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The Chocolate Peanut Butter Cookies Our Staff Can’t Stop Eating

February 21, 2018

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.)

The belle of the bake sale. Photo by Julia Gartland

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.

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“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.

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Top Comment:
“Looks like Keebler Magic Middles were introduced in 1989 so my guess is that it started as a copycat recipe—there was also a version called “Peanut Butter Filled” that looks pretty much exactly like these. ”
— Jenne
Comment

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.

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.

28 Comments

Muy Y. March 8, 2018
I made these tonight and they turned out wonderfully. They're the cookie version of a Reese's peanut butter cup! 😃 Thank you for this recipe; they’re my new favorite cookie to make!
 
Ronnie L. March 6, 2018
These are so good and I always forget about them! In my recipe binder I have the original recipe I clipped out of a magazine back in the 80s or 90s. I would look for evidence of a more specific date but that particular binder is out at our vacation home. I'll see if I can remember to check next time we're out there and report back!
 
Laurabee March 3, 2018
I am not a chocolate fiend. I can usually pass on a plate of cookies. But oh. These are addictively good. Great crispy, not chewy, cookie. Dunk ‘em in cold milk, dunk ‘em in coffee.
 
J.K. February 26, 2018
The recipe appeared in my newspaper coupons, with coupons for Pillsbury flour, Skippy peanut butter and Mazola margarine. There is no salt in the recipe. The earliest expiration on the coupons is January 19, 1991.
 
Author Comment
Emma L. February 26, 2018
J.K., hi—wow!
 
Josh I. February 25, 2018
Emma Laperruque, can you use any brand of unsweetened natural-type peanut butter?
 
Author Comment
Emma L. February 26, 2018
Hi Josh—yes!
 
Steffany February 25, 2018
My mom came across the recipe and asked me to bake these one Christmas, it would have been right around 1989 or 1990. She loved them so much I've made them for her every Christmas since, almost 30 years now :)
 
Brenda S. February 25, 2018
I've been making these since about that time as well - the recipe was printed in a lot of community/church fundraising cookbooks - I still have one or two! No attribution there other than the woman who shared it. The cookies are YUMMY, esp. with DARK cocoa powder. Can't wait to try this variation.
 
Author Comment
Emma L. February 26, 2018
Hi Steffany and Brenda—amazing! It's so heartwarming to hear how these cookies are part of so many family traditions.
 
Jenne February 25, 2018
I looked in Google Books and found a recipe from a 1991 Beta Sigma Chi cookbook for “Magic Peanut Butter Middles”. I can’t see the whole recipe though. :-(<br />Looks like Keebler Magic Middles were introduced in 1989 so my guess is that it started as a copycat recipe—there was also a version called “Peanut Butter Filled” that looks pretty much exactly like these.
 
Author Comment
Emma L. February 26, 2018
Hi Jenne, we have similar theories! And from what others have shared, I bet the 1991 Beta Sigma Chi recipe is a lot like this one.
 
Susan February 25, 2018
I've been making these delicious cookies since 2006, when it was published in Cottage Living magazine. They called them Magic In The Middles, and this cookie never fails to surprise and delight those trying them for the first time. Although they are labor intensive to make, they are so worth the effort!! I like mine soft & fluffy, like a down pillow. Enjoy!
 
Author Comment
Emma L. February 26, 2018
Hi Susan, thank you for sharing where/when you found them! I love learning more about the history of these.
 
ted D. February 25, 2018
Has this recipe been tried with gluten free flour (1 for 1)?
 
Author Comment
Emma L. February 26, 2018
Hi Ted Daudel, I haven't tried that myself—but since it's a flat cookie, I'm hopeful that it would work out with an all-purpose gluten-free blend. If you try, let us know how it goes!
 
susan February 25, 2018
Peanut butter cookies with peanut butter in the middle?!? Your recipe?
 
Colin February 25, 2018
Emma...you're a babe for bring this recipe to my attention! Colin.
 
Suz February 22, 2018
I have a recipe from my aunt that is sort of similar - but it’s peanut butter cookies with peanut butter in the middle. Sometimes I make them with Nutella in the middle (rebel that I am)...
 
Author Comment
Emma L. February 22, 2018
Nutella! Must try.
 
Kathleen February 22, 2018
I have been making these cookies since I was 8 years old (so, about 25 years, ha), and got it from my mom's Harrowsmith Country Life Baking book, which is an amazing cookbook overall! It was published in 1992. :)
 
Author Comment
Emma L. February 22, 2018
Whoa! Do you remember what they were called in the book?
 
Kathleen February 22, 2018
Yep! "Magic Peanut Butter Middles." Now it makes me want to find this cookbook again and make everything! They had some really solid recipes.
 
[email protected] February 21, 2018
As soon as I saw Smitten Kitchen’s version, I dropped everything to make them. Now your version has the modifications that I think will take a delicious recipe to one that’s irresistible. I can’t wait to make them!!!!
 
Tracy February 25, 2018
Same!
 
Julie A. February 21, 2018
I've been making these for years, recipe is pretty similar. http://www.midwestliving.com/recipe/cookies/peanut-butter-munchies
 
Author Comment
Emma L. February 21, 2018
It is pretty similar! Funny that one comment mentions King Arthur. I wonder which came first...
 
Dorothy February 25, 2018
I sent these to my daughters and nieces for Valentines day and got immediate texts from them all about how outstanding they are. I promised them I'd send them another batch soon. They really are delicious.