Mary’s Seven Layer Experiment

Rich, easy to bake, super sweet, and gooey. It’s easy to see why seven layer bars would be a memorable childhood favorite. Less straightforward, how to bring them into a wisely “eat real food” driven adulthood, perhaps not making them healthy per se, but at least lightening them up slightly, or injecting a hint of nutrition. When my friend Mary asked me to take on the challenge, I jumped on it perhaps a bit too eagerly. Mary’s birthday was coming up, and the task seemed like a timely opportunity for a creative  present, not to mention fun prep and testing! My first instinct was to make seven supremely distinctive variations, ranging from those that were fairly true to the original, albeit a tad less caloric, to those that were truly unique. At the far end of the spectrum, I envisioned some fabulously layered concoction of dried fruits, millet, sunflower seeds, coconut water or milk in place of flakes, carob, and other interesting edibles. However, Mary is an engineer. One who is passionate, brilliant at thinking outside any box, and full of appreciation for hard work, thoughtfulness, and, loyal to her Maine roots, Yankee ingenuity. That said, her engineering mind is commendably detail-oriented and, as we talked more about the challenge (which I discovered much later was initially issued jokingly, then kindly indulged in the face of my frenetic excitement), it became clear that Mary was interested in something rather authentically in tune with the genuine article. After all, she loves seven layer bars as they are; she’d just like them to be a little less empty when it comes down to the weighty and superfluous calories. If she wanted something totally different, she could bake some homemade granola or pick up an Odwalla bar. So, in the end, I experimented with three different versions, which I’ve asked Mary to comment on, below.  My mind’s still reeling a little with other variations, though, so as far as I’m concerned, this challenge isn’t quite over yet, though I need a little space from it. We’re just on a break.

Version One: Less is More

The easiest option given Mary’s request was to essentially use all the same ingredients, just less of them. I was going to type up my quantities, but then I found the Cooking Light link below, which is basically the exact same thing. Seven Layer Bars are also known as Hello Dolly bars. One lesson learned with this version, you don’t need to use the whole can of condensed milk; or, if you do use it all, be sure to bake on the longer end of the range, or even a few minutes more.

http://find.myrecipes.com/recipes/recipefinder.dyn?action=displayRecipe&recipe_id=1687691

Version Two: Cranberry Raisin with Sour Cream topping

For the second round, I went a little more divergent, creating a version I considered inspired by, but not necessarily all that similar to, our baseline recipe. This version went over well, but more as it’s own new bar cookie. Mary noted, however, that by losing the cranberries and raisins, it could actually gain credibility as a more nutritious take on the original. In place of the sweetened condensed milk, which I’m not a huge fan of, even if fat free, I tried a sour cream and egg white topping, which baked to a consistency that conjured up a sense of very thin cheesecake. Instead of chocolate chips and walnuts, I used chopped dark chocolate and almonds, and I left out butterscotch chips altogether. I also used unsweetened flaked coconut. Rather than the traditional graham cracker crust, I used an oat  and gingersnap crust. You can use graham cracker crumbs instead of the gingersnaps. You can also eliminate the cookies and simply use an added 3/4 cup of oats, or 1/2 cup whole wheat flour. Since this was to be tested for Mary’s birthday, though, I went with the inclusion of some lower fat gingersnaps.

  • For the crust:
  • 1 cup oats
  • 3 tablespoons brown or raw sugar
  • 1/2 cup gingersnap or graham cracker crumbs
  • 2 tablespoons melted butter
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons orange juice

For the filling:

  • 1 1/2 cups mixed dried fruit (I used cranberries and raisins)
  • 3 ounces dark chocolate, chopped
  • 1/4 cup chopped or ground almonds
  • 1/4 cup flaked unsweetened coconut
  • 3/4 cup light sour cream
  • 1/4 cup light coconut milk
  • 2 tablespoons flour
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1 egg white
  • 1/4 cup honey
  • 1/3 cup organic granola to sprinkle on top (optional)

1. To prepare the crust, process the oats, brown sugar, and gingersnaps about 30 seconds to 1 minute. Transfer to a bowl and the melted butter and orange juice, mixing to combine. Press into an 8-inch square pan coated with cooking spray, and bake at 350 degrees for 15 minutes, or until lightly browned.

2. Evenly sprinkle the dried fruit, coconut, dark chocolate pieces, and almonds over the crust.

3. In a bowl, combine the sour cream, coconut milk, flour, vanilla, and egg white, stirring with a whisk. Spread evenly over filling. If desired, sprinkle granola lightly over the top. Bake at 325 degrees for 35 to 40 minutes.

Version 3: Peanut butter Magic bars

It may seem a little presumptuous to call this trial “magic bars”, but that’s yet another name for classic seven layer bars, only the ingredients are all mixed together instead of layered. And, this version seemed possibly the most successful. It has a little nutrition sneaked in to make the calories slightly more purposeful. However, they’re very rich, especially with the yummy addition of peanut butter. I essentially used the same crust as in version two, but cut back to 2 tablespoons brown sugar, and increased to 2 tablespoons orange juice. I also went back to using fat free condensed milk, but less of it, trying to achieve a sort of compromise. I was going to use chopped dark chocolate but didn’t have enough on hand, so went with semi-sweet chips, but next time I’d go with the dark chocolate pieces.

For the crust:

  • 1 cup oats
  • 2 tablespoons brown or raw sugar
  • 1/2 cup gingersnap or graham cracker crumbs
  • 2 tablespoons melted butter
  • 2 tablespoons orange juice

For the filling:

  • 1/4 cup flaked unsweetened coconut
  • 1/4 cup chopped pecans, toasted
  • 1/3 cup semisweet chips
  • 1/2 cup creamy organic natural peanut butter (I actually used slightly more than this, maybe by a tablespoon or so)
  • 3/4 cup fat free sweetened condensed milk

1. To prepare the crust, process the oats, brown sugar, and gingersnaps about 30 seconds to 1 minute. Transfer to a bowl and the melted butter and orange juice, mixing to combine. Press into an 8-inch square pan coated with cooking spray, and bake at 350 degrees for 15 minutes, or until lightly browned.

2. Evenly sprinkle coconut, pecans, and chips over crust. In a bowl, combine peanut butter and condensed milk. Spread over filling (some of the filling will be caught up drawn to the top). Bake at 350 degrees for 25 minutes.

Photo credit: Flikr user aliciagriffin

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