When you think of a Nanaimo bar, you usually think of the sweetness of the chocolate topping, and creamy custard filling, and the crumb base. But did you know that it is the most universally recognized national cake of Canada? It is a classic and highly recognizable snack cake that originates in the 1950s when someone from Nanaimo, British Columbia first invented the recipe and submitted it to a magazine contest and won. Since then, Nanaimo bars come in a multitude of variations that have since been published in different homespun cookbooks from home cooks, much like me, who try to put their own spin on recipes.
I still remember the very first time I tried a Nanaimo bar. I was traveling by intercity coach and the driver made a stop at one of the major pickup locations before my final destination. We were allowed to get off the bus into a coffee shop and I remember how the Nanaimo bar caught my attention among other donuts, muffins, and scones. I was born with a sweet tooth, and nothing satisfies it better than a Nanaimo bar that has just come out of the fridge.
They are easy to and fun to make, and most importantly, they come with a variety of short cuts to prepare them. Traditionally, it is not baked but chilled until it is firm enough to serve. But there are variations to the Nanaimo bar where a baking step is included (see below). Regardless of any individual deviations from its traditional recipe for preparation, any combination of crumb base, custard filling, and chocolate icing is pure delicious sweetness. What a genius contribution to the dessert plate! Go Canada!
1 cup unsalted butter
1/2 cup coconut shreds
3/4 cup granulated sugar
2 1/4 cups graham cracker crumbs
1/2 cup chopped almonds or walnuts (optional)
6 tbsp cocoa powder
1 tsp vanilla extract
4 cups powdered sugar
4 tbsp vanilla instant pudding and pie filing mix
1/3 cup butter, softened
1/4 cup milk
2 cups (about 12 oz) semisweet chocolate chips
1/4 cup butter
Butter and flour a 13 x 9 inch pan. Any butter-flavored cooking spray works well too. Set aside.
Make the crumb base: Melt the butter in a medium saucepan over low heat. Stir in the coconut, sugar, and egg and cook for 3 to 5 minutes, until thickened. Remove from the heat and stir in the graham cracker crumbs, nuts (if using), cocoa, and vanilla extract. Press the mixture into the prepared pan and refrigerate for at least 45 minutes.
Make the custard filling: In a large mixing bowl, stir together the powdered sugar and pudding mix. Add the 1/3 cup butter and the milk and beat until smooth. Spoon this thick mixture over the crumb crust and press evenly to cover. Refrigerate again.
Make the chocolate topping: Melt the chocolate chips and the 1/4 cup butter in a double boiler, stirring to blend until smooth. (Alternatively, you can microwave on high in a microwave-safe container for 1 to 1 1/2 minutes until melted and smooth, stirring every 30 seconds.) Pour it over the custard layer and spread it evenly with a rubber spatula. Make nice designs or patterns with the chocolate as it starts to solidify. Cover with aluminum foil and refrigerate until it sets.
Variations to the Nanaimo bar
Mint Nanaimo bar
There are two ways to make mint Nanaimo bars. You can either:
1. Add 1 1/2 tsp peppermint extract and 2 drops green food coloring to the custard, or
2. Use 1/4 cup mint chocolate chips and 1 3/4 cups semisweet chocolate chips in the chocolate topping and prepare as directed
Double chocolate cookie Nanaimo bar
To make the crumb base, you will need:
1 bag (1 lb 1.5 oz) double chocolate chunk cookie mix (for example, the Betty Crocker brand)
1 cup graham cracker crumbs
1/2 cup coconut shreds
1 cup butter, melted
In a large bowl, blend the cookie mix, graham cracker crumbs, coconut, butter and egg until well mixed. Spread this cookie mixture into a greased 13 x 9 inch pan. Press lightly until smooth on the surface. Continue making the custard filling and chocolate topping as directed. This recipe gives a Nanaimo bar with that extra layer of texture and cookie taste at the base. It turns out less crunchy than the original recipe, but it has a uniquely addictive quality nonetheless. After all, who doesn’t love double chocolate cookies?