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Everything you NEVER wanted to know about ‘magic cookie bars’

When I started thinking about this post, all I figured on discussing was the fact that the socalled ‘magic cookie bar’, which is almost a staple at school and church bake sales and Christmas cookie swaps, is actually an item which is not set in stone because the thing that makes the bar cookie ‘magic’ is the final addition of a product known as ‘sweetened condensed milk.” Once I started looking around for different versions, it was startling to me how much creativity has been thrown at this item, which frankly, I did not discover until well into adulthood. We certainly did not have them when I was a child – the addition of chocolate chips to oatmeal cookies was about as thrilling as it got at our house.

One of the things I discovered is this: The ‘magic cookie bar’ is to sweetened condensed milk what Thanksgiving’s ubiquitous green bean casserole is to creme of mushroom soup and French’s Frenchfried Onions(tm). That’s right — ‘magic cookie bars’ (which actually started out as ‘Hello Dolly Bars’) are an invention (in 1960) of the clever folks in the experimental kitchen of the company which invented sweetened condensed milk and which is probably the largest manufacturer of this item today: Borden (though they sell it today, as they did ever since they started, as Eagle Brand). This company basically made the entire foundation of its business in Upstate New York on Gail Borden, Jr.’s invention (in 1853, after three unsuccessful efforts) to produce a pure milk product which would keep. Borden’s complete focus on this particular item (which to us doesn’t seem like such a big deal) was based on his experience on a sea voyage where three children died from drinking milk which was obviously contaminated. This issue of contaminated or ‘off’ milk actually continued long after Borden’s invention — my family has a story of two small children who died during a hot spell in New York City in the late 1800s from what was referred to as ‘sour milk disease’, which undoubtedly was the same thing.

But, I digress. The invention of sweetened condensed milk (and why sweetened? Because putting sugar into it helped the canned product to not go bad) was actually a huge boon, but also ushered in the modern dairying industry. Why? Because Gail Borden had a list of rules that his farmer suppliers had to stick with. These rules are the foundation of the same practices which modern dairy farmers hold to today, in order to produce a clean and healthy product: the cows’ udders must be washed and dried before milking, the barns must be kept clean on a regular basis, and all milking and milk processing equipment must be washed and scalded before and after every use. All of this due to a man who had no education and whose only passion was to produce products which would not cause anyone to get sick. Sweetened condensed milk got a further boost during the Civil War when the Union government, seeking a safe product which would keep over long periods and which would provide protein and a large amount of calories, purchased great amounts of the canned product as field rations. Returning soldiers spread the word upon their return home about what must have seemed a miraculous invention. Today’s uses are in such items as candies and baked goods.

The ‘magic cookie bar’:
We will get to this in a moment, but the variations truly open up all sorts of creative items:
Adding flavorings and extracts to the sweetened condensed milk such as mint or maple extract, or a teaspoon of instant coffee, before you pour it over the whole shebang.

Adding other items or swapping out items in the layers. Such as, adding/substituting peanut butter or butterscotch chips for some of the chocolate chips. Swapping out some of the chips for dried fruit cut up into small pieces. Using crushed up cookies as the base layer instead of graham cracker crumbs. Swapping out the walnuts for another chopped nuts.

I’ve even seen recipes for these using potato chips and a little sugar as the crumbs for the base and various crushed up candy bars as the layers (makes my teeth ache just to think about it).

Now, for those folks asking themselves about whether or not they can swap out the sweetened condensed milk, I’m afraid the answer is… NO. Why? Well, the role that the sweetened condensed milk plays in this recipe is not just sticking everything together with liquid. It is also putting in sugar (22 grams in the can) which caramelizes and causes everything to stick together and gives these bar cookies their characteristic chewiness. Evaporated milk doesn’t contain the extra sugar necessary to accomplish this task.

So, here we go: Magic Cookie Bars (aka: ‘5, 6, 7 layer cookie bars’)

1/2 cup margarine or butter
1-1/2 cups graham cracker or other crumbs
Combine and press into a 13×9″ pan

Sprinkle over the crumbs:
1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips or other toppings
1 (3-1/2 ounce) can flaked coconut (1-1/3 cups)
1 cup chopped nuts

Pour evenly over the toppings: 1 14-oz. can of sweetened condensed milk

Bake for 30 min. at 325 degrees. Take the pan out and allow to completely cool (which will take at least 30 min.) Cut up into bars.

Bon qppetit!

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