Nanaimo Bars: The Real Deal

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There are two three many things I miss about Canada; My friends, Tim Horton’s coffee, Montréal Smoked Meat Sandwiches, and the ubiquitous presence of Nanaimo bars at every donut shop and coffee house in the country. Every once in a wonderful while, a friend will send me a tin of Tim Horton’s coffee. My husband even had a tin shipped in for my birthday one year when I was feeling particularly homesick. But I had not had the gustatory pleasure of biting in to a lusciously sweet, decadently rich Nanaimo bar in over 5 years. FIVE YEARS. This was not an acceptable situation, and it needed to be addressed ASAP.

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I consulted my bestest internet friend, Google, who gave me a whole whack of  Nanaimo Bar recipe ideas (about 80,600 in 0.22 seconds). I settled on this one. This recipe comes to us via Joyce Hardcastle and the City of Nanaimo, British Columbia’s website. It is the 1986 Ultimate Nanaimo Bar recipe contest winner. So it has to be the really, really, REALLY official best recipe, right?

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One of the few changes I made to the recipe was to reverse a step and add the hot cocoa and butter mixture to the beaten egg for the bottom layer. When I added the egg to the hot mixture, it cooked and curdled on me. Twice. I may have been a bit peeved. If you can make it happen, by all means go for it!

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I’m sorry, I tried. Despite my best efforts in Lightroom, but there was just no way to make this picture of the bottom layer look more appetizing. It is what it is, folks. Just keep repeating to yourself  “Chocolate, almonds and coconut, oh my”. It worked for me, almost.

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The recipe calls for “Vanilla Custard Powder”, for which I substituted vanilla pudding. I did this because I have no idea what “Vanilla Custard Powder” is, nor do I have any idea where I might find it. A quick search of the baking sections of my two favorite grocery stores produced zip. Rather than bang my head on my cutting board in frustration, I just moseyed on over to the pudding section and grabbed me a box of vanilla pudding.  I suggest you do the same. It’ll work just fine, I promise.

As for the origins of this tasty treat, according to legend and the City of Nanaimo, British Columbia’s website, “about 35 years ago, a Nanaimo housewife entered her recipe for chocolate squares in a magazine contest. In a burst of civic pride, she chose to dub the entry not “Daphne’s Delights” or “Mary’s Munchies”, but “Nanaimo Bars”. The entry won a prize, thereby promoting the town as much as her cooking.”

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If this brief explanation doesn’t satisfy your curiosity, you can take a gander at the exhaustive (and I really do mean ex-HAUS-tive) dissertation on the origins and history of the Nanaimo bar at practicallyedible.com.

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As for me, I’m not nearly as concerned with where they come from as I am about where they end up, which is on my plate.

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Before you settle in with a cup of tea to read that Nanaimo bar novel over at practicallyedible.com, I would suggest that you take a peak at a lovely little corner of the internet called Mangos, Chili and Z, which just happens to belong to an even lovelier lady by the name of Lea Ann.

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She recently did me the honor of asking me to be her first interviewee (interviewie? Interviewe?) for a new segment she will be doing called “Just Grilled”. I don’t know why she picked me. I don’t think she’s had any recent head trauma… But hey, you can always just breeze through the interview real fast and scroll on to the great recipes and wonderful writing that is her blog!

Nanimo Bars
Adapted from Joyce Hardcastle

Bottom Layer
½ cup unsalted butter at room temperature
¼ cup sugar
5 tbsp cocoa powder
1 egg, beaten
1 ¼ cups graham cracker crumbs
½ cup finely chopped almonds
1 cup coconut
Combine the butter, sugar and cocoa powder in a double boiler and heat until melted. Slowly drizzle the hot mixture into the beaten egg, whisking constantly until thickened. Stir in the graham cracker crumbs, almonds, and coconut. Press the mixture firmly into an ungreased 8″ x 8″ baking pan.

Middle Layer
½ cup unsalted butter at room temperature
3 tbsp whipping cream
2 tbsp vanilla pudding powder
2 cups icing sugar
Cream together the butter, cream, vanilla pudding powder and icing sugar until light. Spread over bottom layer.

Top Layer
4 oz semi-sweet chocolate
2 tbsp unsalted butter
Melt the chocolate and butter in a double boiler over low heat. Once cool but still liquid, pour over middle layer and chill in refrigerator until set, about an hour.
Cut into squares using a knife dipped in hot water. For easier (and neater!) pieces, dip the pan very briefly in hot water and then turn out onto a plate. Flip over using a second plate and cut into squares.

