I have an unhealthy obsession with school supplies. I love wandering the aisles, perusing the freshly stocked notebooks, pencils, and folders. When I was still in school, shopping for supplies brought with it the promise and excitement of a brand new year. Even now I still find myself drawn by the cartoon school buses and shiny red apples adorning the promotional signs in the school supply section of the store. It embodies an inherent desire to start fresh, literally with a clean slate.
Instead of enrolling in class merely for an excuse to buy a new notebook, we threw another party. Our first Back to School Party debuted last year and it was a big hit. There were balloons, coloring books, and a do-it-yourself banner that read “Welcome Back Bitches”. Yeah, we’re clever like that. When back to school time rolled around again this year, we were a bit partied out from all those lame 30 year-olds (kidding, Hallie and Drew!…kind of) so we decided to take it easy.
Don’t worry, we still put up the banner.
Last year’s Back to School cupcakes were adorable schoolhouse reminders – applesauce spice cake with vanilla frosting dyed candy apple red. A pretzel for the stem and a piped green leaf made these sweet cakes the spitting image of the autumnal fruit. But who wants fruit when you can have cake?
This year, I wanted to go with something more classic, more nostalgic. I immediately thought of the old-school bagged lunch complete with a homemade peanut butter and jelly sandwich. What other food is so simple, comforting, and delicious? I turned this lunch room staple into a fun and tasty dessert with a twist. I like to think of it as a ‘deconstructed’ PB&J – tender white cake, creamy peanut butter frosting, and a dollop of sticky, sweet grape jelly. Maybe because I’ve been watching too much Top Chef and they always make everything ‘two ways’, I decided to create two different versions of the cupcake. The first, and more traditional, featured a swirl of frosting on the cake with a dab of jelly nestled on top.
The second, and more fun version was that same white cupcake, STUFFED with grape jelly, smeared with frosting, and dotted with chopped salted peanuts. This one had much more of an element of surprise…Oh, what’s this? A peanut butter cupcake? BOOM! Jelly inside.
For the cakes I used Martha’s basic white cake recipe. I did initially find the inspiration for the PB&J cupcakes in her Cupcakes book, but that recipe called for both peanut butter cake and peanut butter frosting. I love peanut butter as much as the next gal, but this seemed excessive. Once the genius ‘deconstructed’ plan struck me, I knew white cake was the way to go, because it was the perfect cake stand-in for the bread element of the sandwich.
The recipe called for a basic batter to be lightened by the addition of five egg whites whisked to soft peaks. I have to admit, this seemed daunting to me. Egg whites can be temperamental, especially when whisked. And I can be impatient and grumpy. Meringue and I are not tight. But I was adamant to give it a try and took comfort in the fact that I would not have to reach full on meringue stage. Just look at those soft peaks! I did it! It was totally worth it too, because this was the most silky-smooth, fluffy batter I have ever encountered. It was like a cumulonimbus cloud and the foam from a cappuccino had a baby. And it yielded perfectly golden brown and crumbly cakes nestled in their back to school primary color wrappers.
With operation egg whites complete, it was on to the frosting. Generally I go for Ina’s Peanut Butter Frosting because it is out of this world, as are most things the Barefoot Contessa graces with her elegant touch. However, I decided to give Martha’s PB frosting recipe a shot. To my chagrin, it once again required me to whip a dairy product to a peak state – heavy cream this time. The airy cream is then folded into the dense peanut butter concoction. Said concoction is so dense due to the addition of cream cheese, which also gives it a slight tang.
Basically I was faced with a bowl of fancy, jazzed up peanut butter. And that’s just fine by me. To fill the cupcakes with their super secret surprise stash of jelly, I got out my trusty Austin Power’s penis enlarger piping tool and began to fill the cakes like they were twinkies. The jelly oozed right out, as if rejected by the cake itself. Not to be deterred and end up with, GASP, peanut butter and jelly cupcakes only ONE way, I changed my plan of attack. I went the slightly more time-consuming route of cutting out the centers of the cupcakes with a paring knife to make a little nest for the jelly. I popped the lobotomized pieces of cake right back on top to make a smooth surface for the frosting.
The unfilled cupcakes got little jelly hats and the filled cupcakes were sprinkled with chopped peanuts. It’s the best of both worlds because you get the ultimate combo of PB&J, but it’s not smashed and purple from sitting in your locker all day!
My grand display ambition was to stack piles of old books on the table and arrange the cupcakes in an classy fashion, thus evoking the literary sensibility of the back to school season. Unfortunately, this idea came to me about an hour before the party and Jenny pointed out that we didn’t want people walking off with our books…not that our friends would do that. Well, it depends on how many beers — I digress! Eventually I settled on my artsy-hip Brooklyn platters that I adore and, of course, the ubiquitous cupcake tree.
As if these cupcakes weren’t cute enough already, check out the happy little accident that resulted from a free-hand jelly dollop…
That’s right. An accidental heart. This reinvention of the peanut butter and jelly sandwich spread unexpected smiles across many faces, no doubt brought on by their own back to school memories. They added a youthful spirit to the party and made most of us feel like kids again. It’s nice to know that there are certain things you’re never too old for.