Peanut Butter & Jelly Bars

Last week I rang in the Fourth of July with Shaun at my cousin Greg's annual barbecue. Since the main course and sides are always in abundance, I decided to whip up a fun dessert that didn't necessarily scream red, white and blue, but one that was all-American and decadent to boot. And does it get more down home patriotic than peanut butter and jelly? And I'll be darned if you ever find a better flavor combo. When I stumbled upon Ina Garten's peanut butter and jelly bars, I knew it was meant to be.

Peanut Butter & Jelly Bars
*Adapted from Ina Garten
2 sticks (1/2 lb) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 1/2 C sugar
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
2 large eggs, at room temperature
2 C creamy peanut butter (unfortunately, this is just a bit more than your average jar)
3 C all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 1/2 tsp kosher salt
1 1/2 C jam of your choosing (I went with Four Fruits)
2/3 C salted peanuts, coarsely chopped, if desired
Confectioners' sugar, for dusting

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Generously grease and flour a 13" X 9" baking pan.* In a stand mixer, cream the room temperature butter and sugar on medium speed until thoroughly mixed, about 2 minutes. With the mixer on low speed, add the eggs, vanilla and peanut butter, mixing until completely combined. Meanwhile, in a mixing bowl, sift the flour, salt and baking powder together. With the mixer on low, slowly and carefully add the flour mixture to the peanut butter mixture without spraying your kitchen white. Mix this just until it's combined and you have a doughy mass. Next, using a spatula or your own two paws, spread about two-thirds of your mixture into the bottom of your greased, floured and papered baking pan. It might require some elbow grease to get 'er done, but have faith. Now would be the time where, if you are me and thought that a full jar of Polaner All Fruit would be plenty but were oh-so-wrong, you run out to the nearest store to pick up yet another jar of jam to properly cover the bars. Trust me, unless you want stick-to-the-roof-of-your-mouth bars, you'll want plenty of jam to balance the super peanut butteryness of the bars base. With another spatula, cover with the jam, spreading evenly, but not all the way to the edges.** Using a spoon and your (clean) fingers, dollop pieces of the remaining peanut butter dough evenly on top of the jam. As you can see from mine, it doesn't have to be total, perfect coverage. I actually prefer seeing a little jam through the top so guests can tell what's in them.

If using peanuts, add them on top (I didn't use them on mine - it's just personal preference). Bake for 35-45 minutes until golden brown. Mine were done in about 40 minutes. Let cool completely. Cut into squares using a sharp seraded knife and remove from pan with a spatula (a basic plastic one worked just fine for me and helped eliminate scratches on the bottom of my non-stick Calphalon). And since presentation is everything, serve on a pretty (or in my case pretty-yet-disposable) platter and dust with confectioners' sugar.

*The original recipe calls for greasing the pan, then lining with parchment paper, followed by a generous greasing and flouring. I did some poor planning and went ahead sans parchment paper since I realized I had none only after I started baking (and yes, this was quite nervy of me since I remembered Kimberly's birthday cake incident all too well). My bars came out without a problem by only greasing and flouring the pan...but to be on the safe side, I recommend the parchment paper.

**I made the mistake of spreading the jam all the way to the edges without allowing any spreading room during the baking process. While I adored the delicious bits of sticky jam adhered to the sides of the pan (yummm), it made for a difficult dismount in terms of getting the bars out of the pan.

So there you have it. A super Fourth of July recipe that, in my opinion, deliciously rang in the holiday. What did you do for Independence Day? What did you dine on?

January Favorites

I can't believe that January is coming to a close. While it means another winter month down, and two to go, I still hate the feeling that time is flying past me in an instant. Despite the quick passage of time, over the last month I've enjoyed some pretty fabulous eats. Whether in my own kitchen, out at a fun, new restaurant, or just ingredients that I find myself intrigued by, today it's all about January Favorites.

Clockwise: peanut butter & apple, spicy sweet potato wedges, figs, Earl Grey Creme, pizza, snickerdoodle muffins

Natural peanut butter & apples - A truly fantastic snack that brings me back to childhood. I'd pretty much eat peanut butter anything, and spreading it on some naturally sweet apple slices is just the icing on the cake, so to speak.

Spicy sweet potato wedges - These were part of my Eat Better Week and they are a fabulous, spicy twist to a classic dish. These basic sweet potato fries are bumped up by the addition of cumin and cinnamon - a perfect winter flavor.

Figs - This is a new flavor and ingredient for me. After all, I can't recall eating figs, other than those of the Newton variety, until recently. Fig jam to be exact. Added to grilled cheese or as a garnish on fabulously cooked meat at Fig & Olive, this is a subtley sweet flavor that I need to explore further.

Earl Grey Creme - I raved about this in A Cup of Teavana and that's because it's been a veritable staple in my drinking repetoire this month...and I can't wait to continue my love affair with the gourmet tea.

Gourmet Pizza - This one is of the Keste variety (check back next week for the Restaurant Roundup). I won't give too much away, but let's just say that this one gives Otto a serious run for its money.

Snickerdoodle muffins - I made these at my holiday brunch, but after finding one tucked away in the freezer, they just had to get a shoutout. After all, a nutmeg, cinnamon, and crystallized sugar topping makes this decadent treat the perfect winter muffin.

So there you have it - the foods I enjoyed the most this past month. What about you? Have you discovered any new foods lately? Any old favorites that made a comeback? Or anything that you want to explore further in February?