Printable Recipe

Nanaimo Bar on Foodista

Oh and PS: This is my entry for ‘A Sweet Celebration‘ hosted by ‘Fun & Food Cafe‘. 🙂

122 comments to Nanaimo Bars: The Real Deal

  • I can understand why you would miss these. They look great – and i totally agree ‘chocolate, almonds and coconut’- what more could you want!

  • Krista

    YES!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    I’ve been waiting for this one! 😀 I think this might be a task for this weekend…you should come over and help me so I don’t mess them up. haha

  • Krista

    Now, in the recipe for the middle layer when it says 2 tbsp vanilla pudding, you mean pudding powder right, not pudding? Or is actual pudding?

  • Are you talking about “Birds Custard Powder”? English easy custard

    • Karen

      I did an image search, and the Birds Custard Powder looks familiar from back home, but I haven’t seen it here. 🙁

  • Beautiful presentation! These look really tasty!

  • Wow these look really fantastic!

    I’m bookmarking this, really want to try making it someday!

  • I think I just died because these look incredible, I love how there’s a different layer in this bar but yet they all seem to blend in so well

  • Bird´s custard is usually the brand of choice for Nanaimo bars. I am surprised you could not find such a thing in the supermarket, but if your city has a chinatown, it is where you can find most imported foods when living “abroad”.

    • Karen

      There are a couple of places I have yet to look, some stores that specialize in imports. Maybe I’ll have better luck. We don’t have a Chinatown, though I hadn’t thought to check the Asian markets to see if they might have some. Thanks for the tip!

  • Lots of goodies packed in these little bars! And your photographs do them justice too!

  • I love love love nanaimo bars!! haha, I acutally live in Vancouver BC and will be moving in Jan to Victoria, to attend UVIC. I recently went to Nanaimo to go Bungy jumping! I never realized how much you could miss something so small like these bars! I guess I shouldn’t take it for granted. Don’t worry, I’ll eat a ton for you once I move over =) Great recipe too!! I am going to have to give it a try, my grandma used to be the queen of nanaimo bars! I never felt comfortable making the custard layer either but maybe the pudding subsititute will be easier! Thanks for sharing.

    • Karen

      Lol! I don’t think you eating a ton for me is going to be *quite* the same as me eating a ton for myself, but hey, I’m not about to take away such a great excuse to indulge from you 😉

      Good luck with your move, and with University in January!

  • I don’t care much for coconut, but this might just change my mind. They are gorgeous!

  • William Linington

    test test I think my comment got lost. test

  • Not sure how this recipe could be anything but fabulous with butter in every layer. I can’t wait to try them. Beautiful photos and nice post!

  • William Linington

    The American vanilla pudding powder would be sweeter than the custard powder, and the resulting texture different. It might be best to make the custard layer from scratch.

    Loved the link to the full history of Nanaimo bars, that’s great.

    Montreal Smoked Meat isn’t really smoked anymore and I think is pretty over-rated.

    • Karen

      Hey William thanks for visiting!

      The middle layer is more of an icing rather than a custard, with the custard powder used as a flavoring agent. A custard might be too soft to hold up to the chocolate layer above. I agree that the flavor will be different, but it’s still pretty darn good!

      Glad you liked the link! I have to confess, I didn’t make it the whole way through the article 😉

      Montreal “Smoked” meat is a bit of a misnomer. The meat is actually brined, baked and then steamed, not smoked. It’s similar to but not the same as pastrami. I’m not sure where the “smoked” came from (I should google that sometime), but it doesn’t have anything to do with the cooking process. 🙂

  • ohmygosh these sound delicious and look wonderful. Fabulous picture to lead out the post. I’ve never heard of Nanaimo bars. And LOL, actually I have recently suffered a head injury. If you remember the “flying man” incident at the baseball game….well, I indeed was briefly knocked out. I’ve been milking it and using the head injury thing as an excuse for everything…forgetting things…dropping things…not being able to do dishes after dinner…eating a bunch of chocolate…buying new clothes…
    but NEVER as a reason to interview you first! It just seemed like the natural thing to do. Thanks for mentioning it in your blog. :::hugs

    • Karen

      OMG, I’m a doofus. I totally forgot about the baseball incident. You really did have a head injury! I guess I have my answer then, lol!

