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One man's search for PB&J perfection

The quest for the perfect peanut butter and jelly sandwich is as personal and subjective as the search for beauty or truth - but far more filling.

I've made countless thousands of PB&Js over the past 40 years, most for myself and many for my five children, and I still believe a well-made PB&J is a great mix of salty, sweet, and tart flavors, and just the right smooth and sticky contrast, the textures playing off each other like jazz soloists. Add too much of one ingredient, or use the wrong bread, and the whole thing becomes an unpalatable mess.

The bread
Whole wheat, whole grain. Period. Accept no substitutes.

Anyone over a certain age whose parents weren't hippies probably remembers having PB&J on fluffy white bread, most likely Wonder Bread. It was one of the country's most recognized brands during much of the 20th century but fell on hard times as consumers became more health conscious and recognized the value of dietary fiber. It didn't help that white bread itself has become a symbol of insubstantial blandness; Interstate Bakeries, the national maker of Wonder Bread, filed for bankruptcy in 2004 and announced last week that it will completely pull out of Southern California in 2008, despite attempts at marketing whole grain versions of Wonder.

Nutritional shortcomings aside, the same textural qualities that endeared Wonder to families throughout the '50s and '60s now make our taste meter flatline. Soft, spongy bread slices tend to compress when spread thickly with peanut butter, so that the bread surrounding the filling becomes a gummy, glutinous sheath. Nostalgia may drive some people to continue making PB&Js with white bread, and occasional taste transgressions can be forgiven. This is the way I remember PB&Js from my youth, but thousands of sandwiches later, I now realize that most PB&Js made on white bread are best left on the table as campy props, uneaten.

Our ultimate choice: Vermont Bread Company Whole Grain, neck and neck with Matthew's All Natural 9 Grain and Nut. Both can stand up to spreading and offer good mouth feel.

The peanut butter
There's been no end of bickering in my household over the fine art of peanut butter selection: Chunky or creamy? Conventional or natural? Reduced fat or regular?

In most cases, I play the experience card and declare chunky the winner because of the textural counterpoint it presents, the little crunchy nuggets holding their own against a mouthful of compliant jelly and bread. PB&Js made with creamy peanut butter are docile, unquestioning "yes men" to Boss Tongue and his toothy minions. A sandwich made with crunchy peanut butter is alive, challenging authority with audible sounds of resistance, if only for a second or two.

Natural peanut butters don't contain hydrogenated vegetable oils, which are mixed into the peanut butter at 1 to 2 percent by weight to prevent the peanut oil from separating. These types of peanut butter often need refrigeration to keep the natural oils intact, and must be brought to room temperature before spreading. If they are kept at room temperature, you have to laboriously mix the oil back into the butter. This is something kids aren't likely to do, or worse will dutifully try to do - and the oil will lap over the rim, sending the now-slippery jar skittering across the kitchen floor.

Avoid at all costs the peanut butter grinders at some local stores. Without any additional peanut oil added, they produce an unspreadable paste with the consistency and taste of brick mortar. It's great for satay sauce, but horrible in a sandwich.

Our ultimate choice: Whole Foods Crunchy for peanut-rich taste, followed very closely by Skippy Super Chunk for both nostalgia and family-sized value. If making sandwiches for a peanut-free lunchroom, soybean butter is a popular option but tastes like powdered drywall. Go with Trader Joe's Sunflower Seed Butter instead.

The jelly
Or the jam. Or the preserves. Or the fruit puree.

My wife feels the need to stock up when there are fewer than seven or eight varieties in the refrigerator, while I can get by on just two: a large jar of grape jelly, and a smaller jar of grape jam. Compared to jelly, jam has a slightly fuller, more rounded fruit flavor, but that's sometimes lost when battling peanut butter. Jelly is a bit more assertive and adds a firmer gelatinous bulk to the final sandwich. Preserves and fruit puree are made with whole fruit and often have chunks that offer a pleasant textural change, but this nuance is lost when paired with crunchy peanut butter.

Choice of fruit is another set of challenges. A 2005 survey by Smuckers found that adult PB&J eaters were split, with 40 percent going for grape and 36 percent sticking with strawberry, and the remainder split among other fruit types. There was more of a gap with children and teens ages 8 to 17, with grape solidly leading 49 percent to 38 percent.

Our ultimate choice: Trappist Preserves, made by Trappist monks at St. Joseph's Abbey in Spencer. They make 28 varieties of Trappist jellies, jams, and preserves, but not all stores carry every kind. Welch's Grape Jelly is a favorite family pick.

The sandwich
Construction of the ultimate PB&J sandwich is as critical as the choice of ingredients. The bread should have an even consistency, without large bubble holes for the filling to drip through. On the counter or cutting board, the two bread slices must be aligned like the pages of a book. Spread the peanut butter first, but make sure it's at room temperature to avoid tearing or compressing the bread.

If you're packing sandwiches for lunches that will be eaten later, Christine Nguyen, a research scientist at Welch's, suggests putting peanut butter on both bread slices and a thick layer of jelly in the middle to reduce the seepage of liquid from the jelly into the bread.

If a sandwich is going to be eaten immediately after construction, spread peanut butter on one slice of bread, then jelly on the other slice - don't put it directly on top of the peanut butter. While it may seem like a meaningless distinction, the water in jelly and the oil in peanut butter create a slippery interface zone that leads to drips. Slightly embedding the jelly into the second slice of bread reduces the amount of jelly that eventually oozes from the sandwich when you take that first, wonderful bite.

PERSONAL BEST How do you make PB&J? Tell us whether you're the smooth or chunky type, and what goes into your version of America's favorite lunch, including brand names. To see a video of Michael Saunders making his specialty, go to boston.com/food.

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