tahini thumbprint jammies by Annie Jefferson

This recipe applies the classic peanut butter and jelly pairing to the cookie form, reimagined with the subtle roasted sesame flavor of tahini and fresh fruit jam. The peanut butter and jelly sandwich is one of the most loved dishes in modern American culinary history. It’s one of the first food combinations that you encounter as a kid and likely one of the first that you yourself create, thanks to the fact that no cooking is involved and the ease of pre-sliced, bagged bread. Everyone has a favorite version that sits close to their heart. I like mine on buttered sourdough with a sprinkling of sea salt, browned and pressed on a skillet like grilled cheese.

The PB&J has experienced such longevity for good reason – fat plus sugar is hugely appealing to the human palate. Peanuts contain lipids – fats – which are responsible for the legume's rich and salty profile, and jam is sweet from the high sugar content required to successfully preserve fruit. When sugar and fat show up together like this, our tastebuds register it as instantly satisfying.

The pairing also appeals for reasons far more primal than its perfectly complemented flavors. Taken together, peanut butter and jelly cover all three of the macronutrients that we require for optimal survival: fat, protein and carbohydrates. In his book The Laws of Cooking: And How to Break Them, self-taught chef Justin Warner argues that all dishes can be deconstructed into a few foolproof laws, with fat and sugar – ‘The Law of Peanut Butter and Jelly – being one of the most fundamental. Why? ‘Fats and sugars contain the most caloric bang for the buck,’ writes Warner, ‘and our taste buds have evolved to help us find them…consider also that wild nuts and berries were probably what we ate before we developed tools to kill animals’. We're intrinsically drawn to a pairing like peanut butter and jelly because in its simplest form it represents a quick path to caloric nourishment. 

If the combination makes so much sense for us from both a nutrition and flavor perspective, then why as adults do we seem to massively decrease our peanut butter and jelly sandwich intake? PB&J feels very much like a kid’s food. An easy solution designed for the relentlessly picky eater. Theories suggest that we are fussy eaters as children perhaps not because our palates are immature, but rather that such discerning behavior evolved over time as a survival mechanism. Bitter and sour flavors and odors tend to be more indicative of toxins and poison, to which children are more vulnerable, whereas sweet foods instead signal high caloric energy, which is required for development and survival. Kids, then, are pretty smart to keep demanding the familiar sandwich.

However, as we get older we become more open and adventurous in our eating, and less averse to different ranges of flavors. Perhaps peanut butter and jelly feels bland or unsophisticated in comparison to the exotic spices and leafy greens and dark chocolate we come to love as adults. We learn to require a degree of complexity in order to feel satiated. At the same time, food becomes increasingly intellectual and tied up with associations based on years of food experiences. Beyond childhood, ‘taste becomes more a matter of our minds and memories than our physical reaction to sweetness or bitterness.’ As adults, our cravings and responses to foods are far more nuanced. Bagged bread, Jiffy peanut butter and sugary jelly isn't necessarily going to cut it anymore.  

Enter this cookie: adult taste bud tested and approved. It has the familiar PB&J duo of sugar and fat – bringing you right back to summer camp picnic table lunches and after-school snacks at the kitchen counter – but as the kind of anti-sweet of all nut and seed butters, the subtle bitterness of the tahini introduces a welcome complexity. That said, this recipe would do just fine with peanut butter thrown in instead of tahini. With subdued levels of sweetness, the cookie feels more like a snack than an indulgent dessert, but packs enough of a sugar hit to appease taste buds, young and old.

Makes 16-20 cookies

1/2 cup (70 grams) raw, unsalted almonds
1/2 cup (50 grams) rolled oats
1 cup (125 grams) whole wheat flour
1/3 cup (100 grams) natural cane sugar
1 teaspoon (5 grams) baking powder
1/2 teaspoon (2.5 grams) fine sea salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 cup coconut oil (50 grams), melted
1/4 cup (75 grams) honey
3/4 cup (215 grams) raw tahini paste, well-stirred
1 tablespoon (14 grams) toasted sesame oil
5 tablespoons jam
sesame seeds for sprinkling
powdered sugar for sprinkling

Preheat oven to 350° F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

Combine almonds, oats, flour, sugar, sea salt and baking powder in food processor. Pulse until you have an incorporated, smooth grain. In a separate bowl, combine vanilla, coconut oil, honey and tahini. Stir to incorporate. Slowly add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients as you continue to pulse the food processor until the mixture begins to form a dough.

Pour dough onto a surface and knead several times to smoothen it out. If the dough is dry, use wet hands to knead, if too moist, use floured hands.

Form dough into small balls (about 2 tablespoons each). Press your thumb into the center of each and place on the baking sheet. Scoop a small teaspoon of jam into the well of each cookie. Sprinkle with sesame seeds.

Bake for 15-20 minutes. They should be golden brown but still soft to the touch when you remove them. Allow to cool for 10-15 minutes (the jam is very hot!) Sprinkle with powdered sugar, and serve.