There are cookies and then there are cookie bars, those cookie-pie hybrids that have a crust and a filling but are not pie-shaped. And then there are seven layer bars, those oddly magical mish-moshes of basically anything you like or want. There are no limits on what you can and can’t put into them, and they (almost) always come out stupidly delicious.

These sweet and salty seven layer bars are a perfect combination of everything I love–peanut butter chips, marshmallows, pretzels, nuts, chocolate, and a graham cracker crust. I know, I know–that’s only six layers, unless you count the condensed milk that holds it all together. Does it count as its own layer, or is it too dispersed throughout? Does it really matter? Because my stomach doesn’t seem to care whether these things have six layers, seven layers, or negative fourteen layers. They’re tasty, so I could care less what they’re called. 

I’ve made (and failed at) seven layer bars enough times that I’ve come up with a list of rules for foolproof seven layer bars. I would call it my seven laws of seven layer bars, but even I have to groan at that, so… yeah, anyway:

1. Pre-bake the crust. Every time I don’t do this and just layer everything on top of the unbaked crust, I get a sticky mush on the bottom of my bars instead of a firm crust. Pre-baking is key!

2. Alternate dry and sticky ingredients. The one thing that every seven layer bar needs is enough stickiness so that they don’t fall apart when you’re cutting them. Layering dry things (like pretzels) in between gooey things (chocolate chips, marshmallows, etc.) helps with the cohesion of the whole bar.

3. Pour condensed milk on top of all ingredients. This ties in with the whole stickiness factor thing. My bars don’t turn out nearly as well when I pour the condensed milk right on top of the crust. Use the condensed milk like a glue and make sure it goes through all your layers for some extra hold factor. 

4. Line the bottom of your pan with parchment paper. I found it to be a lot easier to get these out of the pan in one piece when I had some sort of lining on the bottom. This means you won’t need to dig out that one stubborn bar in the corner that just doesn’t want to come out, and increases your chances of having a nice, intact crust.

5. Cool completely before removing and cutting. You want your bars to be as set as possible before you cut them, to avoid that whole falling-apart thing. (Can you tell from this list what my main problem was in my many seven layer bar trials?)

6. Wherever possible, use less sugary ingredients. This is more of a preference thing, but man, these bars can get really sweet, especially with all that condensed milk poured on top. Semi-sweet chocolate chips, nuts, and pretzels really help balance these out for me.

7. Seven layer bars don’t need to have seven layers. I’m sure your tastebuds won’t be opposed to a bar that technically has only 6 layers (or one that has 8! yum). 

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Oatmeal Scotchies

There’s something about oatmeal cookies that just makes me think of home. The funny thing is, I don’t remember my mom baking them very often while we were growing up. (In fact, I don’t really remember eating that many sweets at all growing up, thanks to my mom’s healthy cooking. So my obsession with butter and flour? I guess I have no one to blame but myself.)

I’m not sure who I have to thank for my cultural impressions of the oatmeal cookie, but I guess I just always thought of it as a classic American thing. Having grown up in a Chinese-American household with relatively little baking going on, I’d say that most of my exposure to “classic American” culture came from mid-nineties TV shows, or at least the ones I was allowed to watch. So thank you, Full HouseBoy Meets World, and Clarissa Explains It All for your collective influence on my cookie life. 

So I guess what I’m trying to say is that these oatmeal scotchies remind me of home, even though I’d never had a cookie like this until they came out of my own oven. They’ve got everything I personally love about oatmeal cookies–the lightly chewy texture, the dusting of warm cinnamon, the slight caramelization of the brown sugar. A handful of butterscotch chips tastes just right in these cookies, smashed up against the springy oats and buttery dough.

These cookies are a warm blanket for your soul, coziness in every bite. Grab a glass of milk and a stack of cookies, and be prepared to go back home (wherever that may be) for a minute or two. 

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Cinnamon Bun Cookies

I think it’s an established fact that food tastes better when it looks good. It’s the reason all those fancy chefs at fancy restaurants take the time to plate their food and make it artistic and gorgeous before sending it out, and it’s also the reason that food magazines and commercials hire professional food stylists to make their food look almost too good to eat. 

