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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)

Damn! We lived in Vancouver for 10 months & I never had one.... although I had just had a baby & was probably trying to lose the weight (so glad I gave up on that!). Thanks for the recipe... (he, he). I can make up for lost time.

xoxox Amy

I've never heard of these but WOW they look good with that layer of cheesecakey-custardy goodness in the middle!

May 27 | Unregistered CommenterRural Vegan

Oooooh,love the 'very not low fat'layers of goodness. Have heard of these but never tried them...they look delectable! YUM!!!

love the layers. i think the custard one will be my favourite layer..or maybe the coconuty bottom. oh no!

May 27 | Unregistered Commenterdiva

I've never heard of these magical bar cookies, but now that I have, I'm afraid I desperately want one. Chocolate, custard - what's not to love?!

I must agree with my Canadian counterparts... most of us have a love/hate relationship with nanaimo bars (I especially loved them as a child when I could more readily tolerate sweeeeeetness).

Please be warned, dear cakespy friends, these are capital S long eeee... Sweeeet! Do cut in very small squares :)

But now I want one!

Oh, and I must agree that buttertarts own my heart!

I've never heard of these bars but great research! I'll be on the lookout now!

Oh dear god. It's a Boston Cream Pie-like confection! I'd pretty much do anything for Boston Cream Pie. Where do you find custard powder by the way?

May 27 | Unregistered CommenterEB

I loooooooooooooove these things! My favorite come from the Dutch bakery in Lynden, WA. They have about 5 different versions of it too (peanut butter, cappuccino, irish cream, etc) that are absolutely amazing.

May 27 | Unregistered CommenterJess & Ang

I didn't know Americans didn't know about these. God, without these and KitKat bars, how do you people get through a week?

I'm also appalled at the fellow Canucks who aren't into this. Next you'll tell me you don't like butter tarts. Freaks!

May 27 | Unregistered CommenterDanielle

I have made the Nanaimo Bar. Last year, I did a Canadian/US Culinary exchange, and I got to make the Nanaimo Bar as part of my Canadian menu in the US. It is sinfully good! You keep thinking that you're going to die from the sweetness of it all, but then you just have another, and another ...

If I ever actually made these, my Canadian husband would be so happy! Alas, it's more likely he would be the one to make them for me.

Those look so good! Nanaimo bars are one of my favorites! I will have to try making my own.

May 27 | Unregistered CommenterKevin

Only say oh My!!! May I go to Canada please!! I want one!! Well I will try the recipe,look nice,Love the pictures Cakespy and how you talk about this,xxGloria

May 27 | Unregistered CommenterGloria

Oooo, I've never heard of these, but they sound delightful.
By the way, I did make it to Molly Moon. It's definitely worth checking out. http://thesoho.blogspot.com/2008/05/savor-some-of-ice-creams-newest-flavors.html

Nanaimo bars! That's another thing I miss about Seattle. Thanks for the recipe, I've never made my own - maybe now's the time to do so. =)

I HATE the bottom layer so I scrape the top two layers off with my teeth like some pathetic, sugar obsessed toddler.

But, making my own would certainly take care of that last layer, wouldn't it? =)

May 27 | Unregistered CommenterAnne-Marie

As a Canadian, I can say with confidence that there are very few events where a nanaimo bar isn't present. It's definitely part of everybody's Christmas repetoire of baking and one that never goes unnoticed for dessert - it's just one of those crowd pleasers that never dies.

May 28 | Unregistered Commentergiz

ooh, i love the nanaimo bar...especially a good bottom layer which should have crushed walnuts as well as coconut. almonds is a good choice tho. have you ever had a minty namaimo bar? pretty since the custard is green tinted and so tasty! yum.

May 28 | Unregistered Commenterkickpleat

I had heard of these until I joined team vegan, but there's recipes for vegan versions out there!

Glamah: Welcome to the wonderful world of the Nanaimo bar!

Geggie: I love them cold too, the chocolate doesn't melt all over your hands as much.

Isa: They are great! I hope you try them!

Kate: Thanks for the tip--I added it to the recipe!

Katrina: Yes, they're a good part of NW life!

Obsessive foodie: Yes, they are almost too good, aren't they?

Chou: Travesty!

Peabody: You're so right.

Caked Crusader: Ha! Now you've got to try making them. Amazing.

Jude: Yea! Give it a try, can't wait to hear how they turn out!

Happy Cook: Me too.

Rosie: They are sheer heaven on a plate, you got that right!

Aran: You'd be ready to do a 5k after eating one of these. They give you superpowers.

Aunt LoLo: Ha!! She'll love them!

Katie: Oh just make them. Your waistline will agree, they are delicious.

Liz: No way! Well, you've redeemed yourself with the butter tart comment. :-)

Dana: Ooh, that sounds like a nice resource. I have had some really nice ones in my time (french vanilla, mint, peanut butter)...oh yum.

Veggiegirl: they're awesome. My friend Jenny veganized them but I don't have the recipe--good stuff though!

Grace: Fran is the proprietress of Fran's Chocolates in Seattle--I think they carry them in other areas of the country though!

Veron: Yea!

Amanda: Just the thought of caramel makes my mouth water--that salty sweetness gets me every time!

Milwaukee Cupcake Queen: Mine too!

Becky: woo! I'm glad the tradition went over well in Kansas!

Deborah: You'll love them!

Memories in Baking: I am embarrassed to admit there was a time when I was eating them every day. ;-)

Amy: Oh geez, you've got to try one!! No weight worries!

Rural Vegan: They ARE good.

Passionate baker: Yup, we love our "not low fat" stuff!

Diva: It's the combo, I tell you!

Scarlett: They are magical indeed. Try one!

Clevermonkey: I love them, although I am not sure about this "small square" tip...? :-)

Cakewardrobe: They are awesome. Try them!

EB: I found it in the grocery store, but really the pudding mix works just fine.

Jess and Ang: Fantastic!! I want to try theirs!

Danielle: Ha! You made me laugh! Up with the Nanaimo bar!

TW: Yup. I am with you. You can't stop eating them!

Lydia: Well, get him makin'...they're worth it!

Kevin: Yay! Glad you like them. Hope you will try!

Gloria: They are a true delight, I hope you'll be able to try them.

SoHO: Ooh, glad you liked molly moon!

Noisy Penguin: Yes! Now is the time!

Anne-Marie: Ha!!!! That is too funny. Is it the coconut that you don't like? I consider that bottom layer ok, but mostly a vehicle for the middle layer.

Giz: Fantastic! We've gotta go to Canada more. :-)

Kickpleat: I have had a minty nanaimo bar! I usually am not big on weirdly colored foods but I love green frostings. So they're perfect!

Melisser: yes, there are some pretty good vegan recipes. We had a vegan version in Victoria and my friend Jenny made some vegan ones too--they were different in taste, but not in a bad way, they were still very good.

May 29 | Unregistered CommenterCakespy

I have orders not show up at family gatherings with out these. I got the recipie from my grandmother in Wyoming.

She called them Georgia Street Squares. I only found out this yr that they had a diffrent name.

May 29 | Unregistered CommenterTemperance

Your photos with captions never fail to make me giggle.

I love these but I never eat them because they are sooo bad for me. My first job was in a bakery and I had to slice up huge boxes of them to sell. I would totally overdose on them all day.

May 30 | Unregistered CommenterLydia


Think I can put poundage on just by looking... ;-(

May 30 | Unregistered CommenterCookie Jill
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