Ask the internet about magic middles and you’ll be told they are a Keebler product, all the rage in the ’90s, but since discontinued. In 2012, Serious Eats’ Stella Parks brought them back to life when she whipped up her own version—a sugar cookie with a chocolate belly—calling long-lost magic middles America's Most Wanted Cookie (you know, in a good way).
For what it’s worth, this was the most-wanted cookie in my family when my brother and I were growing up. The only catch is that “magic middles,” to us, means a totally different thing.
Instead of a vanilla-outside and chocolate-inside, our version has a chocolate-outside and peanut butter–inside. My mom says she scored the recipe from another mom at a school bake sale a few years pre-millenium, but…did she?
When I started digging into this almost two years ago for an article, the closest lookalike I could find was in King Arthur’s The Cookie Companion, which was published not in the ’80s or ’90s, but in 2004 (hat tip to King Arthur’s Baker’s Hotline for the detective work). Which means that either my mom and I are confusing timing, or the recipe we got preceded the book—but then, where did it come from?
When I wrote about my conundrum last year, our community hopped right in with clues:
“I looked in Google Books and found a recipe from a 1991 Beta Sigma Chi cookbook for “Magic Peanut Butter Middles,’” Jenne wrote. “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.”
“The recipe appeared in my newspaper coupons, with coupons for Pillsbury flour, Skippy peanut butter and Mazola margarine,” J.K. added. “There is no salt in the recipe. The earliest expiration on the coupons is January 19, 1991.”
According to Steffany: “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.”
“I've been making these since about that time as well—the recipe was printed in a lot of community/church fundraising cookbooks,” Brenda replied. “I still have one or two! No attribution there other than the woman who shared it.”
Add all this up and you’ve got this: an influx of not-Keebler magic middles sometime in the early ’90s, and a bunch of families who can’t stop craving them to this day.
Of course, I couldn’t help but put my own spin on my mom’s index card–documented, cocoa powder–stained recipe. I swapped out the sweetened peanut butter with unsweetened (this means you can sub in any nutty/seedy cousin, from cashew to sesame); bumped up the salt; decreased the flour for a fudgier vibe; and increased the cookie-smush so they turn out extra-slim.
You should know that these are a project, and a messy one at that. But messy in a satisfying way, a way that reminds you that you baked something good. You should also know they freeze perfectly—if there’s a better late-night snack, I need not know it. —Emma Laperruque
Test Kitchen Notes
Featured in: Food52's Holiday Cookie Chronicles —The Editors
- Prep time 45 minutes
- Cook time 10 minutes
- Makes about 28 cookies
- Peanut butter filling:
(200g) unsweetened, salted peanut butter
(85g) powdered sugar
- Chocolate cookies:
(1 stick, 1/4 pound, or 113g) unsalted butter, room temperature
(68g) unsweetened, salted peanut butter
(100g) granulated sugar, plus more for rolling
(100g) light brown sugar (packed)
(43g) cocoa powder
(125g) all-purpose flour, plus 5 tablespoons (40g)
flaky salt, for sprinkling
- Stir the jar of peanut butter to incorporate any separated oils. Stick in the freezer for about 15 minutes, or until it’s very firm—imagine the texture of standard, sweetened peanut butter.
- Make the filling. Combine the peanut butter and powdered sugar in the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Start on low, then gradually increase the speed to medium-high, until completely smooth. Form the peanut butter mixture into 28 little balls (figure 1 heaping teaspoon each). Stick in the fridge while you make the cookie dough.
- Combine the butter, peanut butter, and sugars in the bowl of the standing mixer (no need to clean it out). Cream until light and fluffy, scraping the bowl with a rubber spatula as needed. Add the egg and vanilla. Continue creaming until fluffy, scraping as needed. Add the salt and baking soda. Mix to distribute. Add the cocoa powder. Mix until just incorporated. Add the flour. Mix until completely incorporated.
- Form the cookies. Fill a small bowl with white sugar. Use a cookie scoop to scoop 1 tablespoon of chocolate dough. Flatten into a thin patty in your palm. Place 1 peanut butter ball in the center and wrap the chocolate dough around it. Roll around in your palm a few times to smooth out. Roll the ball in the sugar. Place on a plate. Repeat with the remaining chocolate dough and peanut butter filling.
- Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C). Fill a cookie sheet with the balls, spaced a few inches apart—figure 9 to 12 per tray. Smush the balls each with a water glass—they don’t spread much, so you want them fairly thin, 1/8 to 1/4 inch (3 to 6 mm). Sprinkle with flaky salt and press in slightly so it adheres. Bake for 8 to 9 minutes, rotating the pan halfway through—they’ll puff up but they shouldn’t crack. Cool slightly, then transfer to a rack to cool completely. Repeat with the remaining cookie dough balls.