Nanaimo bars are a quintessentially Canadian dessert named after the town of Nanaimo, BC. There are three key layers: a chocolate crumb crust, custardy icing filling, and a topping of melted chocolate. As with most bar cookie recipes, they originated in the mid-20th century, showing up in cookbooks and magazines every so often, sometimes under different names depending on the location and context. Their popularity was cemented by 1985, when the town of Nanaimo held a contest to find the best Nanaimo bar recipe, and resident Joyce Hardcastle won with the unanimous vote of all the judges.
I love to bake, and I love Canada, so I'm ashamed to admit that I've only ever made Nanaimo bars once, and that was in 2010, the summer before I left for university, and I had to make due with vanilla pudding instead of custard powder because I was in the USA. But, 6 years later, with all my newfound Canadian knowledge and with access to Canadian ingredients, I'm setting out to make a classic, delicious, chocolatey Nanaimo bar!
In looking for a recipe to follow, I first considered Joyce Hardcastle's award-winning version, but discovered that it calls for a double boiler (which I don't have) and the potential for undercooked egg in the crust (which my husband doesn't like). Instead, I'm going with Anna Olson's recipe, courtesy of Food Network Canada. It's got just a couple subtle differences, so I feel that it still counts as a classic Nanaimo bar (and doesn't call for a double boiler). Plus, Anna's a professional pastry chef with her own show on the Food Network - she wouldn't steer me wrong!
The Verdict: YUM. These Nanaimo bars are delicious! They're very rich and sweet, but the cocoa powder and no extra sugar in the crust helps to balance out the super sweet filling. The crust was a tiny bit too thick for me, but when that's my biggest complaint, it means this recipe is a keeper.
- 1 cup graham cracker crumbs
- 3 Tbsp. cocoa powder
- ½ tsp. salt
- 1 cup sweetened flaked coconut
- ½ cup walnut pieces
- 6 Tbsp. unsalted butter, melted
- 1 large egg, lightly beaten
- ½ cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
- 2 cups icing sugar, sifted
- 2 Tbsp. vanilla custard powder
- pinch of salt
- 3 Tbsp. milk
- 1 tsp. vanilla extract
- 4 oz. semisweet chocolate, chopped
- 2 Tbsp. unsalted butter
- sea salt, for sprinkling (optional)
1. Preheat the oven to 350 °F (180 °C). Lightly grease an 8-inch (20 cm) square pan and line it with parchment paper so that it comes up the sides.
2. For the crust, combine the graham crumbs with the cocoa powder and salt, then, add the coconut & walnut pieces. Stir in the melted butter and the egg and stir until blended. Press this into the bottom of the prepared pan and bake for 12 minutes. Cool the crust completely before preparing the filling.
1. By hand, beat the butter with 1 cup (130 g) of the icing sugar, the custard powder and a pinch of salt until smooth. Add the milk and vanilla and beat in (don’t worry if it doesn’t look smooth at this point – it will smooth out), and then beat in the remaining 1 cup (130 g) of icing sugar. Do not overbeat – the filling should be smooth but not fluffy. Spread this evenly over the cooled crust.
1. For the topping, melt the chocolate and butter in a metal bowl placed over a pot of barely simmering water, stirring gently with a spatula until melted. Cool the chocolate slightly and then pour this over the filling, spreading to cover it. If you wish, sprinkle the top with a little sea salt. Chill the pan for about 2 hours before slicing into bars.
Notes from Emily:
- Anna recommends using parchment paper, which I don't have, so I used tinfoil and greased it slightly. The bars came out of the pan easily and with way less mess!
- I didn't have unsalted butter, so I just used salted butter + skipped the rest of the salt called for in the recipe.
- The recipe just calls for "walnut pieces" which is pretty vague - the walnut pieces I bought at Bulk Barn seemed too big to me, so I chopped them up fairly fine.
- I used semi-sweet chocolate chips for the topping because that's what I had in the house , and I microwaved them because I am lazy.
Honestly, it's a pretty forgiving recipe! Even with my tiny little tweaks, it came out great. Follow this recipe (or use my suggestions), make a yummy Canadian dessert, and enjoy :)