      Oh and milk it girl. For as long as you possibly can 😀

  • I saw the pics on foodgawker and i immediately knew that i had to get to the recipe!!

    You get custard powders (vanilla) at the Indian grocery stores, not sure about the regular grocery stores. I do not remember the brand name, will look out for it during my next visit and let you know.

    • Karen

      I will have to go take a look at the Indian market and see if they have it. If you can remember the brand name, that would be great, thanks!

  • Krista

    This is a noob cooking question, but what’s a double boiler?

    • Krista

      Nevermind! I googled it. I don’t have one of those…it says you can put a smaller pot inside a bigger pot…how exactly do you do that? boil water and then stick a pot in it with your ingredients?

      Maybe I should buy a double boiler.

      • Karen

        The only double boiler you’ll ever need is just a pot with a bit of water in it and a metal bowl on top. That’s what I use. 🙂

        • Krista

          I guess I need to get a metal bowl! Would the metal bowl totally occlude the opening of the pot? And do you heat the water underneath to boiling? Wouldn’t that make the bowl bounce around from escaping steam?

  • Michael

    Does this come in free samples? Have car, will drive.

  • These bars look and sound absolutely delicious! The picture is just gorgeous!

  • Laurel

    Gosh, those look wonderful! You could take two, gobble one whole and eat the other as separate delicacies. Seriously though I think you should sue “add the egg to the hot chocolate mixture” that HAD to be an intentional typo. Maybe they were lonely and thought you’d come visit in desperation?

    • Karen

      LOL! I should have known better, I suppose, but I figured the recipe was on a government website, so it *had* to be accurate, right? 😉

  • Sid

    Yum, I’m a Canuck living south of the border and Nanaimo Squares were one of the things I missed a lot. I’ve made them from time to time over the years and vanilla pudding powder is an acceptable substitute for the Bird’s custard powder (which I’ve been known to bring back with me from visits north). I like walnuts in my base however, but may just try to make them next week with some of the almonds in my cupboard.

    • Karen

      I’ve met way more expat Canadians in the 5 years I’ve been living in the US than I met expat Americans in 33 years living in Canada. Maybe we don’t like the cold as much as we say we do 😉

      I’ll have to beg someone to send me some custard powder (and maybe some more Tim Horton’s coffee), but I’m glad to hear you’ve used the vanilla pudding successfully.

  • Ohmygosh. How have I never heard of these? They sound amazing!!

    • haha I was so surprised at how many people don’t know about nanaimo bars!! I guess growing up with them I never thought about it. I saw these on tastespotting, and there were only about 4 other recipes on there!! I couldn’t believe it. They truly are a BC Specialty!

    • Karen

      And now you must make them, and all will be well with the world. 🙂

  • William Linington

    @ Sid: Ah, but if you put nuts in them, are they still Nanaimo Bars, or are they something else that we need a new name for — let’s see, what town in British Columbia has nuts in it… oops, I think I’m best to steer clear of that topic :}

  • William Linington

    @ Alicia — “BC Speciality”.. Well no one can deny that, but according to the link Karen gave, they actually originated in Alberta, and were first called “Smog Bars”, as per Jean Pare, the author of all the Canadian “Company’s Coming” cook books (apparently the most published cookbook author in the entire world.)

  • William Linington

    @ Karen “I’ll have to beg someone to send me some custard powder (and maybe some more Tim Horton’s coffee)”

    Actually I’ll betcha that traditionally the coffee’s supposed to be percolated, lol!

  • Krista

    Did you buy already chopped almonds? can you get them in the bulk section of Dillon’s? I think I’m going to try to make these this weekend! I’m off all weekend. 🙂

  • William Linington

    @ Krista — Instead of a double boiler, you can just use a microwave. Alternating zaps with stirs.

  • Everytime I visit my parents in Victoria, we insist on buying some Nanaimo bars at the bakery. They have been a favorite of mine for as long as I can remember. Thanks so much for this classic recipe.

  • It looks like a lot of work, but the end result is simply beautiful! and I love your writing too:) wish i could take a bite off the screen!!:)

    btw, they’d be perfect for my sweet celebration contest I’d be glad if you could send them in for my blog event!

  • Val

    I went through Nanaimo bar-withdrawal when I was living in Germany and found that Oetker vanilla custard powder works well. It’s available in the States, too, if that’s where you live now (I’ve found it at both whole foods and World Market).

  • Those are a work of art! Beautiful looking and tasty I’m sure.

