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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.





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.



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Reader Comments (60)

This is a new one for me. It almost lloks like a ice cream sandwhich.Im lovin all the flavors of chocolate and custard.

May 26 | Unregistered Commenterglamah16

Oh Canada!

My first Nanaimo bar in BC over 10 years ago changed my life. I love 'em cold.

May 26 | Unregistered CommenterGeggie

I have never heard from this before but they sound great! I love the contrast of the pale cream between the two dark chocolate-y layers and I bet I would probably love the taste of it too! Thanks for the info and recipe :)

May 26 | Unregistered CommenterIsa

I love Nainamo bars. I have been making them for a while now. I just wanted to add for those who don't have or can't find custard powder (like Birds brand) Instant vanilla pudding works in a pinch.

Wonderful wonderful recipe :) Now I have to go and make some after all those pictures!

May 26 | Unregistered CommenterKate

Growing up in the PacNW, Nanaimo bars have always been a delicious part of my life. I agree that the best ones are on the BC ferries. YUM.

May 26 | Unregistered CommenterKatrina

Aren't these the BEST!!!!!!!! We have had them the last couple of years for Christmas. Our friends grew up in Canada and it was their family tradition to make these. They are tooooo YUM!

How have my dear Canadian family members NEVER introduced these to me? Shocking.

May 26 | Unregistered Commenterchou

When you get a well made one...it's a beautiful thing!

May 26 | Unregistered CommenterPeabody

You had me at "the top layer is thick and chocolatey"!

We don't have Nanaimo bars here in Oz but we have custard powder. Yours look stunning ... have printed out the recipe and am going to make it asap!

May 27 | Unregistered CommenterJude

Loved the explanation of the bar, i was drooling while readingit

May 27 | Unregistered CommenterHappy cook

This looks like sheer heaven to me on a plate - just love the look of those Nainamo bars!! :)

Rosie x

May 27 | Unregistered CommenterRosie

that's a power bar right there, might have to go run the 5k after that! i always love to find out about the origins, history, adaptations... great investigative report!

May 27 | Unregistered CommenterAran

Thank you for this!! My mother once made our family of 7 drive around for three hours in B.C. looking for Nanaimo and one of these bars. That was nearly 15 years ago, and she now vehemenently denies the whole thing. Thanks for the recipe! I will have to make these for her.

May 27 | Unregistered CommenterAunt LoLo

These bars look HEAVENLY! wow. Um, even though my waist line may hate me I am SOOOOO making these. :::drool:::

May 27 | Unregistered CommenterKatie

I'm like the worst canadian ever, cause I'm not the biggest fan of nanaimo bars... but the coverage is great and I support them in principle! oh, and don't even get me started on butter tarts, omg (YUM!)

May 27 | Unregistered CommenterLiz²

As a Canadian, I'm supposed to be a card carrying Nanaimo bar lover but I've just never felt the love. (Buttertarts and doughnuts are far superior Canadian treats in my honest opinion!).

For those who do want to experiment with the limits of the Nanaimo Bar, I suggest you check out Canadian Living Magazine. When I worked there we developed a slew of NB recipes with all kinds of flavor and format variations.

I've never had a Nanaimo bar, so I feel like I've been missing out - it sounds so devilishly decadent!! Wowza!!

May 27 | Unregistered CommenterVeggieGirl

thanks for the thorough background on one of my favorite treats! i'll take any version by any name, thank you very much. and i don't know who fran is, but her white chocolate coconut cream bars sound particularly enticing...

May 27 | Unregistered CommenterGrace

looks sinfully good. i'm sure I'll be all over this!

May 27 | Unregistered CommenterVeron

Nanaimo bars were definitely a staple of my childhood dessert-eating, but the older I grew, the more my sweet tooth receded and simply looking at the photos makes my head ache. Strangely, the millionnaires shortbread you describe (caramel, shortbread, chocolate on top) made my mouth water...wonder what's with that? because surely sugary caramel is just as sweet as Nanaimos...hmmm...

May 27 | Unregistered CommenterAmanda

I think I can feel my teeth rotting just from reading this!!!!

I've made some of these for my five kids recently. They loved them, as did my co-workers who snarfed them down in nothing flat. I think I even got a text message from one of them about it later! My mom used to make them(no, we're not Canadian, we're Kansans!).

May 27 | Unregistered CommenterBecky

I have never had a nanaimo bar before, but it is something I've always wanted to try! And now here's a recipe!

May 27 | Unregistered CommenterDeborah

Yours look delicious.

I was introduced to these by a good Canadian friend almost ten years ago, and I still love them.

They are sinfully-rich, so I try to limit my intake of Nanaimo Bars to about once a year, and I do believe time's up.

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