“Needs a little more chocolate, don’t you think?” she says hopefully and with certainty.
“Definitely,” I reply handing her the bag of chocolate morsels.
We eat a few before my daughter carefully spreads a handful across the baking dish, already layered with graham crackers and coconut.
“Even enough?” she asks.
“Definitely.” I smile and hug her to my side.
We’ve had this same conversation many times over the years as we bake our special treat together. It could very well be the same conversation I had with my own mom and she with her mom. We are making Hello Dolly bars, the delicious, chocolaty, graham-crackery, brownie-like bars passed down from a recipe from my Nana Selma. A bite of a Hello Dolly bar immediately conjures feelings of childhood, both my own and of my kids. They taste like comfort and love.
Nana made the bars for my mom and aunt when they were little and later my mom made them for my sisters and me. Nana passed her stained, handwritten index card of the recipe to my mother sometime in the late 1960’s when she got married and had her own children, and my mom later wrote it out for me when I had my kids.
I thought that only my own family made these bars, that Nana had invented the recipe. My mom tells me now that the recipe for Hello Dolly bars was actually one of many shared between Nana’s friends in small Gloversville, N.Y. in the 40s and 50s when they were young mothers and homemakers. After Googling Hello Dolly, I was further surprised to learn that many families claim the Hello Dolly bar as an old family treat. They are alternately called Hello Dollies, Magic Cookies and Seven Layer Bars. It seems to be as much a mystery as to who originated the recipe, as is the odd name. Nana was baking the bars well before the 1964 hit Broadway musical of the same name, but perhaps the bars made people so happy that the name was changed to reflect the joy of the show.
Nana Selma passed away in 2014 at the age of 97. I like to think that Nana would be thrilled to know that her personal recipe is so special to me. The bars remind me of the times when my family made the very long drive up the New York State Thruway to Gloversville for a visit. My sisters and I ran around her house with its funny shaped rooms and long hallways (perfect for pretend detectives to hunt crooks), peek through her make up drawer (you’ve never seen so much lipstick) and finally settle into her sunny family room for treats.
“How’s this?” my daughter says as she carefully pours thick gooey condensed milk over the concoction. “Even enough?”
“Perfect,” I answer, savoring the fun of baking together and wanting the moment to last forever.
The recipe is very easy to make with huge yummy rewards*. It is the perfect scratch recipe for little bakers just learning how to measure (all the measurements call for one cup of each ingredient); it doesn’t require mixing bowls so there isn’t a big mess, and it can be made with a variety of ingredients so bakers can get creative. By the way, Hello Dolly bars are a hit at bake sales and block parties.
1/2 cup butter
1 cup graham cracker crumbs
1 cup shredded coconut
1 cup chocolate chips
1 cup chopped nuts (optional)
1 can condensed milk
1. Melt the butter and pour into a 9x9 pan, mix in the graham cracker crumbs and spread evenly.
2.Add layer of coconut, then chocolate chips, and if appealing, nuts.
3.Pour condensed milk evenly over the top.
4.Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes or until glazed slightly brown on top.
5.Cool, cut into squares and enjoy.
*OK full disclosure, I can’t get my son to eat them in their traditional recipe form because he thinks he doesn’t like coconut, although he has never actually tried it. He’s stubborn that way, but the beauty of Hello Dollies is that the recipe is extremely forgiving and flexible. You can substitute, add, or leave out ingredients to your family’s taste.
Corinne Zola is a founder and current boardmember of the Westchester Children’s Museum. She lives in Mamaroneck with her husband, son and daughter, and their dog Penny.