The name “congo bars,” we’re told, comes from the “lineup” of graham crackers, condensed milk, chocolate chips, and shredded coconut in this classic childhood sweet that’s also referred to as 7-layer bars. (And we know what you’re thinking. How sometimes after remembering a childhood favorite fondly for years, if not decades, you set out to make the recipe…only to be wildly, wretchedly, devastatingly disappointed? That won’t happen with this recipe. It’s an ever-so-slightly gentrified, though still quite genuine, incarnation. Although we confess, in an aberration from tradition, we sort of like to chop chocolate bars into chunks rather than rely on little chips. A little adult arrogance, perhaps.)–Patricia Helding

Stack of four Congo bars made of coconut, chocolate, graham crackers, each on a square of paper

Congo Bars | 7 Layer Bars

4.80 / 5 votes
These congo bars, also known as 7-layer bars, include a graham cracker base and sweetened condensed milk, chocolate chip, shredded coconut, and pecan topping. And they taste like childhood, too.
David Leite
CourseDessert
CuisineAmerican
Servings12 16 bars
Calories297 kcal
Prep Time10 minutes
Cook Time30 minutes
Chilling time2 hours
Total Time2 hours 40 minutes

Ingredients 

For the crust

  • 1/4 cup all-purpose flour, plus more for the pan
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup graham cracker crumbs, (from about 10 whole crackers)
  • 1/3 cup light brown sugar
  • 7 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus more for the pan

For the topping

  • 1 1/4 cups sweetened flaked coconut
  • 1/2 cup semisweet chocolate chips
  • 1/4 cup milk chocolate chips
  • 3/4 cup sweetened condensed milk
  • 1/3 cup chopped pecans or any other nut you fancy, if desired

Instructions 

Make the crust

  • Preheat the oven to 350°F (176°C). Butter an 8-by-8-inch or 9-by-9-inch baking pan, dust with flour, and tap out the excess.
  • Combine the flour, baking powder, and salt in a bowl. Stir in the graham cracker crumbs and light brown sugar and mix well.

    ☞ TESTER TIP: You can make the graham cracker crumbs in the food processor, or do it the old-fashioned way by putting whole crackers in a resealable plastic bag and crushing them with a rolling pin.

  • Work the butter into the crumb mixture with your hands until the crumbs are evenly coated with buttery goo. Spread the crumb crust in the prepared baking pan, pressing down gently with your hands. You don't want to make the crust too dense or compact. Bake for 10 minutes, or until the crust is slightly golden. Remove from the oven and let cool while you make the topping. Oh, and leave the oven on.

Make the topping and assemble the congo bars

  • While the crust is cooling, mix together the coconut, both chocolates, and the condensed milk. Add the pecans or other nuts, if desired. Spread the mixture evenly over the warm crust. Return to the oven and bake for 20 to 23 minutes, or until the top is set and light brown. Watch carefully toward the end of the baking time to make sure the top doesn't become too bubbly or dark.
  • Let the pan of bars cool on a wire rack for 2 hours or so, until the chocolate is no longer soft and they slice easily.

    ☞ TESTER TIP: Don't learn the hard way that the bars really do need to rest a while before slicing. They're simply too gooey to devour right away…unless you simply dig in with a spoon.

  • Cut into whatever size or shape you fancy.
Fat Witch Brownies

Adapted From

Fat Witch Brownies

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Nutrition

Serving: 1 barCalories: 297 kcalCarbohydrates: 34 gProtein: 3 gFat: 17 gSaturated Fat: 10 gMonounsaturated Fat: 5 gTrans Fat: 0.3 gCholesterol: 25 mgSodium: 294 mgFiber: 2 gSugar: 25 g

Nutrition information is automatically calculated, so should only be used as an approximation.

Tried this recipe?Mention @leitesculinaria or tag #leitesculinaria!
Recipe © 2010 Patricia Helding. Photo © 2010 Alexandra Grablewski. All rights reserved.

Recipe Testers’ Reviews

When I first saw this congo bar recipe, I thought it would be easy, but too sweet for me. I figured I’d just share with coworkers and get rid of the extras. Well, I was halfway right—the bars were easy, but they never made it to work! They were absolutely lovely and rich, and just the right sweetness.

I did share with friends and with my mother’s neighbors. Everyone raved about them, but I was too busy munching on my share to say thank you. Honestly, I’d not change a thing in this recipe. Please give it a try.

Wow, what a blast from the past! These bars are as tasty as I remember. Gooey, chewy, and sweet. The slightly salty graham cracker crust was a nice balance to the topping. I might try it with butterscotch chips in place of the milk chocolate chips next time. I’m not quite sure why I don’t make these more often.

I made this recipe twice, and both times, the pans were devoured in no time. My 11-year-old great-niece helped me the second time I made them, and she thought they were fun to make and delicious to eat. Our tasters couldn’t wait for them to completely cool to cut them.

