Follow Us on Pinterest 

Nanaimo Bars

Having a viable website has resulted in a steady stream of emails from JOY fans. As a result, we've been able to gather some basic information about the people who visit our site. One surprising find is that we have a solid fan base in Canada. I don't know why I find this surprising, as our neighbors to the North undoubtedly have many things in common with us. Perhaps this is because, as someone who has not yet visited Canada, I still envision it as a beautiful and chilly land of very friendly people.

I suppose it is possible that, while our Canadian readership may not be as robust as the American faction, they are more vocal or forthcoming with their findings and opinions.

In either case, this observation started me thinking about (a-boot?) Canadian dishes. I am willing to admit that I have almost no idea of the vagaries of Canadian cuisine. I imagine that it is much like American cuisine, which is to say, varied. A little French influence here, a bit of British sensibility there, and lots of delicious infiltration by ethnic cuisines from around the world.

But still, there have to be some iconic Canadian foods that haven't trickled down into the States to speak of. As so often happens, I found one answer on my own endless list of recipes to try--Nanaimo Bars.

Nanaimo sounds like a magical place, doesn't it? I would tend to argue that it must be magical, as Nanaimo Bars originated there (and Wikipedia claims that Nanaimo is the "bathtub racing capital of the world," although I'm not sure what that means). Nanaimo Bars are basically a no-bake pudding bar--the pudding layer being sandwiched between a crumbly crust and chocolate frosting. In my search for a good baseline recipe, I discovered that there are many variations on the theme, and that the "original" Nanaimo Bar is something of a great white whale.

The disadvantage to having to develop a recipe for something you've never tasted is obviously that you can't really know what to aim for. However, the Joy of Cooking is the perfect place to start, especially for a composite recipe (i.e. a recipe pieced together from several different recipes). I cherry picked from JOY's pages a crust, a filling, and a frosting from which to assemble my Nanaimo Bars.

While some Nanaimo Bar recipes call for a chocolate crust, I opted for a graham cracker crust instead. The combination of a chocolate crust and chocolate icing would almost certainly drown out the lovely vanilla filling. The toasty, buttery notes of a graham cracker crust seemed fitting for a dessert that is certain to take you back to those wonderfully simple childhood flavors.

After trying these bars with a dark chocolate frosting, I decided to use chocolate ganache instead. It's quite rich and gives way beneath the teeth in the most seductive fashion. These bars are perfect for kids and adults alike. Since the holiday season is upon us, you really don't need an excuse to try them soon.

Special thanks to Nanaimo, BC for making this post possible!

Other articles you might enjoy: Iced Hermits, Gluten-Free Almond Brownies

Nanaimo Bars
Makes 16 bars

Prepare the crust. Preheat the oven to 350˚F. Combine in a bowl:
            1 1/2 cups fine graham cracker crumbs
            1/4 cup sugar
            6 tablespoons butter, melted
Press the graham cracker mixture into the bottom and up the sides of a 9x9-inch pan. Bake 10 to 12 minutes or until firm and toasty-smelling.
Prepare the custard filling. Combine in a heavy, medium saucepan:
            1 cup milk
            1/4 cup heavy cream
            (Seeds from one vanilla bean)
Cook, stirring frequently, over medium heat until the mixture begins to simmer. Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, beat on high speed until thick and pale yellow, about 1 minute:
            1/3 cup sugar
            1 tablespoon cornstarch
            1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
            2 egg yolks
            Pinch salt
Gradually pour about one-quarter of the milk into the egg mixture, whisking to combine. Scrape the egg mixture back into the pan and cook over medium heat, whisking constantly and scraping the bottom and corners of the pan to prevent scorching, until the mixture is thickened and begins to bubble. Continue to cook, whisking, for about 1 1/2 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in, if not using the vanilla bean:
            (1 teaspoon vanilla)
Pour over the baked graham cracker crust and refrigerate until completely cool.
Prepare the ganache. Have ready:
            4 ounces semisweet or bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
Bring to a simmer in a small saucepan:
            1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons heavy cream
Remove from the heat and pour over the chocolate. Cover and let stand for 10 minutes, then stir until completely smooth.
Let the ganache stand at room temperature until it is about 85˚F. Then, pour it over the custard filling. Let the ganache set, refrigerated for about 30 minutes before serving.


