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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)

They sell them around the Seattle Area at the Nordstrom Espresso Bar... in plain, hazelnut or irish cream. I think in one more flavor as well.

You can also find them in the Seattle area at Top Food's stores in the bakery case or at some Fred Meyer's stores in the bakery.

I'm addicted... although I think we should clarify that the center is really not a custardy filling. Think stiff butter cream icing. but yummy yummy buttercream.

May 31 | Unregistered CommenterMione

Temperance: Lucky you! And I'd never heard the other name...interesting...

Susan: Ha! Thanks!

Lydia: So bad...but SO good.

Cookie Jill: Me too, unfortunately!

Mione: Oooh!! I have never tried them at Norstrom, I will have to! Which one, the downtown location? As for the custardy I think it depends on the recipe. Some of them taste a bit more strongly of the custard powder but some are actually made without, I have learned.

June 1 | Unregistered CommenterCakespy

Yes... most of the Nordstrom's should have them...

I used to work at the Alderwood Mall... which is where I got addicted... to the lovely pastry case at Nordstrom.

My usual order? My enorme iced latte, a pizza bagel and 2 nanimo bars. Hey... a girl's got to cover breakfast and lunch... :)

June 1 | Unregistered Commentermione

Oh! I am definitely making this!

What a great post! Hello treadmill...

June 6 | Unregistered CommenterMrOrph

OMG, why have I never heard of these before. I want to make them RIGHT now. They seem like they would be my FAVORITE thing ever -- well, after ice cream and Cakespy herself!

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February 3 | Unregistered CommenterPPLily

I grew up on millionare shortbread and all its spin-offs (mint slice etc, and even our version on Rocky Road resembles it - I love the fact I'm from Scotland, and our we have a famously sweet tooth) so I can't wait to try this. :)

February 20 | Unregistered CommenterMissLadle

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February 26 | Unregistered CommenterFredaMay21

As someone who actually lives in Nanaimo... I always wondered if the Nanaimo Bar actually originated here.

I quite enjoyed the little history lesson to go along with the recipe.

I have savoured Nanaimo Bars from literally Coast to Coast in Canada and I have never met a Nanaimo Bar I didn't like!

This looks very similar to dessert we have out here in Amish country in Lancaster, PA. We call it Eclair Cake. It is simpler to make though... layer whole rectangles of graham crackers in the bottom of a 9x13 pan, then a layer of custardy, pudding-y stuff (sorry don't really have a recipe) but it is pretty rich with at least some whipping cream if not cream cheese. Then the top layer of thick chocolate, like the Nanaimo- firm but not brittle (and I like it when they lay it on thick!!). The graham crackers soften up and create a yummy crust, but not crispy. Oh, I have to go out and get some!! Thanks for the idea!!

June 9 | Unregistered CommenterMary Jo
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