  • Karen

    Cookin’ Canuck: You are very welcome 🙂 Make them soon! 😀

    Mansi: It wasn’t too bad, since there was no baking involved. I actually made the bottom layer the day before, and the rest the following day. And sure I’ll submit it, it sounds like fun! 😀

    Val: I was thinking about checking out World Market, thanks so much for the brand name! It looks like I’m making these again this weekend, and I would love to find that custard powder 🙂

    Chris: They are. And addictive. I’ve decided I need to give them away before I eat them all!

  • Finally, I see Nanaimo bars on tastespotting! Shortly after moving to the States I had to find a recipe to finally show everyone the “mythical” dessert we had told people of!

  • William Linington

    The bars are great deep fried, too.

    Just dunk ’em in batter, toss ’em in the deep fryer for 3 to 4 minutes turning occasionally, drain on brown paper, and yum!

  • Ahhhh, these sound incredible.

  • Nanaimo Bars are as Canadian as buttertarts and poutine. Be still my heart when you mention Montreal Smoked Meats,and bagels.

  • William Linington

    @ Bellini Valli: Nanaimo Bars are as Canadian as buttertarts.”

    Oh Buttertarts are actually Scottish, LOL. There, they’re called “Ecclefechan Tarts.”

  • Cara

    My stepdad and his sister make these sometimes. His mom was from BC and they’re a sweet memory food. I’ve loved them for years. We searched and searched for Birds and finally found it at (gasp) Walmart. Yes, it’s a bummer, but it was nice to finally have a place to reliably buy this kind of key ingredient.

  • Teresa

    I LOVE Nanaimo bars. You can find the custard powder at your local Cost Plus World Market. I wouldn’t make them without. I think it makes a huge difference it taste and texture.

  • strings of coconut ensconced in chocolate-almond crumblies is certainly beautiful in my eyes, and your finished bar is perfection itself. that google, she done good (and so did you). 🙂

  • Ari

    I MISS CANADA, TOO! This was a pleasant treat of a post. Thank you!

  • Okay, Karen, I made these for the boys and you are the new hero at our house. I tood the recipe to my hairdresser and she asked what they were like. I described them as “fudge loaded with goodies, topped with frosting and then chocolate coated – a win, win, win!” Thanks for introducing them to me!

    • Karen

      Wonderful! I’m so glad to hear they were a hit 🙂 I’m making them again today with a friend. I’m thinking about making a mint verion 🙂

  • Derek

    These look amazing and I’d like to try them out, but, thanks to my cooking illiteracy, I don’t know what kind of cream to use in the middle layer. I’m guessing whipping cream, just not sure. Thanks!

  • Well I let my passport expire, so thank goodnees I found your recipe as any border crossing would have been futile in my attempt to enjoy the confection at the source. And besides I don’t know if my truck could make the trek northward to Nanaimo without conking out on the ferry. I have one question; do you need a building permit to make these. It’s quite a production, eh? thanks!

  • Patty

    Hello sister!

    I think I gained 10 lbs just reading the recipe. I sooi miss you. So I will have to make these with the kids and maybe, just maybe we’ll all miss you a little less.
    love ya and fantastic interview on Just Grilled!
    Your awesome!
    Patty

  • so rich in chocolate and all the dry fruits and nuts these bars are , seducing choco bar

  • I wonder if I am the only reader enjoying this post who is FROM Nanaimo!? Been here all my life, baked many different versions of the Nanaimo bar – mint, peanut butter, eggnog, cherry… Try them all, they’re all amazing! Stunning blog and photos 🙂

  • Awesome post and photos! And thanks for the link to the nanaimo bar ‘novel’ on practicallyedible.com – makes for some great reading. I’m also a Canadian (from Vancouver) living in the US. Can’t believe you didn’t have a Nanaimo bar for 5 years, I indulge every time I visit my family. And I’m fortunate that I can now get my Tim Horton’s fix in NYC (they recently replaced several Dunkin donuts locations). In addition to Nanaimo bars, the things I miss most are poutine, sausage rolls, ‘all dressed’ potato chips and coffee crisp 🙂

  • anne

    Hi

    I might be a bit late in the game telling you this but there really is such a thing as custard powder. And you can definitely find it all over the U.S. The most popular brand is Bird’s. It comes in a tin and also in a small box with a few envelopes inside. It can be found in either the gourmet section of your store or over with pie fillings and baking supplies. It is most commonly used in trifle. I hope you find it and it makes a difference.

    Anne