Peanut butter and peanut butter powder help transform a lunchtime classic into a homey but indulgent cake
This is the first official installment of For Goodness Cake, a monthly cake column from pastry chef Joy Cho. Each month we’ll give you a recipe for cake that is not only relatively easy to make but also rewarding and comforting. Because cake, we firmly believe, isn’t just for special occasions — it’s for celebrating the sweetness that can be found in every day life.
Peanut butter and jelly doesn’t take me back to third-grade bagged lunches or after-school snacks. It actually evokes close to zero childhood memories for me. I preferred other kid-friendly foods, like turkey sandwiches or Velveeta mac ’n’ cheese, when I wasn’t eating the Korean meals my mom or grandma prepared. Lunchables and Gushers were up my alley, but Uncrustables? Not so much.
Given this history (or lack thereof), I find it both hilarious and fascinating that PB&J is one of the foods I now eat most frequently as a 20-something adult. My road to enthusiastic PB&J consumption began when I was a very lazy college intern in search of a regular meal option that was cheap, transportable in the summer heat, moderately filling, and borderline nutritious. The humble peanut butter and jelly sandwich seemed to fit the bill perfectly. (Mom, if you’re reading this: I promise I ate vegetables too!) What started as a matter of practicality became a ritualistic and even enjoyable part of my life — at the end of almost every workday, I would eat one while walking home across the Brooklyn Bridge. At a time when I was feeling aimless and lonely (even a few weeks in New York can do that to you), a PB&J provided dependable, cheap comfort, if only for a few minutes a day.
My habit stuck even after I shed the college-age angst: I now eat a PB&J a whopping five to six times a week, in either sandwich or toast form. The simple yet profoundly satisfying combination of salty, sweet, creamy, and jammy on sliced bread delivers every time — and it’s as low-effort and low-cost as a sandwich gets. Even though (or perhaps because) I discovered PB&J relatively late in life, I’m weirdly, thoroughly obsessed.
Creating a PB&J cake, then, was among the most on-brand projects I could take on. But where to start? Despite how ubiquitous the sandwich is in American culture, PB&J-flavored cake doesn’t really seem to be a thing. I discovered during my research that peanut butter, when it appears in a cake at all, usually shows up as a sidekick to chocolate. As I started tinkering in the kitchen, my recipe went through several iterations: I tested a peanut butter loaf cake with a jam glaze, and then a square snack cake with the jam glaze swirled into the top of the batter before baking. They weren’t quite right, and neither was my first attempt at a streusel topping, which did not resemble streusel, to put it mildly. But hey, it’s called recipe development for a reason. So I marched on through test cake leftovers, believing that the PB&J cake I was pining for was out there, somewhere.
And then I found it. Just as everyone has their unique sandwich preferences (creamy or crunchy nut butter; jelly, preserves, or marmalade; white or wheat bread, etc.), this homey but indulgent cake is my very personal ode to PB&J: tall, distinctly peanut-buttery squares of crumb cake with a sweet-tart jam layer and an even thicker layer of nutty streusel on top. To really tease out the peanut butter flavor, I use both jarred and powdered peanut butter. And because I’m a fan of using one ingredient in more than one way, the peanut powder shows up again in the streusel, taking the place of the more typical cinnamon or spices. The resulting sweet, salty, peanutty (and slightly addictive) crumb topping is my favorite part of the cake, in large part because it reminds me of a similar streusel topping on soboro-ppang, the first item I reach for at any Korean bakery.
I’m under no illusions that a PB&J cake can ever wholly replicate a good old-fashioned PB&J sandwich, but if it tastes just as good, who cares? So cut yourself a thick slice of cake, pour a second cup of coffee, and contemplate the perfect pairing that is peanut butter and jelly (and perhaps a childhood memory or two). While I’m late to the PB&J game, I think this familiar-but-upgraded cake can make up for lost time — that and eating PB&J on the daily, a habit I won’t be breaking anytime soon.
PB&J Crumb Cake with Peanutty Streusel
Makes one 8-by-8-inch square cake
For the peanut streusel:
¼ cup (50 grams) granulated sugar
¼ cup (50 grams) light brown sugar
¼ cup (35 grams) all-purpose flour
2 level tablespoons (12 grams) powdered peanut butter (such as PB2 or Crazy Richard’s)
¾ teaspoon kosher salt
4 tablespoons (½ stick) unsalted butter, cold and cubed
Flaky salt, such as Maldon, for topping (optional, for those who really like sweet-salty desserts)
For the cake:
½ cup (70 grams) all-purpose flour
½ cup (70 grams) whole wheat flour
3 level tablespoons (18 grams) powdered peanut butter
¾ teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon baking soda
¾ teaspoon kosher salt
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
¾ cup (150 grams) granulated sugar
¼ cup (50 grams) light brown sugar
2 large eggs, at room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
½ cup (150 grams) smooth peanut butter (use a commercial brand like Jif or Skippy for best results)
½ cup buttermilk, at room temperature
For the filling:
½ cup jam or preserves of your choice (Tip: Go with a seedless variety if you don’t want the slight bites from the seeds.)
Step 1: Make the peanut streusel: In a medium bowl, combine the sugars, flour, powdered peanut butter, and kosher salt, mixing them thoroughly with your hands. Work the butter into the dry ingredients with your fingers until the streusel resembles wet sand and clumps together when you squeeze it. (Some small bits of butter are okay, but for the most part the butter should be worked into the streusel). Refrigerate until ready to use..
Step 2: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease an 8-by-8-inch square cake pan with nonstick cooking spray. Line the bottom with parchment paper, leaving a 2-inch overhang on the sides (to make it easier to remove the cake after baking), and grease the parchment.
Step 3: In a medium bowl, whisk together the flours, powdered peanut butter, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.
Step 4: In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, or a large bowl with an electric hand mixer, beat the butter until smooth. Add both sugars and cream the mixture until light and fluffy, 2 to 3 minutes. Scrape down the bowl with a rubber spatula.
Step 5: Add the eggs one at a time, beating after each addition until well combined. Scrape the bowl once more, then beat in the vanilla and peanut butter until the mixture is smooth.
Step 6: Sift half of the dry ingredients over the peanut butter mixture and beat until just combined. Carefully beat in the buttermilk, and then sift in the rest of the dry ingredients; beat just until the batter is smooth. (Don’t overmix.)
Step 7: Transfer half of the cake batter into the prepared pan and smooth the surface with a small offset spatula. Dollop the jam on top and spread gently, doing your best to leave a half-inch border around the edges. (The border prevents jam from sticking to the sides of the pan during baking.) Dollop the rest of the cake batter on top of the jam layer, carefully smooth the surface, and sprinkle the streusel evenly on top. Sprinkle the cake with flaky salt, if desired.
Step 8: Bake the cake for 45 to 55 minutes, rotating the pan halfway through, until the streusel is browned and a toothpick inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean.
Step 9: Let the cake cool in the pan for 30 minutes, then gently loosen the edges with a small offset spatula and carefully transfer the cake (using the parchment paper sling to assist) onto a rack to cool completely. If you find it difficult to remove and transfer the tall and hefty cake, you can also let it cool completely as is and serve slices right out of the pan.
Joy Cho is a pastry chef and freelance writer based in Brooklyn. After losing her pastry cook job at the start of the pandemic, Joy launched Joy Cho Pastry, an Instagram business through which she sells her gem cakes to the New York City area.
Celeste Noche is a Filipino American food, travel, and portrait photographer based between Portland, OR and San Francisco, CA.
Recipe tested by Deena Prichep