Nanaimo Bars

Ahhh, Nanaimo Bars... the first dessert nibble to disappear at any Canadian bake sale, holiday celebration or any pot luck party.

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 A Nanaimo bar is a Canadian treat that you don’t see down in the United States very often (or ever!). It is something, however, familiar to all Canadians. It’s as Canadian as the Butter Tart and I just don’t understand why it has remained north of the 49th parallel and hasn’t spread down to the USA with wild abandon. The written recipe for this sweet treat first appeared in a cookbook in Nanaimo, a town on Vancouver Island in British Columbia, in 1952 and was described as a “chocolate square”. That’s a pretty good description, but it doesn’t really explain all the intricacies of this Canadian delicacy.

Nanaimo Bars on grey Marble.

A Nanaimo bar is a layered square (or bar) with a nutty, chocolate, coconut, Graham cracker base, a thick icing or custard-like filling and a layer of chocolate on top. Sometimes the filling is flavored with mint, or coffee, or peanut butter, but traditionally the middle layer is a pleasant yellow color and just has a plain vanilla flavor. Most of the time, this layer is made using Bird’s Custard Powder, or if that can’t be found a vanilla pudding mix.

This recipe for Nanaimo bars veers from tradition by actually making a very thick vanilla custard filling from scratch, rather than using custard powder which is predominantly cornstarch, some flavorings and color. Making a custard is easy to do, tastes great and it’s a good culinary skill to have, so why not learn now? There’s no better way to enjoy the fruits of your labor, after all.

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Nanaimo Bars scattered on grey marble.

Nanaimo Bars

  • Prep Time: 30 m
  • Cook Time: 12 m
  • Chilling Time: 30 m
  • Total Time: 1 h 12 m
  • Servings:
    16

Ingredients

Crust Layer:
  • ½ cup unsalted butter 1 stick
  • 6 tablespoons Dutch-processed cocoa powder
  • ¼ cup sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 2 cups graham cracker crumbs
  • 1 cup sweetened shredded coconut
  • ¾ cup chopped walnuts or almonds or pecans
Middle Layer
  • ½ cup milk
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 4 tablespoons cornstarch
  • ¾ cups sugar
  • teaspoon salt
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 egg yolk
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
Chocolate Layer
  • cups 9 ounces semi-sweet chocolate chips, divided
  • 6 tablespoons unsalted butter cut into small cubes

Instructions

  1. Pre-heat the oven to 350°F. Butter a 9-inch square baking pan and then line it with parchment paper, allowing two sides of the parchment to hang over the edges of the pan.
  2. Melt the butter in a medium saucepan over medium-low heat. Add the cocoa powder and sugar and whisk well. Then, add the egg and whisk well to combine. The mixture should thicken quite quickly. (If the mixture looks broken at any point, don’t worry, just whisk it back together and proceed with the recipe.) Stir in the graham cracker crumbs, shredded coconut and walnuts. Combine the ingredients well, pour the mixture into the prepared baking pan and spread it into an even layer. Transfer the pan to the oven and bake for 10 to 12 minutes. Remove and cool.
  3. While the crust is cooking, make the middle layer. Combine the milk and heavy cream in a medium-sized saucepan over medium heat. Whisk the cornstarch, sugar, salt, whole eggs and egg yolk together in a bowl until well combined. Temper the eggs into the cream by slowly whisking the warm cream into the bowl of eggs and then pour the whole mixture back into the saucepan, whisking constantly. Return the saucepan to medium-low heat and cook gently until the custard thickens. You can bring the mixture to just below the boil, but don’t boil the custard. Once the custard has thickened, stir in the vanilla extract. Pour the warm custard over the crust and smooth it out. Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes, until the custard layer has set.
  4. To make the chocolate layer melt the butter in the top of a double boiler, or in a bowl over a saucepan of simmering water. Set ½ cup of the chocolate chips aside for later. Add the remaining 1 cup of chocolate chips to the butter and melt, stirring until smooth. Once the chocolate has melted, remove the pan from the heat and add the remaining ½ cup of chocolate chips. Stir until melted and smooth. Let the chocolate cool for a few minutes. It should be warm, but not hot and still pourable. Pour the chocolate over the chilled custard layer and smooth it out, banging the pan on the counter to help create a completely smooth surface. Transfer the pan to the refrigerator to chill until the chocolate has set.
  5. When you are ready to serve, cut into bars or squares with a clean hot knife, wiping the knife in between slices.
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Comments (11)Post a Reply

  1. Love Nanaimo Bars..I was born and raised in Vancouver now live in So California. I enjoyed then a lot as well as the Butter Tarts you just features.. would love to see a video on how to make them. I tried to make the Nanaimo bars but the top chocolate layer kept separating.. love all your videos. Miss you on QVC . Happy Canada Day Meredith.🇨🇦

  2. Hi Meredith,
    This recipe looks wonderful but I am not a fan of graham cracker crusts. Can you suggest some other substitute that would not change this great recipe too much….thanks for all your great recipes! Diane

    1. Hi Diane, You could try chocolate layer cookies instead – like Oreo’s – or chocolate wafer cookies.

  3. Nanaimo bars or “special dessert 🧁” as my kids called them were always a hit for an after school treat. Have not made them in umpteen years. Now that I saw your post, have a hankering for these super good bars. Thank you for reminding me of these sweet treats. 😋

    Happy CanadaDay! 🇨🇦🇨🇦

  4. Your videos are over the top! Clear, concise, informative (of course) and mouthwatering. Keep them coming.

  5. My dessert Didn’t turn out. The custard didn’t set up –

    Any idea why. ?

    The birds powder would it make a solid custard .

    Mine just didn’t set up

    Thanks for any help.

    1. It’s hard to say definitively without having been there to see what happened, but I would venture to guess that perhaps you didn’t let the custard come to a boil? It does need to get to the right temperature before it will set. It’s tricky because you want it to get to that temperature without curdling the eggs, so you stay close and keep whisking. The good news is that if once you’ve cooled the custard it hasn’t set up, you can put it back into the saucepan and heat it again. Hope that helps.

  6. Ah, the memories! I was born in Victoria 80 years ago and grew up in Nanaimo. You could be right about the year but I remember it a bit differently. After the war ended in 1945 and about a year later when the blackouts were stopped (we had to put black paper or fabric in our windows from dusk to sun up so as not to alert enemy bombers of our existence), things started getting back to normal. And when we no longer needed ration books to get the basics like eggs and chocolate my mother’s bridge club started up and I believe a lady named Molly Bearce is responsible for this delicious treat. That would have been probably in 1947 or 1948. She and my mum were great friends. I’ll try to locate her old cookbooks to see what I can find.

  7. Miss Meredith,

    Never been a fan of dried coconut so I wondered what you thought of puffed rice cereal (Rice Crispies) as a textural substitute. I’m pretty sure I can deal with the taste difference.

    I also wondered how you store these. I’m trying to cook in small batches, for 1-2, but will make a whole batch of these because of the single egg in the crust. Anyway, I can’t eat these quickly, all by myself, so wondered how they’d hold up if I froze them.

    Thanks for all your excellent recipes. I ciuld feed myself forever on your cookbooks alone. Would you consider, for a future cookbook, recipes for 1-2 servings?

    1. I think trying it out with rice crisps sounds like a great idea – you might be on to a whole new dessert! Nanaimo bars freeze really well. I would cut them first and then freeze them in acceptable portion sizes (I’ll leave that up to you!) so you can defrost just what you need.

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