Nanaimo bars are an iconic, beloved Canadian holiday treat. Everyone has a memory of cookie plates served by grandmas and great aunties laden with maraschino-studded shortbread cookies, jujube-buttoned gingerbread men, and maybe an occasional Smartie-nosed Rudolph. But the best and most coveted choice was the Nanaimo Bar.
A nutty, crumbly cocoa crust belies a cool, creamy whipped filling under a silky-smooth chocolate layer. The chocolate shatters like a creme brulee as your teeth make contact and the layered structure gives way to a mouthful of fluffy, custard, and chocolatey crumbs. They win the cookie plate. They just do!
It wasn’t until adulthood that I even discovered what they were made of. Who knew the base was cocoa, sugar graham crumbs, coconut, and nuts? No flour. Such an intriguing combination of flavours that you can’t quite put your finger on and can’t stop nibbling.
Traditionally, the filling uses custard powder. I have seen enough expired custard powder in my mom’s pantry over the span of my childhood to know this is a single-use item and guess what? I have been making Nanaimos without it for years and have been told by many that they are the BEST EVER. (*Checks nails, slow tosses hair*). I hope you’ll forgive my bar braggery, because I am totally willing to spill all of my secrets.
Soft butter is whipped with confectioners sugar well past the point of combining. You want to really aerate that middle layer to a silky fluffiness. If you simply stop mixing when the ingredients come together, you’ll have a thick, dense, over-sweet frosting. No Bueno. Just keep whipping. The mixture will turn a shade lighter and take on a sheen. Then you’ll know it’s done and your patience will be rewarded. (And I will not be offended if you whip in two tablespoons of custard powder.)
Getting smooth layers is easy with a greased loaf pan that fits inside the baking pan used to make the bars. Because it’s bound with egg, the bottom puffs up in spots as it baked. Simply oil an 8” loaf pan, then press down on that base while it is still hot, right after it emerges from the oven. Press all over until it is nicely level.
Use the same trick to get the cream layer smooth as glass (you’ll need to be gentle and use side-to-side motion, not a downward press). This groundwork allows you to simply pour the melted chocolate over it all and achieve a beautiful top layer without any lumps or spatula tracks.
I like to use really good chocolate for this. It’s totally worth it to use a dark chocolate bar that you enjoy eating out of hand instead of chocolate chips. I chop up Western Family Dark Chocolate Bars. You’ll need two and a bit hundred-gram chocolate bars.
Nanaimo bars keep well at room temperature for a couple of days, in the refrigerator for 5 days, or in the freezer for up to a month. You get the best mouthfeel if served at room temperature, but I am personally partial to an occasional frozen bar.
Classic Nanaimo Bars Recipe
- 1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
- 1/4 cup sugar
- 1 1/4 cup graham cracker crumbs
- 1 cups unsweetened shredded coconut
- 1/2 cup finely chopped pecans or walnuts
- 1/2 cup butter melted
- 1 egg lightly beaten
- 2/3 cups butter softened
- 3 cups confectioners’ sugar
- 1 tbsp vanilla extract
- 5 tbsp heavy cream or milk
- 8 ounces chopped dark chocolate
- 1 tbsp vegetable oil
Preheat oven to 350ºF. Line an 8×8″ square baking dish with parchment paper, leaving a 1″ overhang on all sides.
In a medium bowl, stir together cocoa powder, sugar, graham cracker crumbs, coconut, and nuts. Drizzle butter over top and toss with a fork to combine. Add egg and stir until well combined. Press the mixture into the bottom of the prepared baking dish and bake for 10 minutes, until set. Use an oiled loaf pan to press the crust down into an even layer. Cool in the pan on a wire rack to room temperature.
In a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine butter, confectioners’ sugar, vanilla extract, and cream. Beat for at least 2 minutes on high, until very fluffy and lighter in colour, scraping down sides occasionally.
When the crust is completely cool, spread the filling evenly over top. Use the oiled pan again (wiping off any crumbs first) to gently smooth the filling to a flat, even layer. Transfer to freezer to firm up for about 10 minutes.
In a microwave-safe measuring cup, microwave chocolate and vegetable oil on 50% power for 2 minutes. Stir, and repeat in 20-second intervals until 80-90% melted. Stir until smooth. Pour over the chilled filling, tilting the pan to get it into all the corners. Let stand without disturbing until chocolate is hardened.
Lift bars out of the dish by the parchment overhang, then slice into 24 equal bars. Run your knife under hot water and towel dry between cuts to make clean slices.