This week I learned that boxed cookie mixes are good for more than just baking cookies. I've had a package of Betty Crocker oatmeal chocolate chip cookie mix ($2.39) in my pantry for ages, but I've never been inspired to make them. They just seemed a little, well, plain. And besides, when I get a craving for warm, chewy oatmeal cookies I have a favorite recipe—filled with raisins and sprinkled with cinnamon—that I've been using for years.
A few days ago, however, I noticed a little recipe tucked away on the back of the package for oatmeal-caramel bars. I was intrigued. I'm a sucker for desserts in general, and anything with caramel in particular. All I needed to add to the mix was a stick of butter, an egg, 1/4 cup of milk, and 35 caramels.
To make the bars I prepared the batter just as I would to make the cookies: by beating together the butter and the egg, then stirring in the mix. But instead of dropping spoonfuls of dough onto baking sheets I pressed all but 1/2 cup of it into an 8x8-inch pan. I baked it at 375° degrees for fifteen minutes until it was nice and golden yet still very soft-looking in the middle.
Meanwhile, I followed the instructions for melting to caramels by combining them with the milk in a small bowl and heating them in the microwave. After a few minutes of nuking and stirring, the milk was piping hot but the caramels were still quite stiff. I decided that cooking them together in a small saucepan over low heat might be a better option. That way, I could stir the mixture constantly and ensure that it melted evenly and smoothly.
My hunch was right and after my caramels had melted into a creamy sauce, I poured them into the pan over the oatmeal base. Then I crumbled the reserved 1/2 cup of dough on top, and baked them for an additional 10 minutes. I was a little afraid that because of the gooey caramel I wouldn't be able to get the bars out of the pan, but they came out easily and in perfect squares.
The flavor was, in a word, spectacular—and that's not a term I toss around lightly when it comes to food. In fact, this may be the first time I've used it to describe a boxed mix. The reason these bars are so good is because they come out a little under-baked. They taste like oatmeal cookie dough. With chocolate chips. And melted caramel on top. My roommate found the smell so intoxicating, she ate one as an "appetizer" before dinner. Need I say more?
My bars were such a success that I visited the Betty Crocker website to see if there were other inventive recipes for cookie mixes. It turns out there are dozens upon dozens, including hazelnut cappuccino crinkles made from the double chocolate chunk cookie mix, and cinna-spin cookies made from the sugar cookie mix.
Even more exciting, I discovered that the annual "Mix It Up with Betty" Cookie Mix Recipe Contest is in full swing. Submit your recipes by February 15, and you could win $5000. Unfortunately, since I'm a professional food writer, I'm not eligible to enter. But I highly encourage Serious Eaters to grab a mix and get creative! We would love to know what you come up with.
About the author: Lucy Baker is a graduate student in the writing program at Sarah Lawrence College. Before returning to school to pursue an MFA, she was an assistant cookbook editor at HarperCollins. She lives in Brooklyn and is currently obsessed with all things fennel.