Want To Go Full Midwestern? Bake Bars.
Updated: May 3, 2021
Bars are one of those staples of Midwestern baking that are surprisingly difficult to explain to people from outside the region.
“They’re kind of like a cake, but flat,” I explained a few weeks ago, simplifying my English slightly to better accommodate my translator, who was tasked with the unenviable task of converting my colorful, occasionally rambling speech into German. “They’re made in a big pan, but you cut them into squares and serve them with coffee for friends and special dinners where everybody brings food to share.”
I was happily drinking coffee and trading recipes with other foodies in the back room of Rosines Backwerkstatt, a bakery in the historic city of Weimar, Germany. We were enjoying our coffee break and a long chat before making stollen, a cherished German Christmas bread. (The lovely Petra Hermann, a cookbook author, food and food blogger documented the occasion on her blog, Obers Trifft Sahne.)
My German hosts were telling me all about their favorite traditional desserts, so it only seemed right that I should explain bars — a Midwestern classic — to them. I knew the German words for cake (kuchen) and coffee (which, mercifully, is pronounced pretty much the same in both languages) and the gesture for “flat” needs no translation, so I was feeling pretty confident I help them envision this comfort food from my Midwestern childhood.
Nope. Two pairs of eyes stared back in confusion. The word “bars” is, in and of itself, problematic. Who decided to give a dessert the same name as a drinking establishment, anyway?
The explanation I gave this group (and the others who asked about holiday treats from my part of the world) described bars as a sort of cross between a cake and a cookie, which turns out to be surprisingly accurate. My trusty Better Homes and Gardens: New Cook Book (the source of many a cherished Midwestern recipe, since it’s been updated and reprinted more than a dozen times) has an entire section called “Cookie & Bars,” which makes me feel a little better. (You’ll find a favorite recipe from this cookbook at the bottom of the post.)
I don’t know what the heck happened to me, but I came back from that Germany trip and fell into baking like I was possessed by the ghosts of all my Midwestern ancestors past. I’m descended from a long line of multitasking mothers (is there any other kind?), cafe employees, kitchen servants, farm wives who fed entire threshing crews and members of the ladies aid groups and circles who have stocked many a church basement social or potluck dinner (the kind where everybody brings a dish) with doily-lined platters heaped with bars.
Often served in the same pan they’re baked in, bars are a practical, portable indulgence that sums up the no fuss, Midwestern baking philosophy perfectly. But just because they’re practical, doesn’t mean they’re not decadent.
Instead of making my usual flaxseed and oatmeal energy bites mixed with peanut butter and honey (so virtuous, so protein packed and ostensibly healthy) on random day in January, I was seized with a wild urge to bake a pan of my favorite chocolate oatmeal bars instead. It was the catalyst to some kind of weird, bar-baking renaissance, during which I whimsically decided to bake pretty much the entire dessert menu of my childhood.
In my family, we call these hefty, addictive bricks of goodness Tootsie Roll bars. (The chewy, chocolate-y topping on top does bring the candies to mind.) I laughed when my mom told me some of her friends call them Hip Padders. (They’re calorie bombs packed with sweetened condensed milk, two kinds of sugar, semisweet chocolate and copious amounts of butter, this description seems quite appropriate.) Intrigued by the intersection of two of my passions (words and food), I asked readers on my social media platforms what they called these bars at their houses.
Whoa. Apparently the attached photo unleashed some kind of Pavlovian response, because everybody wanted to talk to me about bars. It’s a strange and humbling thing for a travel writer to realize that the most popular social media post of the year so far is not something she labored over, but a spontaneous update on what she baked one random day!
I never really intended to write about baking bars (on social media or here on this website), but the response was fascinating. And the language nerd in me was intrigued to see members the Prairie Style File community going back and forth about the names of their favorite bars!
