Friday, April 15, 2011

nanaimo bars are my kryptonite

I grew up on a small island in Southeast Alaska, where proximity to Canada was most prevalent on the shelves of our local grocery stores.  The brands were the same but labeling was often printed in both English and French; a typical case of Alaska and Canada being glommed together by way of association.  This bilingual packaging went relatively unnoticed until years later when I returned for a visit and picked up on the fact that peanut butter sounded a whole lot more exotic in French; as did graham crackers, tubes of toothpaste and pretty much everything else.  Who knows, maybe all that unintentional immersion gave me the upper hand in French class, mais oui…?

Another revelation came in the form of a highly addictive three layer confection known as the Nanaimo bar.  A staple of my childhood, those irresistible bars were on regular rotation at church potlucks, dinner parties and school bake sales, alike.  Little did I know, but the popular treat originated in British Columbia and was equally revered by my Canadian neighbors to the east.  What I knew too well was that I could inhale those bars with alarming ease; a weakness I harbor to this day.


Discovering the birthplace of Nanaimo bars came about as an epiphany of sorts.  My soon-to-be husband and I were planning a destination wedding in Sooke, British Columbia, a charming town on the outskirts of Victoria, on Vancouver Island.  We must have traveled back and forth more than half a dozen times in the course of planning our 2002 summer nuptials.  This required a 2 – 1/2 hour drive from Seattle to Tsawwassen, just south of Vancouver, where we boarded a ferry which deposited us on the eastern coast of the island.

On one such trek, we found ourselves famished enough to venture into the ship’s self-serve cafeteria where a glassed-in cooler housed metal shelves lined with a myriad of the usual suspects: pudding parfaits, cold sandwiches, pasta salad and tidy squares of sheet cake.  Amid the selection, I spied one strangely familiar apparition.  Nestled amongst a sea of cake was what appeared by all accounts to be a Nanaimo bar.   It had been so long since I’d eaten one; but there it was, beckoning me from within its shiny transparent receptacle.  Though I could hardly expect this ferry specimen to pass the muster, I decided to take a gamble. 

As I sunk my teeth into dense chocolate ganache, rich custardy buttercream filling and on through to the toothsome coconut-chocolate-graham crust, it was clear this was a far cry from the ferry-caliber dessert I had anticipated.  How, I wondered, did something this delicious end up in a ferry boat cafeteria?  My wise husband-to-be soon solved the matter when he pointed out that our approaching destination was none other than Nanaimo, British Columbia; a fact I had somehow managed to overlook during prior sailings.

Nanaimo is more than just a catchy name, it’s an actual city in Canada.  More accurately, it’s a  coastal town on the eastern shores of Vancouver Island, British Columbia.  As the story goes, Nanaimo bars were the creation of a 195o’s housewife, Mabel Jenkins, of Cowichan Bay.  They were popularized through a local cookbook, sold in surrounding coffee shops and eventually caught on in the States, due to tourism.  Other sources claim the bars existed under other names long before Mrs. Jenkins took credit for them.  Hearsay notwithstanding,  their ongoing popularity has landed them in baked goods cases at Starbucks and they were humorously referenced in the 2003 film, ‘A Mighty Wind’. 

My Nanaimo bars are loosely based on a recipe given to me by a real Canadian.  Over time, I have tweaked the measurements and ingredients to mimic that famed ferry boat version.  Whether or not it resembles the original is inconsequential as there are far too many versions to pinpoint a top contender.  What I do know is this: everyone who tries these bars loves them, speaks of them in hushed tones of reverence, requests them by name and begs for an encore appearance. 

The secret behind the bars lies in the source of their pale yellow filling, Bird’s custard powder, which comes from the UK and lends the center layer its unique flavor and texture.  It is worth the effort to track down this product, either in a specialty store or online, as the bars are better for it.  In a pinch, vanilla pudding powder is a reasonable substitute.  Even haters of coconut (you know who you are) are fans of Nanaimo bars.  I attribute this to the use of unsweetened coconut shred rather than those cloyingly sweet, soggy flakes whose resemblance to actual coconut is questionable.  Unsweetened coconut is all about texture with a flavor that is surprisingly understated. 