Ange DeSouza's picture

As a Canadian you really need to find the best recipe for Butter Tarts. That is the #1 treat in Canada. Nanaimo is on Vancouver Island and they put outboard motors on all kinds of bathtubs and have races. A watery version of lawnmower races.
meg's picture

Amazing! Thanks for explaining the bathtub racing thing--I'd love to see it in action. As for butter tarts, tell me more about them. Are they a cookie or a pie? Either way, they sound delicious.
Chris Whipple's picture

A coworker of mine brought them for us to try at work. She is from Canada. They were the most mouth watering wonderful piece of heaven. The filling reminds me a lot of pecan pie filling.
Ange DeSouza's picture

Butter tarts a wonderful. They are little tarts, not pies or cookies. You can google butter tarts and find basic recipes. The best are just eggs, butter and brown sugar. There is great discussion about the consistency. Some like them runny and some add more eggs to make them firmer. Purists love them plain, others prefer to add raisins or nuts or both. I now have a craving for some. You really should try some too. Have a great day. Ange.
Maggie's picture

There aren't many "Canadian dishes" as most are very regional. Here's a smattering of them: butter tarts, tarte au sucre (maple syrup pie), tourtiere, poutine, Montreal-style bagels, Montreal smoked meat, fiddlehead soup, Canadian beer (much stronger than American but not as strong as English or Irish beer), ketchup chips, salt & vinegar chips, salmon jerky, freshly caught smelts lightly floured and fried, Saskatoon berry pie, beaver tails, bloody caesar (or spicy caesar or just "caesar"), rye & ginger (Canadian rye with ginger ale), ice wine, cidre de glace (ice cider), blueberry grunt, bannock, Habitant pea soup, Nova Scotian Donair, and a few more! :)
meg's picture

Thanks, Maggie! This would be a great list to work through. I know how delicious maple syrup pie is, having tried that one, and a great many Americans adore salt and vinegar chips. I've heard tales of the wonders of butter tarts, so that's on the short list for sure. There's a great little bakery in Portland that makes Montreal-style bagels, and I LOVE them. I get one every time I go to the farmer's market.
Roger Priddle's picture

Hmm. I take issue with the idea that there "aren't many Canadian dishes". Just because there's no monolithic "Right Way" to cook something doesn't mean they don't represent a culture... How many versions of Gumbo would you find if you went looking? One for each village? And is not Gumbo, nonetheless, an example of Cajun culture? (And bathtub racing is a hoot! Modified bathtubs with an outboard motor across (25?) miles of open ocean from Nanaimo to Vancouver.)
Tiff's picture

A butter tart is pretty much a pecan pie in tart form, minus the pecans. A traditional Butter tart has raisins in place of the pecans you would find in a pecan pie, however, many variations will use walnuts or pecans instead of raisins.
kareninvan's picture

I've tried many a butter tart but I think the best is Canadian Living's maple butter tart with maple syrup and apple cider vinegar
meg's picture

Thanks for the recommendation! Reading the ingredients, this pie sounds exactly like maple syrup pie--sometimes it's called chess pie but made with maple syrup. The main difference seems to be the walnuts and raisins. Is there a difference between chess pie and butter tarts?
Karen Cooke's picture

I'm afraid I don't know what chess pie is, these are tarts with the main ingredients being brown sugar, butter and eggs baked in a tart shell. You can add the other stuff like walnuts, raisins, currents on the bottom of the shell and add the liquid. I like them best with golden raisins.
meg's picture

Yes--chess pie is pretty much just that: sugar, butter, eggs, and usually a small amount of cornmeal (maybe a tablespoon or so) and vinegar. I'm thinking that butter tarts are the Canadian version of what we call chess pie, the main difference being the nuts and raisins. Sounds delicious!
Kaya's picture

I like the idea of a graham cracker crust (and a ganache is much better than a more solid chocolate layer, or the filling squishes out when you take a bite), but I encourage you to try out a chocolate base for your Nanaimo bars and see what a more traditional one is like! The coconut-chocolate layer has always been my favourite part. When searching for a recipe, you will want to look for something with shredded coconut in the chocolate base layer. Maybe, maybe recipes will call for chopped walnuts. You press the chocolate layer into a buttered pan and chill it -- no need to turn on the oven! The more common filling is much like a typical American buttercream with dry custard powder added to it, not a custard made on the stove. The "official" custard powder is Bird's, I believe, but vanilla pudding power works well enough. It is a VERY sweet icing, so you end up with a very sweet, very rich dessert to nibble at in little bites. It's a bit like fudge in that you can cut an 8x8 pan into 20 or more pieces and not feel the serving sizes are ridiculously small once you taste it.
meg's picture

Thank you so much for this, Kaya! Now I want to try it the way you suggested--it sounds absolutely amazing! Having never tasted a true Nanaimo bar, this was my interpretation of what I found on the Internet. Maybe I should make a trip to Nanaimo to try the real thing. That's the kind of research I love to do ;)

Add new comment