I used an 8-by-8 pan, which worked fine. I did have a little problem the first time as I used the whole stick of butter with the graham cracker crumbs. The crust turned out a bit looser on the bottom, but still delicious. Also, if you let the baked crust sit for about 5 minutes, it’s much easier to spread the topping on.

With the first batch, I sprayed the pan with floured baking spray. The second time around, I buttered and floured the pan. The results were much better the second time.

One could even make a triple batch and use two cans of sweetened condensed milk and not have any left over.

We loved these bars. I’ve traditionally made these with eggs, but the condensed milk works fine, resulting in denser congo bars.

The recipe called for 11 whole crackers to make 1 cup of crumbs, but I had a lot of crumbs left over, so next time I’d start with 6 whole crackers. Also, I didn’t think having semisweet and milk chocolate chips made a difference tastewise. But overall, the Congo bars were sweet, with a hint of salt, chew, and crunch—we ate them all!

This recipe was easy to make, and was a hit with my friends. I also added white chocolate and butterscotch chips to the mix.

I loved this recipe both for its ease and how it tasted. For me, the salt elevated it from something that was merely good to something that was ruinously addictive—the sweet, savory two-punch was pure dynamite.

I served these at a party so I cut them smaller than suggested and got 25 squares. Given how rich these were, the smaller size worked well. Though really, it wouldn’t have mattered what size they were—people literally could not stop eating them.

The only thing I’d change about this recipe—aside from maybe adding a few more chocolate chips—are the directions for adding the butter to the graham cracker crumbs. Even softened, the butter was difficult to combine with the crumbs. Instead of using the fork the recipe called for, I used my hands, which was much more effective. I think you could melt the butter and still get the same result. I used unsweetened shredded coconut instead of sweetened, and it worked well.

These were delicious! I don’t like coconut, milk chocolate, or sweetened condensed milk, but I’m a sucker for a graham cracker crust. So, I made the recipe in order to use some homemade graham crackers. What a pleasant surprise! All of the ingredients I normally don’t like melded beautifully together. There was also a healthy dose of salt in the crust that perfectly balanced the abundance of sweetness in the coconut mixture.

The recipe says to cut them when they’re completely cool, which, I almost learned the hard way, is a necessity. Until they’re totally cool, they’re not completely set. I’d also like to make them next time in an 8-by-8-inch pan, for a thicker bar.

This is a wonderful recipe! I make seven-layer bars every year at Christmas, and these Congo Bars will definitely replace them from now on. Baking the crust before adding the toppings and baking for a second time, really makes a huge difference. It gives the bars almost a cheesecake-esque crust that’s delicious.

I’ll definitely make these bars again.

We’ve always loved these bars. I made 2 different batches, one with pecans and the other sans nuts. I guess things don’t change much over time, because when my children were little, the adults liked the ones with nuts and the kids liked them without—and it’s the same case now.

These bars are very easy to put together, and baked in the exact amount of time stated in the recipe. The hardest part was letting them cool enough to cut and eat! I’d like to make them again using hazelnuts. Now, if they only made Nutella-flavored chips.




About David Leite

I count myself lucky to have received three James Beard Awards for my writing as well as for Leite’s Culinaria. My work has also appeared in The New York Times, Martha Stewart Living, Saveur, Bon Appétit, Gourmet, Food & Wine, Yankee, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, The Washington Post, and more.


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24 Comments

  1. I’ve made these twice now and even though they are amazingly tasty, I’m not really impressed by the look of them. I love the way they look in the picture above, the coconut is white and there are dark chocolate specks throughout. Mines turn out uniformly brown, the base is pretty much the same color as the topping. Maybe it’s my fault because I use unsweetened coconut that I toast for a few minutes to bring out the flavor (which makes it to darken). I also use chopped chocolate instead of chocolate chips, which probably melts a bit when baking.. Could it be it? Maybe I should not toast the coconut as it will bake and get toasted anyway? Or maybe, just maybe, I can layer the ingredients on the base one by one instead of mixing them all up in a bowl beforehand?

    1. Linda, first of all, so glad you’ve tried and loved the recipe! As for the beige, bingo. Toasting the coconut prior to baking the bars will darken it to a shade of beige, and using smaller bits of chocolate is going to cause the chocolate to melt much more easily and tint the rest of the bars, not just because it’s chopped to a smaller size which will melt more quickly than larger chips, but because chips are specially made to resist losing their shape even when they reach a temperature at which they ought to melt. Give the recipe a whirl the way the recipe instructs and see what you think in terms of the appearance. As for the layering, you could try that, although I worry that the bars, when sliced, may crumble more easily. Let us know how it goes!

  2. Concerning the name–there is nothing metaphorical about it. It was developed by Congregational church women and used extensively for church suppers or fellowship gatherings. Congregational churches are the original Protestant churches in New England.