Lots of people said that they called these particular bars Hip Padders and Tootsie Roll Bars as well, but it quickly became apparent that this was only the tip of the iceberg. My beloved plaid cover Better Homes and Garden cookbook calls them Chocolate Revel Bars, a name many households shortened to “revel bars.” Some people called them “gooey bars,” “oatmeal bars,” “oatmeal drop bars” or “chocolate oatmeal bars.”
An employee of a North Dakota nursing home reported that the elderly residents call them “Robert Redford” bars, a name which doesn’t seem to have crossed the generational divide. I truly don’t understand where that name came from at all, but it delighted me all the same.
Then we started talking about all kinds of bars — Special K bars, Rice Crispy bars, Scotcheroos. Grown adults waxed poetic about Seven Layer Bars and Chocolate Chip Cookie Bars and Salted Caramel Bars.
Someone brought up Lemon Bars, another one of my favorites that I’ve never actually attempted to make before. So of course, I had to try. My first attempt didn’t turn out super cute (my powdered sugar dusting skills need some serious work) but they tasted exactly like I remembered. And I can practically smell the lemon filling (which is very similar to lemon curd) every time I see the photo above. (The lemon zest makes all the difference. Don’t skip it.)
Everybody had their favorites. And almost everybody reported not making them as often as they liked, often for fear of eating the whole pan. Everybody that came to my house in January left with a Ziploc baggie packed with bars (oh my Lord, I’m becoming a Midwestern cliché) and the parting words “Get them out of my house before I eat them all!”
This is a very real risk of baking bars. They’re typically brought to a potluck gathering or set out at coffee time. I used to think this was just a tradition, but now I know the dark secret of bar bakers throughout history: they’re basically crack in dessert form and it’s impossible to eat just one. Not sharing them will bring about a sugar-induced coma.
Don’t believe me? I’ve included the recipe for Oatmeal Revel Bars from the Better Homes and Garden cookbook at the bottom of this post. I challenge you to eat just one. If you can do it, you’re a stronger person than me.
Chocolate Revel Bars (adapted from the Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook) Prep: 30 minutes Bake: 25 minutes Oven: 350 Makes: 60 bars (Ha! Only if you have the willpower of a saint.)
1 cup butter, softened 2 cups packed brown sugar 1 teaspoon baking soda 2 eggs 2 teaspoons vanilla 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour 3 cups quick-cooking rolls oats 1 1/2 cups semisweet chocolate pieces 1 14-ounce can (1 1/4 cups) of sweetened condensed milk 1/2 cup chopped walnuts of pecans (I usually skip these. If you use them, I recommend toasting them first.) 2 teaspoons vanilla
Mix all but 2 tablespoons of the butter in a large mixing bowl. (The cookbook recommends an electric mixer for 30 seconds, but you can also do this by hand.) Add brown sugar and baking soda. Beat until combined. Add eggs, the first two teaspoons of vanilla, flour and rolled oats.
Make the filling by combining the remains 2 tablespoons of butter, the chocolate and the sweetened condensed milk in a saucepan on the stove. Stir frequently, cooking the mixture over low heat until the chocolate melts. Remove from the heat source and add 2 teaspoons vanilla and nuts.
Press 2/3 (just over 3 cups) of the rolled oats mixture into the bottom of an ungreased 15x10x1-inch pan. Pour chocolate filling over the top of the pressed oat crust. Press clumps of the remaining rolled oats mixture into the chocolate filling.
Make at 350 degrees for 25 minutes, or until the oat mixture on top is lightly browned. The chocolate filling will still look wet. Cool on a wire rack and cut into bars.
What about you? What’s your favorite kind of bar? What’s your ultimate comfort food? Which desserts remind you of your childhood? What’s your pick for the most Midwestern bar of them all? How often do you bake bars at your house? Is there a local bakery or shop where you buy bars in your neighborhood?
This post contains an affiliate link. That means I may receive a small commission if you buy the cookbook I love. As always, I only recommend products I like!
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