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.

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:


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


  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 (31)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.

    1. Honestly I have never made this with a vanilla pudding mix. But I would say yes you would need to add less liquid so the custard layer would be more firm than pudding.

  8. 4 stars
    sounds like something my family would like, I go to my sister and her husbands for Holidays, this would be perfect. I was wondering if these could be made with sugar substitute as her husband is a diabetic. Love your recipes.

    1. I haven’t tried it with a sugar substitute before, but you could give it a whirl following the sugar substitution suggestions on the package of the sweetener you are using. Otherwise, I’m afraid Nanaimo Bars are definitely not in a diabetic diet. 😞

  9. 2 stars
    I had the same issue with the custard layer. Followed recipe to a T and removed the custard just before boiling. I usually make it with Birds custard and will go back to that. Had to scrape the custard off the base and start again with custard. I’ve made these a lot over the years and thought I’d try a new way. Unfortunately it didnt work for me.

    1. Hi Sue. Kudos to you for trying something new! I know a lot of people that use Birds custard. Sorry you had a problem making the custard from scratch. You have to cook the custard until it thickens, it sounds like you may have removed it from the heat too soon. You want to cook it just below a boil until it thickens, but that does not mean to remove it from the heat when it comes to a boil. You just have to lower the heat a bit so it can cook and thicken but does not boil.

  10. 5 stars
    This was the first time I tried this recipe. Did all my mis en place before I even started my oven. I think in my custard I didn’t temper the eggs enough because the custard filling was lumpy or the heat was too high. I still used it and it tasted great. My husband loved it! Definitely gonna try this recipe again.

  11. Mine didn’t turn out either. The custard part is stil soft. Your directions say not to boil. This. I read one of your comments that ask if she boiled it. So which method is correct.

    1. HI Diane, both are correct. You want to bring it to the boil and then lower the heat. You don’t want to remove it from the heat when it starts to bubble, just reduce the heat and continue to cook for about 2 to 3 minutes until the custard thickens. I usually stir it several times to make sure the custard is not burning on the bottom of the pan.

  12. OMG. How have I never had these before. My family loved them. First batch is GONE. Definitely a second batch this week

  13. My Mother made this recipe years ago and I remember how good it was. A friend of hers, who was Canadian, gave her the recipe. I was really glad to see this and will be making it.

  14. We love these bars; but when I make them the chocolate top splinters when I try to cut into it. I have tried scoring it and that helps a bit, but I can’t get that part of it to work. Fortunately it doesn’t affect the taste!

    1. Try cutting them into bars at room temperature and not when they are cold. It also helps to dip the knife in very hot water then gently evenly press through the bars to get a nice clean cut. Make sure you wipe the knife with a towel after dipping in the hot water.

  15. I tried this recipe this afternoon and I am sorry I did. The crust did not hold together and in my opinion, was way too thick compared to the other layers.

    1. Sorry you had a problem with your Nanaimo bars. The crust should come together as it cools down. You can always add more butter if need be. If using a 9×9-inch pan, the layers do come out fairly even, but the custard is a little thinner than the cookie and chocolate layers.

  16. Bird’s Eye custard secret I grew up on Vancouver Island 15 minutes from Nanaimo where slice originated💕

  17. These look Wonderful! Going to try to cut the calories and carbs some by making keto style graham crackers and using Allulose for sweetener.. Wish me luck 🙂

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