Serves a Crowd

Grandma Reilly's Congo Bars

August  4, 2013
1 Ratings
Photo by Mark Weinberg
  • Makes about 2 dozen bars
Author Notes

If my childhood had an official cookie, it would have to be my grandmother's Congo Bars. I'm not sure if my grandmother was the mastermind behind this recipe, but she definitely had a black belt in baking these gooey gifts to the world. They are like a fudgy brownie in texture, but the brown sugar makes them taste caramel-y. Even my half-siblings, who only had them a few times when visiting on weekends, still rave about these bars. They are best eaten out of a square-bottomed glass cookie jar, just like at Grandma Reilly's. —Abbie C

Test Kitchen Notes

What a delicious bar cookie! These are a potentially addictive and indulgent afternoon snack; I could also picture the congo bars served, if you cut them larger, as a plated dessert in the comfort food genre, with a scoop of vanilla ice cream on top and a drizzle of chocolate or caramel sauce. The congo bars have a fudgy, gooey texture with a bit of crunch, provided you include the optional walnuts. The brown sugar gives them a butterscotch-y flavor that lingers after every bite. I sprinkled mine with a little sea salt on top, but they are great as is, too! —navahfrost

What You'll Need
  • 2/3 cup vegetable shortening
  • 2 1/4 cups brown sugar
  • 3 eggs
  • 2 3/4 cups sifted all-purpose flour
  • 2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup walnuts (optional)
  • 1 package semi-sweet chocolate chips
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  1. Preheat your oven to 350° F.
  2. Melt the shortening in a large saucepan. Mix in the brown sugar, then cool. Make sure you let this mixture cool completely or your chocolate chips will melt when you add them to the batter.
  3. Mix in the eggs, then mix in the flour, baking powder, and salt. The batter will be stiff.
  4. Mix in the chocolate chips, nuts, and vanilla extract. I've added the vanilla when I've added the eggs before, and it doesn't seem to make a difference -- but Grandma said to add it here.
  5. Spread batter onto a greased jellyroll pan and bake for 18 minutes.
  6. Allow to cool, then cut into square shaped bars.

See what other Food52ers are saying.

  • Kasey Coff
    Kasey Coff
  • Jacqueline Gevercer
    Jacqueline Gevercer
  • Susan Leipziger
    Susan Leipziger
  • Abbie C
    Abbie C

23 Reviews

Thom January 2, 2019
Found it!

It’s a Nestle recipe. This Nestle ad looks like it’s from a Ladies Home Journal. According to other sources the ad is circa 1940s-1950s.

Thom January 1, 2019
This is the EXACT same recipe my mom, a bride of the 1950’s, used to bake Congo Bars when we were growing up! So, sorry, I don’t think your grandma was the mastermind behind this recipe. :) I’d love to know the origin.

We never called them blondies and, although everyone in the house liked coconut, we never used coconut in them. The only variation was the type of nuts — pecans or walnuts.

Great recipe!!
Abbie C. January 2, 2019
Thanks for sharing! I was never sure if this was something my grandmother had made up since the recipe was on an old handwritten recipe card. I wonder if the reason she added vanilla at the same time as the nuts and chocolate is because it doesn’t seem to be included in the Nestle recipe? Very cool learning the origin of the recipe :)
Thom January 2, 2019
I copied mine from my mother’s well used recipe card too! Good eye on the missing vanilla. It’s the last ingredient on the recipe my mom used and stirred in just before the chocolate chips and nuts. Maybe Nestle corrected the recipe later or... maybe it was added by word of mouth... the tip shared via whispered voices across the country, “Stir in a teaspoon of vanilla. [wink]” Now I’m curious to try the original recipe to see how they taste without vanilla!

Given the name, graphics and approximate publication date it’s an interesting example of how food marketers were selling the allure of far away places, the exotic, by bringing them into the American home — in this case through a fabricated recipe that is geographically and culturally incorrect. Beyond the historical context, they are dang good cookies!
Kasey C. January 26, 2015
1) My mother made them at Christmas - we're talking the '50s / '60s here - for us to take to school for the class party. We just called them "blondies."
2) "Congo bars" are so-called because they have coconut; coconut was a luxury, and thought to come from anyplace exotic. Whether they actually come from the Congo region of Africa is irrelevant; people thought they did.
3) We always added walnuts; we mixed half the chocolate chips in and set the other half aside; we spread the batter (dough) thin in a sheet-cake pan and sprinkled the remaining chocolate chips over top. Popped it in the oven for many 5 or 6 minutes, then took it out and swirled the now-softened chocolate chips through the batter, then finished baking them.

No kidding. It don't get better than that--!
Kasey C. January 26, 2015
I mean, "Popped it in the oven for MAYBE 5 or 6 minutes..." Sometimes I can't even type, lol...
Abbie C. January 26, 2015
That's so great to get some of the history on the name! My mother does not like coconut, so that might be why my grandmother's recipe doesn't have them. She was also kind enough to make them without the walnuts when I was little, but now I love them with walnuts! Swirling the chocolate chips sounds heavenly!
Kasey C. January 26, 2015
Absolutely love them - to this day I'd rather have one of those than "real" brownies, lol...
Jacqueline G. January 11, 2015
What size bag of chocolate chips, please? I would like to try these....
Abbie C. January 11, 2015
A 12 oz bag.
Shelley January 10, 2015
I used virgin coconut oil, replaced walnuts with unsweetened shredded coconut, lined9x13 with parchment paper, lowered heat to 325 and baked for 25 mins....yum, yum, yummy!
Abbie C. January 10, 2015
That sounds great! Great idea to lower the temp and extend the baking time since virgin coconut oil has a lower smoke point! All of these ideas for alternatives to shortening have me super curious to get experimenting too!
Abbie C. January 11, 2015
This is probably the only recipe I ever use shortening for, just because the recipe, as is, is so tied to my memories of my grandma. However, I love all the ideas to modernize the ingredients and play around with the recipe, so I subbed in virgin coconut for the shortening, used 1/2 cup coconut flakes and 1/2 cup chopped pecans, subbed flax "eggs" (1tbsp ground flax + 3tbsp water per egg, and let mix sit about 15 mins) for the eggs to veganize the recipe. Per the suggestion by Ivorygirl in the head note, I sprinkled a little extra sea salt on top before baking at 325 degrees for 30-35 mins. Grandma Reilly would definitely have approved of the result :)
Susan L. January 8, 2015
Thank you, I will!
Abbie C. January 8, 2015
I've made them with refined coconut oil to mimic the taste of shortening more closely, but I bet that virgin coconut oil would be really yummy in these! I've never tried making them with butter, but I suspect it would work well based on the fact that most brownie and blondie recipes use butter. Please me know if you try any other options because I love being able to adapt my recipes to suit a diversity of diets!
Susan L. January 8, 2015
Can you use butter or coconut oil in place of shortening?
Patrick January 11, 2015
I've made these often using Margaret Fox's recipe from her Cafe Beaujolais cookbook, which uses unsalted butter. They're always a hit.
Patrick January 11, 2015
PS: Bake at 325 deg. F for 35 minutes.
barb48 January 8, 2015
I don't use shortening. What's an equal sub for it?
Amanda B. January 1, 2015
Walnuts should not be optional IMO! :-)
Abbie C. January 1, 2015
They were not permitted in mine as a kid, but now I love the walnuts! That's why she always made two batches to please you guys and me :)
Muse August 5, 2013
These certainly look delicious...will make some tomorrow and try them out!
Abbie C. August 5, 2013
Let me know how you like them!!