In real life, I think the rule applies just as much, especially when it comes to giving food gifts. With December being my month of baking and giving away the results, I’m always worried that my creations aren’t going to look all that appetizing to the folks who are receiving them, which takes away some of the excitement of gifting in the first place. Over the years, the best ways I’ve found to counter the anxiety are: (a) to stick with fool-proof recipes that look good and taste good, and (b) to stop thinking about it so much. (Actually, I could probably benefit from applying (b) to my life far more often.) 

These cinnamon bun cookies have the dual benefit of being both crazy delicious and crazy cute. Picture them stuffed into a cookie tin or a clear treat bag–instantly worthy of holiday cookie gifting, no? 

These cookies are basically made just like puffy, bread-y cinnamon buns except instead of a yeast dough, they’re made with sugar cookie dough (yum). They’re filled with a mixture of butter, brown sugar, and cinnamon (yum, yum, and yum), and then rolled up, cut and baked just like cinnamon buns. Easy peasy.

It can be a bit tough to roll the cookies up depending on how soft your dough is. I found it helpful to refrigerate the dough for an hour or two to let it firm up before rolling it out and topping it with the butter and cinnamon mixture. And then after rolling the dough up, it helps to stick it in the fridge for another few minutes so that the cookies don’t squish down when you cut the log into disks.  

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Black Pepper Cheddar Muffins

My December baking season usually consists of piles upon piles of sweet treats. Not gonna lie: this girl has a major sweet tooth. But you knew that already, didn’t you. So this year, I thought I’d provide a little balance by adding a savory treat to my repertoire.

Now, I know what you must be thinking: Sugar plus salt, butter, and cheese? That’s not exactly “balance”, you little fatty. Ok, maybe you didn’t think those exact words, but I would understand if you did. Sweet, salty, and fatty does not a balanced diet make. But a “healthy” balance isn’t really what I’m shooting for here. It is baking season after all, and what’s more, it’s treat-gifting season. All I’m looking for is something to round out that basket of baked goods you’re planning to make for all of your best buddies.

But okay, as long as we’re on the subject of health, let me just say that there’s a bit of whole wheat flour in these guys. Yay health! And that is all that I have to say about nutrition until December 26. 

Moving on. These black pepper cheddar muffins are simply divine. It would be accurate to call them hearty, and it would also be accurate to call them light and fluffy. It would be even more accurate to call them cheesy, because the cheese-to-everything else ratio here is pretty darn high. Adults who like a little spice will appreciate the hit of black pepper in there, but for kids and others with milder tastes, you can always leave that part out.

If you’re gifting these, attach a little note instructing the recipients to toast these in the oven for a few minutes before digging in, to recapture that crisp-on-the-outside, soft-on-on-the-inside, buttery, slightly melty texture they had when they first came out of the oven. Or better yet, bake these up on a holiday morning and serve them to your family fresh. Happy holidays indeed.

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Once upon a time, cookies were my favorite food. It’s not hard to understand, right? Who doesn’t love a nice, big cookie with all those sugars lightly caramelized in the buttery dough? And adding chocolate or nuts or fruit turns a yummy cookie into a treasure hunt for your favorite things. It’s stimulation for the tongue and for the mind, I’m telling you.

It’s a good thing for all of the members of this household that my sweet tooth has tempered over the years. (Tempered, not disappeared.) But of course, that’s not to say that I don’t enjoy a delicious cookie every once in a while. And when I do, I like them thick and chunky, studded with a little bit of everything. These cherry white chocolate chunk cookies always fit the bill. 

Dried tart cherries. White chocolate chips. Pecan pieces. Oats. Mittens and blue satin sashes.

These are a few of my favorite things.

But seriously, I find it hard to get tired of this flavor combination. The tart cherries have a way of being soft and juicy, even though they’re dried. And the tiny bit of tang that you get with them goes so well with the white chocolate. Rolled oats and pecans add a little wholesome texture to the dough. 

Another must-have for this cookie is that lumpy, bumpy texture that basically just screams “EAT ME! I’m packed with morsels of deliciousness!” To get it, don’t roll your dough into smooth spheres. Instead, just scoop it up with your fingers into a chunky, uneven ball, preferably a little wider than it is tall, and plop it down on the baking sheet. 

And that’s about it. The only hard part about these cookies is resisting the urge to revert to my fiendish cookie monster days. It’s a good thing that my wonderful friends are so willing to help take these off my hands.

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