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Monday
May262008

You Say Nanaimo: Words, Praise and Lore on the Heavenly Nanaimo Bar

Nanaimo Bar
If you've been following our cake gumshoeing for a while, you may remember that a while back, some of our spies took a Nanaimo bar adventure in Victoria, BC. However, since then, we've spent more than a little time thinking about this unusual little treat, which is beloved in Canada but still relatively unknown in the States. We consider this an import worth getting to know better--so, without further ado, here are a few interesting tidbits we've picked up on Nanaimo's pride and joy.

First off, for those of you who have never tried a Nanaimo bar, let us briefly try to explain its wonder and deliciousness.

The top layer is a solid chocolatey layer, which is firm but not hard.

The middle layer is a buttery, frosting-y, creamy, custard-y stuff that is so much the opposite of low-fat that it makes you want to weep with pleasure.

The bottom layer is a sturdy, tightly packed layer of chocolate, graham cracker and coconut, bound together with melted butter.

That is to say--super yum.

And now, we'll move on to more of the Nanaimo bar's lore:

Mysterious Origins:

By many accounts, the bar came into existence when a Nanaimo housewife entered her no-bake squares into a magazine contest. Though we see several sources citing that it was "about 35 years ago", though we were not able to locate the name of the entrant or the magazine in which it was published. However, the legend goes on to say that when the recipe was published, it put both the bar and the town on the map.

Then again, according to Wikipedia,
the earliest confirmed printed copy of the recipe "Nanaimo Bars" appears in a publication entitled His/Hers Favorite Recipes, Compiled by the Women's Association of the Brechin United Church, with the recipe submitted by Joy Wilgress (p.52); this publication is not dated, but is circa 1950s.

And still others argue that the Nanaimo bar was actually invented long before in NYC, where it is referred to as the "New York Slice". However, none of our spies who have lived or currently live in the NYC area can recall ever having seen a confection by said name (though please feel free to correct us if we simply missed it). However, we do have fond memories of a wonderful three-layer chocolate, caramel and shortbread bar from a bakery which is now closed but used to have a few locations in Manhattan called Taylor's (pictured left--and though it's a bit of a tangent, for those who miss the dear, dear Taylor's can order a similar item of equal tastiness online from clairesquares.com).

However, we elect that regardless of where it comes from, the bar came into its own in Nanaimo, and therefore credit is due to Nanaimo for the heavenly bar.

Nanaimo Bars, Zoka CoffeeFinding Delicious Nanaimo Bars:

One thing that few will argue is the bar's deliciousness. As our friend ReTorte says, "Nanaimo Bars are very popular. And why not? Chocolate and custard - are you kidding me? The reality is, though, that they're usually cheaper to buy from a wholesaler, so frequently they are not made on site. This doesn't mean that the bars are bad, however; my favourite Nanaimo Bars are still the ones sold on BC ferries, and they bring them in from a wholesaler and are awesome".

And it's true--gauche as it may be to say, we've found that our favorite Nanaimo bars have been purchased not in fancy bakeries or restaurants but in significantly less "gourmet" spots--supermarkets, ferries, or delis. However, perhaps there's a strange logic behind this. Through trial and error we've found that the bars often taste better one or two days after they're made--so perhaps the absolute freshness that most bakeries or restaurants strive for is a detriment in the case of the Nanaimo bar, whereas in the aforementioned settings, where the bars will have a longer "shelf" time, they are allowed to improve with age. Hey, just a theory!

Extended Family: If you think the Nanaimo bar resembles some other sweets (at least physically), you're right. Starting with a list of related confections on Barry Popik's site, we hunted down some sweets that resemble the Nanaimo bar (if not in taste, at least in construction) and sought out a few of our own. Aside from the "London Smog" bar though, few of them seem to be derived from the actual Nanaimo bar recipe, though they are delicious.

When making your own Nanaimo bars, the sky's the limit. While the official City of Nanaimo recipe (determined during a 1980s contest for the "ultimate" Nanaimo bar recipe, which was won by Joyce Hardcastle) is found below, there are some great variations which can be found here and here.



OFFICIAL NANAIMO BAR RECIPE

Bottom Layer
  • ½ cup unsalted butter (European style cultured)
  • ¼ cup sugar
  • 5 tbsp. cocoa
  • 1 egg beaten
  • 1 ¼ cups graham wafer crumbs
  • ½ c. finely chopped almonds
  • 1 cup coconut
  • Melt first 3 ingredients in top of double boiler. Add egg and stir to cook and thicken. Remove from heat. Stir in crumbs, coconut, and nuts. Press firmly into an ungreased 8" x 8" pan.
Middle Layer
  • ½ cup unsalted butter
  • 2 Tbsp. and 2 Tsp. cream
  • 2 Tbsp. vanilla custard powder (Cake Gumshoe Kate adds that if you don't have or can't find custard powder, instant vanilla pudding works in a pinch)
  • 2 cups icing sugar
  • Cream butter, cream, custard powder, and icing sugar together well. Beat until light. Spread over bottom layer.
Top Layer
  • 4 squares semi-sweet chocolate (1 oz. each)
  • 2 Tbsp. unsalted butter
  • Melt chocolate and butter over low heat. Cool. Once cool, but still liquid, pour over second layer and chill in refrigerator.

Sources used:
joyofbaking.com
wikipedia.org
barrypopik.com


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Reader Comments (8)

I have been looking for a recipe for the coffee flavored Nanimo bar for years. Do you happen to know of one? A local catering place, which has gone out of business used to buy them wholesale from some place in Nanimo. I would be happy just being able to buy them from them. Any suggestions who they might be, or a recipe? I don't remember it being a custard, which has me spoofed.

February 18 | Unregistered CommenterLuell

I don't remember it being a custard, which has me spoofed.

May 25 | Unregistered Commenteraffiliate
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October 31 | Unregistered Commenterkyle
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November 19 | Unregistered CommenterOffice 2007 Serial
This article is really great, strong support
November 25 | Unregistered CommenterOmega Seamaster
Perfect recipe for my husband! I'm totally using this!
December 21 | Unregistered CommenterSusan
Thank you for the recipe :)
February 20 | Unregistered Commenterrosacea pictures
Do you cook the custard powder or just mix it in dry?
November 15 | Unregistered CommenterJennifer

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