I was five, maybe six or seven or eight, sometime in the late ’90s. There was a bake sale at my elementary school. Cookies, cakes, brownies, blondies, the usual suspects—except wait!—except for those, those sugar-crusted, dark chocolate cookies with peanut butter bellies and the very cutest name: Magic Middles. My mom found the mom who made them and snagged the recipe. (Go, moms!) And they’ve been adored in our family ever since.
A couple months ago, I asked my mom to send me the recipe and, as often happens, I became curious. Mom, did that other mom write the recipe herself? (Who knows?) Did she get it from someone else? (Why?) Or somewhere else, like a newspaper? (I don’t know!) Or magazine? Or book? Or website? Food52?! (Just kidding, we weren’t around yet.)
I googled “Magic Middles,” only to get Keebler Magic Middles, peanut butter cookies with chocolate tummies. Nope. I googled ingredients to try to find a crossover. No dice. Then, I started to wonder about the ingredients. Such odd measurements. Such a huge yield. Like, professional-kitchen huge. Or bake-sale huge. Had the recipe been scaled up? I
divided some numbers reverse-engineered, re-googled ingredients and, suddenly, there she was—Magic Middles’ real mom: King Arthur Flour.
“This recipe is one that’s been making the rounds for years,” the headnote reads. Yes, yes! I started chatting with the Baker’s Hotline—if you’re feeling giddy about the very idea of a Baker’s Hotline, um, same—and learned that the recipe hails from Cookie Companion. Mystery solved, right? ...except that book wasn’t published until 2004.
Cue dramatic horror movie music. Okay, it's not that dramatic. But it’s weird, right? I still can’t sort out whether we’re remembering the bake sale wrong, or if the recipe preceded the book, or if there was, you know, some sort of crack in time. You tell me.
As our office was eating test after test after test, Smitten Kitchen, it turns out, was doing the same thing:
I’ve seen them around for years. I thought I’d try my hand at them one day. But then in December, rumor has it that this cookie won the annual cookie contest at my publisher’s. They always look amazing in picture but could they really be that good? I theorized that we liked the idea of them more than the taste. I narrowed my eyes at every recipe being an exact replica of the Google result before it, not a quarter-teaspoon of salt differential between them. How could a recipe be so… unscrutinized?
Hi, hello, it’s me. Here to—lovingly!—scrutinize:
- Too sweet! I swapped out the smooth, sweetened peanut butter with smooth, unsweetened (a.k.a. natural). A lot of baking recipes act like doing this will get you thrown in jail but, depending on the recipe, it’s often no big deal. Like here. To compensate for the natural oils separating, I gave the jar a good stir, then stuck it in the freezer for 15 or so minutes while I assembled and prepped other ingredients. The chill emulsifies the fat, making it easier to measure and mix.
- Still too sweet! Which is to say: salt, please, always. I increased the salt and used salted peanut butter and sprinkled crunchy, flaky salt on top. (If you like salt less—or your doctor says as much—feel free to use unsalted peanut butter or omit the garnish.)
- What if I don’t want peanut butter! What if I’m allergic! (I mean, I’m not, but maybe you are.) Another plus of closing the smooth, creamy, commercial peanut butter door is that it opens many natural nut/seed butter windows. Say, cashew or almond or tahini. All very welcome.
- Too puffy! Smitten Kitchen describes her cookies as “pillows.” I want mattresses, even yoga mats. To achieve this, I lowered the flour in the chocolate cookie dough, making it more fudgy and pliable. (Bonus: This makes wrapping the peanut butter balls easier and creates a smoother seam.) I also smushed them, mercilessly, with a water glass. They spread hardly at all, so make them as thin pre-bake as you want them post-bake. (For me, this is 1/8- to 1/4-inch.)
And that’s it! Just some small nips and tucks because there wasn’t much to futz with. They were already magical.
Peanut butter filling:
- 3/4 cup unsweetened, salted peanut butter
- 3/4 cup powdered sugar
- 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
- 1/4 cup unsweetened, salted peanut butter
- 1/2 cup sugar, plus more for rolling
- 1/2 cup light brown sugar (packed)
- 1 large egg
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
- 1/2 cup cocoa powder
- 1 cup plus 5 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- Flaky salt, for sprinkling
Have you crossed paths with the mysterious Magic Middles? (Also, where did you find the recipe, and in what year?) Tell us everything in the comments below.