A Chilled Treat from Our Neighbors to the North: Nanaimo Bars

Earlier this summer Tom and I went on vacation to the Pacific Northwest, including a few days in British Columbia. While we were on the ferry from Vancouver to Victoria, I noticed that the cafeteria on board offered Nanaimo Bars for dessert. I had never heard of Nanaimo bars (and I didn't buy one on the ferry), but I was intrigued and made a mental note to investigate further after we returned home. Named after the city of Nanaimo in British Columbia, the bars traditionally consist of a chocolate crumb base topped with custard icing and chocolate. They require no baking. There are many variations of Nanaimo bar recipes available online, but I decided to try the one provided by the City of Nanaimo.

To make the base for the bars, the recipe instructs you to cook butter, sugar, cocoa, and an egg in a double boiler until they thicken, remove the mixture from the heat, and then add graham cracker crumbs, chopped almonds, and coconut. I had difficulty determining when the mixture in the double boiler had thickened, because the butter stubbornly refused to incorporate with the other ingredients and remained in a separate layer. I spot-checked the temperature of the mixture and took it off the heat after it reached 160 degrees, assuming that the reason for this step was simply to heat the egg sufficiently for food safety purposes. I also used ground almonds instead of chopped nuts, since I already had the food processor out to make graham cracker crumbs.

The middle layer of the bars is a mixture of butter, cream, powdered sugar, and custard powder (I used Bird's custard powder -- conveniently available at my local World Market). Because Bird's contains annatto color, the custard layer was a light orangish-yellow color. The top layer is simply melted chocolate and butter. I cut the bars after they were well chilled.

The sliced bars have an interesting appearance; the bottom layer was speckled with bits of graham cracker crumbs and coconut. I enjoyed these bars, especially the chocolate base, which had a surprising depth of chocolate flavor and a very interesting texture -- although I almost wish I had used chopped almonds instead of ground ones, since the bars didn't have any discernible almond flavor. The bars were very rich and the custard frosting layer was tooth-achingly sweet. This is a dessert definitely best appreciated by someone with a strong sweet tooth (and I even used unsweetened coconut in the base). Overall, these weren't a favorite of mine. But they are quite distinctive, and I can definitely understand why Nanaimo bars are a Canadian comfort food with a dedicated following.

Recipe: "Nanaimo Bars," from the City of Nanaimo.


Box Frame said…
Your Nanaimo bars look beautiful. They are an all time favorite of mine and one of the things I miss about visiting BC regularly. I have wondered if you had made them before and thought about suggesting them at some point. I find the peanut butter variety to be quite delicious and the PB cuts the sweet of the plain variety a bit. Either way, one bar has always been about 4 servings for me. Hope you enjoyed our wonderful PNW!
Louise said…
I always view Nanaimo bars as more like candy. I had an interesting one in Bear's Paws Bakery in Jasper recently. In spite of living in Pa., we spend an incredible amount of time in the PNW, usually motorcycle riding. In July, my husband rode the bike from here to Calgary, where I met him for the good part. We did a 2750 mile loop up the Icefields Parkway to Jasper, over to the Stewart Cassiar Hwy, up to the Alcan Hwy to Whitehorse, then down the Klondike Hwy to Skagway, then the Alaska Marine Ferry to Prince Rupert, then Hwy 16 back to Calgary. I flew back and he rode back across Canada. :-)