold, bleak winter days to trudge through. I don’t do resolutions, but if I did? Mine would be something like “Don’t hide under the covers until April,” ’cause I really need that reminder this time of year.
And all of that calls for comfort food: thick & creamy baked macaroni & cheese with toasted breadcrumb topping, deep dish pizza’s loaded with extra cheese, roast chicken/coq au vin, beef bourguignon, potatoes au gratin, potato & leek soup, steak & buttermilk mashed potatoes, matzoh ball soup, tomato soup with grilled cheese. Heavy, hot, wintery food that makes me feel better about getting up in the morning when it’s still dark out. I guess that means something different to everyone, though. Maybe your comfort food is ice cream. Maybe it’s lobster bisque. Maybe it’s Ritz crackers with Cheez-Whiz.
Because… there’s more than just one kind of comfort food. One person’s comfort food might be macaroni & cheese, but your comfort food might be a ham & cheese sandwich, because that’s what your mom used to pack in your lunchbox. Food evokes memories, sometimes good… sometimes bad. I stopped eating a certain kind of chicken when I was younger because I ate it during a bad case of the flu & it didn’t sit well. So from then on, I associated that chicken with that illness. Or, an example in the other direction: Chinese food from a certain place reminds me of my childhood, and my grandma who used to love shrimp with lobster sauce, and having my mom pick the onions, egg & mushrooms out of the house fried rice before I’d eat it. So it’s a positive memory for me, and that particular Chinese food restaurant always makes me feel happy.
On that note, a peanut butter & jelly sandwich is considered comforting for a lot of people, too. Just a simple little sandwich can take you back to being a kid, and having your mom make you lunch. It can make you feel safe & taken care of even on the worst of days. And what’s better than a sandwich?
A peanut butter & jelly cupcake to help combat the winter blues.
You might be surprised at the origins of the classic kid’s favorite:
In the early 1900s, peanut butter was considered a delicacy that was only served in New York City‘s finest tearooms. The product was first paired with a diverse set of foods such as pimento, nasturtium, cheese, celery, watercress, and on toasted crackers. In a Good Housekeeping article published in May 1896, a recipe “urged homemakers to use a meat grinder to make peanut butter and spread the result on bread.” In June of that same year, the culinary magazine Table Talk published a “peanut butter sandwich recipe.” The first reference of peanut butter paired with jelly on bread was rumored to be published in the United States by Julia Davis Chandler in 1901. By the late 1920s, this sandwich eventually moved down the class structure as the price of peanut butter declined. It became popular with children. During World War II, it is said that both peanut butter and jelly were found on U.S. soldiers’ military ration list, as claimed by the Peanut Board.
PEANUT BUTTER CUPCAKES (from Martha Stewart)
Makes 2 dozen cupcakes
- 3/4 tablespoon baking powder
- 1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
- 6 ounces (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
- 1 1/3 cups sugar
- 2/3 cup natural, creamy peanut butter
- 3 large eggs
- 1/2 cup sour cream
- 1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
- grape or strawberry jelly (or the fruit jelly of your choice; either homemade or store bought)
- Preheat oven to 350° F. Line muffin tin with paper cupcake liners. Sift flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt into a medium bowl and set aside.
- In a large bowl, using an electric mixer on medium speed, beat the butter, peanut butter and sugar until smoothly blended and lightened in color, about 1 minute. Stop the mixer and scrape down the sides of the bowl as needed during mixing. Mix in eggs. Mix the vanilla & sour cream together in a separate bowl & set aside.
- On low speed, add the flour mixture in 3 additions and the wet ingredients in 2 additions, beginning and ending with the flour mixture and mixing until the flour is incorporated and the batter looks smooth.
- Fill each liner about 3/4 full. Bake just until the tops feel firm, they are lightly browned and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, about 22 minutes. There will be cracks on the top. Cool cupcakes for 10 minutes in the pan on wire rack. Then remove from pan and allow to cool completely on rack.
- Once cooled, take a cupcake and fill the center with a bit of the grape jelly. There are two methods for this: one, cut out a piece of the center of the cupcake (with a round pastry tip or sharp knife) and replace it with a spoonful of jelly. Or, two, use a piping bag fitted with a small round tip filled with some jelly and poke it down into the center of the cupcake, then squeeze some out (not too much or your cupcake will “explode”). Repeat whichever method you choose for all the cupcakes. Then proceed to frost them.
PEANUT BUTTER BUTTERCREAM (from Martha Stewart)
- 2/3 cup creamy peanut butter (or chunky, if you prefer that, but piping the finished product will be harder)
- 8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
- 3/4 – 1 cup confectioners’ sugar
- Fine salt (optional)
- Cream peanut butter and butter in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment on high speed.
- On low speed, mix in sugar until combined, then beat mixture on high speed until fluffy and smooth, about 3 minutes.
- Add salt to taste, if desired. Use immediately.
BEST PEANUT BUTTER FROSTING EVER.
No joke. I got more compliments on this frosting than any other I can think of in recent memory. And I have to say, while eating it out of the bowl, I did notice it was amazing. I added a bit of jelly to the tops of cupcakes, too, but that’s just because these cupcakes were on my mind. I just sprinkled the gold crystal sugar on the frosting too, to make them a bit prettier.
Some people like peanut butter & strawberry jelly, so feel free to use that, too, or whatever kind of jelly you like. You can use homemade jelly & I’m sure you can use homemade peanut butter as well; but homemade peanut butter might be too “thin” for the batter & especially for the frosting, so just be aware that the texture difference between traditional store-bought & homemade might change the game a bit. However, an experienced baker should be able to accommodate any issues there.