The Coconut Bar of Your Dreams

If the grocery store isn't your favorite place, it should be. We're sleuthing for the best back-of-the-box recipes and each week we'll share our latest find. 

Today: A coconut-topped shortbread bar that's dreamier than George Clooney, circa 1990.

You go to the grocery store for ingredients to make recipes, not for the recipes themselves. But while you’re perusing the aisles, searching for olive oil and curry powder and consulting your shopping list, you’re missing a culinary gold mine. There are recipes -- rigorously tested, designed to entice, and short enough to fit on the back of a box -- all around you.

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You probably turn to glossy, beautifully photographed cookbooks and food blogs for recipes. Maybe you get them from friends, or clip them from magazines. But each week, we’ll be finding inspiration in a different place. Recipes from the back of packages and jars -- think baking powder tins and chocolate chip bags -- are hidden gems that have stuck around for good reason.

Let me preface this by saying that many recipes touted on boxes (particularly on modern processed foods) are not good. There are soggy saltine casseroles and ill-advised Ritz cracker pies. But there are some serious winners, too, and we’ll unearth them here. Some will be new and unusual. Some will be classics that many of you have grown up with, like oatmeal cookies and banana pudding and garlic cheddar biscuits.

I'm starting with a real crowd-pleaser: a gooey, buttery, coconut-topped shortbread from the Baker’s Angel Flake shredded coconut bag. You’ve probably had an incarnation of these coconut bars before. Their popularity has soared, giving rise to variations like seven layer bars and magic cookie bars and Hello Dolly bars.

Those all fall into the cheap thrills category, relying on a rush of sugar and shortening and condensed milk to seduce you. Today's bar is a stripped-down version. It isn’t as luxurious or as decadent as you’d expect. Instead, its more modest sweetness yields to other flavors: moist coconut, rich cookie, buttery walnuts, and aromatic vanilla. For that reason, you should use the best ingredients you can. High-quality vanilla makes a difference, and high-fat European butter only improves the bars.

I swapped some of the sweetened shredded coconut in the original recipe for unsweetened flaked coconut to give the bars an added crunch. Think of them as a Rolling Stones album of the dessert world: retro, yes, but forever good. If you bake these while listening to "Brown Sugar" or "Angie," so much the better.

Coconut Dream Bars

Adapted from Kraft Foods

Makes 9 bars

For the shortbread layer:

1 stick butter, softened
1/3 cup firmly packed brown sugar
1 cup flour

For the coconut topping:

2 eggs
1/2 cup firmly packed brown sugar
1/4 cup flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 cup unsweetened coconut flakes
1 cup sweetened shredded coconut
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup chopped walnuts

See the full recipe (and save and print it) here.

Do you have a favorite back of the box recipe, or have you heard about a great one? Leave any suggestions in the comments, and I'll try them out and share them here!

Photos by Posie Harwood

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Barbara Ranieri
    Barbara Ranieri
  • Alison Murray @OmNomAlly
    Alison Murray @OmNomAlly
  • Windischgirl
  • Patricia Carr
    Patricia Carr
  • Hatt Manley
    Hatt Manley
I like warm homemade bread slathered with fresh raw milk butter, ice cream in all seasons, the smell of garlic in olive oil, and sugar snap peas fresh off the vine.


Barbara R. October 6, 2015
Macaroni and cheese recipe from the Mueller's box. I've been making it for years, and everyone thinks I'm brilliant
Alison M. March 23, 2015
I think I've definitely been missing out by not checking ingredient packets for recipes, this one sounds great! Now that I think of it there is a brand here in Australia called Lotus who out recipes on their bags, I'll have to see if I can find some inspiring recipes ideas next time I'm at work :)
In the meantime I've pinned this recipe because looking at it makes me salivate a little!
Posie (. March 7, 2016
Alison, I'd love to hear of any great Australian back of the box recipes!!!
Windischgirl March 23, 2015
The Bakers chocolate one-bowl brownies is my go-to, but I do reduce the sugar to 1 1/2c or less. It's so easy I can't imagine ever using a mix again!
Jennifer S. March 7, 2016
Mine too!! I was going to post that as a suggestion as well. I add 1/4 c cocoa powder to it, reducing the sugar to 1 3/4 cups. Love the Baker's recipe.
Patricia C. March 22, 2015
You're so right, Ceramic! My dad made the fudge recipe on the Fluff container and gifted it to friends at Christmas. The Toll House chocolate chip cookies (from the chocolate chip pack) are pretty darn good too!
Hatt M. March 22, 2015
what does a stick of butter weigh?
Ceramic March 22, 2015
Believe it or not, the fudge recipe on the back of the jar of marshmallow fluff, the one that calls for condensed milk, is fantastic. Just use high-quality chocolate and cut the amount of sugar.
amysarah March 22, 2015
I also recall the variation with chocolate chips being called Congo Bars (less PC name than Hello Dolly Bars I suppose, unless you have Barbra Streisand issues.) As a coconut obsessive, I'll try this version - though I kind of like a little decadence in my coconut bars. As for other recipes, this is probably too obvious, but the recipe on the back of the Hershey's Cocoa box is still my iconic, all American chocolate cake. Also the very simple Key Lime Pie recipe on the back of the Nellie & Joe's Key West Lime Juice bottle. Also, maybe not my favorite, but the pumpkin pie on the back of the Libby's can always works.