Holiday dishes from around the world: Nanaimo bars

Fourteen-year-old Canadian Beth Johnson says she has enjoyed cooking since she “can’t remember when,” starting out by baking with her mom when she was little and now developing into a keen and competent cook. Beth says she absolutely loves to bake, especially around this time of year when she makes Canadian favorites such as mince pies, butter tarts, shortbread, sugar cookies and gingerbread men, as well as trays of Nanaimo (pronounced “nan-eye-mo”) bars, an intensely sweet, sticky, chocolate treat from her home country that will have you licking your lips (and your fingers), wanting more. 

A version of this layered dessert has been around in Canada since the 1950s. However, this particular recipe of the scrumptious bars is said to have originated in the city of Nanaimo in British Columbia on Canada’s west coast, where legend has it that a local woman entered her recipe for the treats into a magazine baking competition in the ‘80s. She apparently won the competition and called her newly devised recipe “Nanaimo bars” after her home town. The dessert became an instant hit and quickly grew in popularity throughout Canada, especially during the holiday season when Canadians traditionally love to bake. In 1985, Nanaimo bars were even voted Canada’s favorite confection in a National Post readers’ survey. 

Consisting of three sweet layers, a chocolate crumb base, followed by a layer of light custard cream topped with a resplendent coating of semi-sweet chocolate, Nanaimo bars will soon become your family’s favorite, too. Beth says she makes these bars mainly for her and her brother during the holiday season, and she tried this recipe out on her appreciative friends before making them for the Weekender.  


Ingredients: makes about 16 squares (depending on how big you cut them) 


For the topping: 

1 cup graham cracker crumbs (or smashed graham crackers if you can’t find the crumbs) 

1/2 cup sweetened flaked coconut 

1/3 cup well chopped walnut halves (some people use almonds or pecans) 

1/4 cup cocoa powder 

1/4 cup granulated sugar 

1/3 cup melted butter 

1 beaten egg 


To make the base, heat the oven to 350 degrees F. and measure all the ingredients in a big bowl and mix with a wooden spoon or fork until it comes together. 

Line a 9-inch-square metal cake pan with grease-proof (parchment) paper and press the base mix firmly into the tin, taking care to ensure the mix fills the corners and sides of the pan. Use a spatula to help press the mix into the tin. Bake for about 10 minutes until the base feels fairly solid. Traditionally, the Nanaimo bars follow a “no-cook” recipe, but Beth finds baking the base for a short while a good way to ensure it is nice and solid. 


While the base is cooking, make the filling. 



1/4 cup butter  

2 tbsp custard powder (such as Birds), or vanilla pudding mix 

1/2 tsp vanilla extract 

2 cups icing (powdered/confectioner’s) sugar 

2 tbsp milk 


Mix the ingredients in a bowl, preferably using an electric hand mixer. Take care to scrape down the sides of the bowl to incorporate all the mix. (Beth says that some people enjoy jazzing up the recipe up at this point by adding raspberries or other fruit into the custard mix.) Mix until all the ingredients are fluffy and easy to spread. No doubt, by now you will probably have a nice, warm chocolate smell wafting from your oven, which will tell you your base is just about done. Remove the base from the oven and allow to cool, then pour the custard mixture into the tin. Allow to cool completely (put the tin in the fridge or freezer to speed up the cooling process). 


Make the topping. 



8 oz semi-sweet chocolate chips 

1 tbsp butter 

A small amount of half-and-half or milk 


Melt the chocolate, preferably in a double boiler. Simmer water in a saucepan and place a bowl on top of the simmering water. Add the chocolate to the bowl. Be careful that the bowl does not touch the boiling water. Stir the chocolate until it melts and becomes glossy. Add the butter and a little half-and-half or milk to the melting chocolate to get a smooth (but not too runny) texture. Be very careful not to burn your mix (otherwise, you will have to start all over). Note: microwaving tends to burn the chocolate very quickly.  

Once all the ingredients have been incorporated, take the bowl off the boiler and pour the chocolate mixture onto your prepared, cooled biscuit and custard layer. Make sure to cover all the custard layer beneath. Place the tin back into the fridge or freezer to cool completely. You can score the top chocolate layer to make slicing easier. 

When you are ready to serve, turn the cooled dessert onto a chopping board and carefully pull back the grease-proof (parchment) paper. Run a sharp knife under hot water before slicing. Continue to run the knife under hot water each time you slice as this will ease the slicing process. Slice your dessert into squares and then dig in! Beware – this recipe is extremely sweet, very delicious and highly caloric! If you have any left over, the squares can be kept in an airtight container for a few days. 


Gooey and mouthwatering, Nanaimo bars have been voted Canada’s favorite confection.