Thursday, December 15, 2011

MMMMM Thursday Thanks to the Traveling Spoon

Those wonderful folks at the Traveling spoon sure know how to get my attention, with yummies, and for that I say Thank you!

 Seven Layer (Magic) Bars (12 Weeks of Christmas Cookies - Week 10)

After weeks of sharing the Christmas baking traditions of my family for the 12 Weeks of Christmas Cookies Blog Hop (including our favorite Colonial Williamsburg Gingerbread, our unique Czech Sugar Cookies, and the Famous Levain Chocolate Chip Cookie Copycat) it finally occurred to me to ask Matthew if he had any traditions that he felt I should represent.

Apart from his mother's Death by Chocolate - a rich confection of chocolate cake, chocolate pudding, chocolate chips and whipped cream - Matt requested these gooey, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink bars that he calls Seven Layer Magic Bars. You might know them as Seven Layer Bars, Hello Dolly Bars or Magic Bars, but whatever the name, they're shockingly sweet and indulgently delicious.

I can remember having these once or twice during my childhood, but since desserts didn't last long in our full household and the ingredients for this one were pricey, it never became a regular fixture. I didn't mourn its absence too much, given the whole host of recipes that were family favorites, but I always made a beeline for this gooey treat at any church potluck or party.

When Matt suggested I make these bars for the 12 Weeks of Christmas Cookies weekly party, I knew they would be perfect to take to our family Thanksgiving in Chicago. There, they were a welcome addition to the dessert tray (which included a few varieties of cookies, my aunt's Chocolate Creme Pie, and a Pumpkin Crunch Cake), but they were an absolute revelation to my sister's in-laws, who had traveled all the way from England to meet their new grandson.

Desserts in England are rarely so sweet, and with a buttery graham cracker crust, an intensely flavored center of coconut, chocolate and sweetened condensed milk, and a crunchy topping of chopped nuts and toffee pieces, these are decadent even by American standards!

Seven-Layer-Magic-Hello-Dolly Bars
these bars are an 'amped-up' version of the Eagle Brand recipe

3/4 cup butter, melted
2 1/4 cups graham crackers, crushed by hand
1 (14-ounce) can sweetened condensed milk
2 cups semi-sweet chocolate chips
1/2 cup Heath or English toffee bits (or butterscotch chips)
1 1/3 cups shredded coconut
1 cup chopped nuts (pecans or walnuts)

Preheat oven to 350°F. Generously grease a 9x13-inch baking pan, or line with parchment paper. Combine graham cracker crumbs and melted butter. Press mixture firmly and evenly into the bottom of the prepared pan. Set aside.

Fill a small saucepan with water and bring to a gentle boil. Remove from heat and place an opened can of sweetened condensed milk in the hot water. Heat until milk becomes runny and can be easily poured. Pour half of the sweetened condensed milk over the prepared crust, reserving the remaining milk to top the bars before baking.

Layer the chocolate chips, coconut and nuts evenly over the crust. Sprinkle with toffee pieces and pour the remaining condensed milk over all (it may be necessary to reheat the milk gently for easier pouring). Bake 20-25 minutes or until bars appear 'set' and lightly browned. Cool completely before serving. Cut into small squares or diamonds (a little goes a long way with these!) and store, covered, at room temperature.

A few notes: Apart from over baking, it's hard to imagine a way in which these versatile bars could go wrong. The list of ingredients is extremely flexible (I substituted Heath pieces for butterscotch chips with great success - though if you use the butterscotch, I'd recommend reducing the chocolate chips to prevent sugar shock!), as is the method and order of layering. In fact, you don't really need to layer at all, though I would recommend following my before-and-after method with the sweetened condensed milk, since it seems to prevent the bars from falling apart or becoming too dry after baking.

While researching this recipe, I came across lots of comments regarding overly thin crusts, so my version includes slightly more butter and graham cracker crumbs than most traditional recipes. I'd also recommend crushing your own crackers, since store-bought crumbs may be too fine to create a proper crust. Other than that, the recipe is simplicity itself and you can make adjustments for preferences or allergies quite easily. These bars also travel well, making the trip up to Chicago with nary a strand of coconut out of place!

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