Classic 1980s Seven-Layer Bars

published Dec 3, 2021
christmas
Seven-Layer Bars Recipe

Retro seven-layer bars are the ultimate Christmas treat.

Makes24 (2-inch) bars

Prep10 minutes

Cook30 minutes

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Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk; Prop Styling: JoJo Li

This recipe is from our Cookie Time Machine — a trip through the most iconic cookies of the past 10 decades, paired with 10 fresh twists for right now. Click here to see the most important cookies of the 1920s through today — and gaze forward with our Cookie of the Future!

Although the interest in traditional foods and handicrafts continued into the early 1980s, commercialized foods regained their sway over the American public quite quickly — and that food quickly found its way into treats, like the very ’80s seven-layer bar.

The microwave oven was fast becoming a household staple, shopping malls and amusement parks became family destinations, and the income inequality which had been held at bay for decades by unions and government regulations was fast increasing. Fashionable society was dominated by celebrities and high-powered executives. The power suit, with its boxy padded shoulders and double-breasted buttons, replaced the more flowing silhouettes of the 1970s for both men and women. Greed was good. It paid for imported cars, car phones, and designer everything.

As more and more women entered the workforce, latchkey kids were left to fend for themselves in an era without robust after-school activities for those who didn’t participate in sports. John Hughes dominated a generation with his revolutionary teen movies. The raw sounds of rap and heavy metal rejected the country and disco sounds that dominated the previous decade. Music Television (MTV) helped shift the balance of pop culture power from radio to television, and cable television was the dividing line in many communities between the haves and the have-nots. The new decade was loud and brash, brassy and unashamed. It pursued wealth and power with abandon. 

Time was money, so convenience foods came to dominate American households. Scratch recipes were not only time-consuming, but they were also difficult. The 1980s wanted everything to be easy, fast, and good. Frozen foods and popcorn put the microwave into overdrive. Lean Cuisine, Pop Tarts, Hamburger Helper, and Diet Coke filled American cupboards and refrigerators. Mall food courts and school cafeterias alike raised a generation of kids on pizza and soda pop. American food brands consolidated into fewer and fewer corporations. 

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk; Prop Styling: JoJo Li

Christmas in the 1980s was as increasingly materialistic as the rest of the decade’s trends. Toys’R’Us helped create brand-name toy crazes, as kids demanded Cabbage Patch dolls, My Little Pony, and Transformers to make Christmas morning special. Teens begged for Walkmans, boom boxes, and camcorders. The Christmas movie was reinvented, with A Christmas Story, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, Prancer, Scrooged, and yes, even Die Hard

Christmas cookies were not exempt from the constraining forces of time and money in the 1980s, either. Traditional cookies baked from scratch were still around, but easier alternatives became increasingly popular. Chocolate-covered pretzels, cake mix cookies, Rice Krispies Treats, doctored boxed-mix brownies, and other easy or no-bake recipes dominated holiday cookie trays. 

But perhaps the best representative of the decade, Christmas cookie-wise, was the Seven-Layer Bar. Although the actual timeline of the recipe is unclear, by 1968 the Borden Company was marketing the recipe as the Magic Cookie Bar using their Eagle Brand sweetened condensed milk. Borden’s 1968 advertisement asked, “How can you make these Magic Cookie Bars right in the baking pan with no mixing, no flour, no sugar, no eggs?” It combined layers of graham cracker crumbs, butter, chocolate chips, chopped pecans or walnuts, flaked coconut, and sweetened condensed milk, yes, right in the pan, which was then baked to create a rich, gooey confection. 

The Magic Cookie Bar was the official Borden recipe, but wasn’t actually seven layers, because it did not include butterscotch chips. The “magic” was that the sweetened condensed milk would meld all the disparate ingredients together. In the South, these cookies were known as “Hello Dollys,” likely from a connection food writer Clementine Paddleford made between the cookies and the Broadway show, which debuted in 1964. At some point, butterscotch morsels (around since the 1940s) were added to the recipe, and Seven-Layer Bars took American kitchens by storm.

By the 1980s, they were everywhere. They are “almost like candy,” as one newspaper foodie wrote, and the gentle crunch of nuts and melted-and-re-hardened chocolate and butterscotch morsels topping the gooey middles certainly did resemble popular candy bars. Given the penchant for excesses both on and off the kitchen table in the 1980s, Seven-Layer Bars are the perfect representation of this decade.

This classic recipe is from Rhonda Tomlinson’s “Rhonda’s Recipes” column from the Oskaloosa Independent of Oskaloosa, Kansas, published just in time for Christmas 1989. Rhonda writes, “A quick holiday cookie is the Seven Layer Bar. When the ingredients are assembled and measured, it takes only minutes to get the cookies ready to pop in the oven.”

The Modern Twist

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk; Prop Styling: JoJo Li

For a modern take on Classic 1980s Seven-Layer Bars, check out Salty-Sweet Snack Drawer Bars.

Our Three Most-Loved Cookie-Baking Tools

Before you preheat the oven, gear up with these cookie-making essentials.

  • The Sheet Pan Every Kitchn Editor Owns: This sturdy, won’t-ever-warp pan is great for cranking out a ton of picture-perfect sweets. Bonus: It comes in great colors, which makes baking even more fun.
  • Our Tried-and-Tested Favorite Cooling Rack: We love these racks for their criss-cross design, which adds stability, makes sure your precious treats won’t slip though, and prevents the rack from wobbling or warping.
  • The Little Spatula That Every Baker Needs: This thin-but-sturdy spatula is great for gently loosening your cookies from the pan and transferring them to the cooling rack. It’s particularly handy for moving small or delicate treats.

Seven-Layer Bars Recipe

Retro seven-layer bars are the ultimate Christmas treat.

Prep time 10 minutes

Cook time 30 minutes

Makes 24 (2-inch) bars

Nutritional Info

Ingredients

  • 4 tablespoons

    (1/2 stick) salted margarine or butter

  • 1 cup

    graham cracker crumbs (4 ounces)

  • 1 cup

    sweetened, flaked coconut (angel flake)

  • 1 cup

    chocolate chips

  • 1 cup

    butterscotch chips

  • 1

    (14-ounce) can sweetened condensed milk

  • 1 cup

    chopped walnuts or pecans

Instructions

  1. Arrange a rack in the middle of the oven and heat the oven to 325ºF.

  2. Place 4 tablespoons salted margarine or butter in a 9x13-inch baking pan. Bake until melted, about 5 minutes.

  3. Remove the baking dish from the oven and tilt the pan as needed so the melted butter coats the bottom. Add the ingredients in the following order, do not stir: Sprinkle 1 cup graham cracker crumbs in an even layer, then sprinkle with 1 cup flaked coconut. Sprinkle with 1 cup chocolate chips, then 1 cup butterscotch chips. Pour 1 (14-ounce) can sweetened condensed milk evenly over the top. Sprinkle with 1 cup chopped nuts.

  4. Bake until golden brown on top and the center is set, about 30 minutes. Place the pan on a wire rack and let cool completely, about 2 hours. Run a knife around the edges to loosen. Cut into 24 squares.

Recipe Notes

Storage: Store the bars in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 3 days.

Recipe adapted from Rhonda Tomlinson’s “Rhonda’s Recipes” column from the Oskaloosa Independent of Oskaloosa, Kansas, published in December 1989.