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  • Writer's pictureSusan Welsh

The Magic Bar

These days I’m always looking for magic—any dose of something otherworldly and utterly enchanting, so Amy and Tim’s invitation to their poolside party with a magician was perfect timing. After over a year of social isolation and the perpetual threat to life and liberty we all endured, an evening spent with champagne glass in hand and magic on board was a balm to the soul.

Admittedly I was skeptical when I first spotted the magician walking around with an Ace of Spades tucked into the left side of his eyeglasses and a small lasso of rope dangling from his belt loop. Perhaps not just skeptical, but also a little afraid. I didn’t want to participate in any kind of exchange where he asks me for my watch or a dollar bill from my wallet. I have never been fond of the audience participation piece of these performances and have a history of many such moments. I sat through dozens of school assemblies, filled with dread, as performers routinely plucked teachers out of the audience to the wild chanting of our students pointing us out, eager to watch us make utter fools of ourselves in any number of dance routines or bicycle stunts or improvisational sketches.

But on this particular night, under a cabana with newfound friends, as a torrential rainfall pounded out a percussive beat and water cascaded around us, a magician bewitched us all. He was immediately endearing, introducing himself and sharing his story of learning magic at the supper table with his grandfather. Most of us have had such moments. What seemed like magic, struck by a lightning bolt in our youth, that sticks with us forever. Mine was the magic of cooking and baking born in my grandmother’s kitchen—in particular when she created some of my favorites like kolache and haluski. Of course that magic later translated into my mother’s kitchen, and later to mine.

The day after the party, I had to make a portable dessert to bring to a barbecue. Magic bars had been on my mind for a while both for ease of preparation and also because I had been curious about this “classic" dessert I had seen and read about for decades (but never tasted).

Magic Bars go by many names: Hello Dollies and 7 Layer Bars, among them. But since I first made them on that weekend studded with magic, I will forever call them Magic Bars.

There are several Magic Bar origin stories. One credits a food columnist by the name of Clementine Paddleford who published a recipe on the week of September 19, 1965, right around the time Carol Channing was receiving rave reviews for her performance in Hello, Dolly! on Broadway. According to other sources, it was Gail Borden, owner of Eagle Brand sweetened condensed milk (an integral ingredient in Magic Bars) who decided to put the recipe on the back of the can.

Wherever the recipe comes from, it’s indisputable that these bars are outrageously delicious. Variations of the recipe abound and I took inspiration from the one that suggests using pecan sandies as the cookie base instead of graham crackers. Now, it’s the only way Stephanie will allow me to make them. If you’re in need of a little magic, or just have a sweet tooth, I highly recommend you whip up a batch of these for your next picnic, or snack, or binge. I still haven’t calculated the WW points and I probably never will. Afterall, if they are truly magic, those points will just disappear.

Here's the classic recipe from the back of the pan. My tip: pour about 1/2 of the condensed milk over the crumbs before layering, then about another quarter (or the rest of the can depending on your sweetness preference) over the layers to "varnish" them with sweetness and hold the nuts and coconut all together in gooey goodness.

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