Though it will strike some as odd, the recipe (which is chilled, not baked) calls for one egg.  That’s right, the no-bake crust contains raw egg.  This necessary egg acts as a binding agent, neatly holding the crust together.  I am vigilant in relaying this information to all who partake of the bars, yet the appalling detail has yet to deter a single recipient.  Apparently, we Americans aren’t as uptight as they make us out to be.  Just be sure to keep the bars cool and store them in the refrigerator. 

With their trifecta of layered goodness, Nanaimo bars are oh-so-easy to love (and by love I mean overindulge).  So much so that unless you possess superhuman willpower, I suggest making them for an occasion or sharing them with friends (or with strangers who will become your friends after trying one). 

Be warned: Nanaimo bars are near impossible to resist.  Heed this advice or consider buying a bigger pair of pants.

nanaimo bars

yields about 20 bars


2 ounces semi-sweet chocolate (such as Scharffenberger) 
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 cup graham cracker crumbs or about 12 sheets
1 – 1/2 cups unsweetened coconut shred
1 tablespoon sugar
pinch of salt 
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 egg, lightly fork beaten


1/4 cup butter, softened
3 tablespoons milk
2 tablespoons Bird’s custard powder (substitute: vanilla pudding mix)
3 cups powdered sugar 
1 tablespoon vanilla extract


6 ounces semi-sweet chocolate
4 – 6 tablespoons unsalted butter



Melt the chocolate and butter on in a saucepan over low heat.  Alternately, place butter and chocolate in a microwave-safe bowl, stirring at 30-second increments until just melted.  Cool slightly.  In a food processor, pulse the graham crackers until they are reduced to fine crumbs.  Add the coconut and sugar.  Pulse until combined.  Leave the mixture in the bowl of the food processor until needed.

Add the beaten egg to the chocolate mixture, whisking briskly to emulsify.  The egg acts as a binding agent, to hold the base together.  Stir in the vanilla.  In a steady stream, pour the chocolate-egg mixture into bowl of the food processor.  Pulse until combined. 

Press the mixture evenly into the bottom of a waxed paper lined 9” x 13” baking dish or rimmed baking sheet.  Chill for about 30 minutes in the refrigerator or freezer.


While the base is chills,  use a handheld electric mixer to blend the butter, milk and custard until well combined.  On low speed, add the powdered sugar, raising to medium speed once incorporated.  Add the vanilla.  Beat on medium high, scraping the sides of the bowl, as needed, until the mixture is silky and smooth. 

With a large rubber spatula, spread the filling evenly over the chilled base.  Chill for about 30 minutes in the refrigerator or freezer.


The final layer requires proper timing, so be sure to start the ganache once the custard layer is firm.  Place the chocolate and butter in a saucepan over low heat, whisking until melted.  The consistency should be slightly thicker than chocolate syrup.  If the mixture is too thick, add additional butter, as needed.

Pour the melted chocolate mixture over the custard layer and, using a rubber spatula, work quickly to spread the chocolate evenly over the top, extending all the way to the edges of the baking dish.


Chill for another 20 – 30 minutes in the refrigerator or freezer.  Allow the pan to sit at room temperature for about 5 minutes before cutting into bars.  Using the tip of a sharp knife, carefully cut 2-1/2” x 3” bars.  Remove bars from the pan with a small offset metal spatula.  The first bar is always the hardest to remove.  For best results, serve cool but not fully chilled.  Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to three days. DO NOT store at room temperature due to raw egg in the crust.

For more on the history of Nanaimo bars, plus recipes for both traditional and off-the-wall versions, check out this post by the lovely Jessie Oleson of Cakespy.


  1. I'm excited to try out your recipe after eating one of these from the bake sale! I've had Nanaimo bars a few times but I've never made them myself. Thanks for sharing the recipe!

  2. carly, i'm happy to share the recipe + fairly certain you'll love them. happy baking!

  3. do you know a place that sells these so i can ship them to someone!?! please help