Nanaimo Bars Extraordinaire
Nanaimo bars are a true Canadian delicacy. Smooth chocolate, simple vanilla, and a coconut walnut base make for a dessert that is completely sinful—but too good to turn down! Nanaimo bars originated in Western Canada, and can now be found across the country in cold winter months when that little bit of chocolate is simply necessary to keep warm. (Or at least that’s what we Canadians keep telling ourselves!) They’re also now making a debut in Australia, via my kitchen.
This final Nanaimo bar recipe and method has been a labour of love—I believe it took about three batches of bars, plus some failed elements within those batches, for me to assemble this final version which I can stamp with the “tried, tested, and true” label. It was a journey and a half—the first batch I decided not to use the vanilla custard powder (my thoughts being, “Who needs all those damn expensive and one-purpose ingredients in their cupboard, mumble mumble”), and it flopped, completely. Lesson 1: use the vanilla custard powder. Lesson 2 had to do with proportions and not just taking online recipes for their word at needing roughly 6 cups of ingredients for the base and only 2 cups of icing sugar for the filling, which resulted in a last-minute trans-Pacific phone call to mum and dad for the real recipe & proper proportions. Lesson 3 had to do with finesse—aka, Nanaimo bars are picky little bastards. The various steps require the correct temperatures otherwise they’ll backfire completely—this lesson could be subtitled, “How not to screw up your chocolate topping.”
So, my thanks go to the future in-laws and the folks at Downstream Marketing for eating my somewhat suspect batches of Nanaimo bars before the recipe was perfected. I’m sure it was quite the effort!
Wondering where the Three Cheeses has been recently? You’ve probably noticed I’ve been a bit slow on posting—this is due to a visit from the parents, an engagement (yes, mine!), quickly followed by an unexpected trip back to Canada for a funeral. But I’m back baby, and with new kitchen gear to boot. (Thanks mum and dad!)
Cooking time: 40 minutes hands-on, plus several hours cooling
- For the base:
- 1/2 cup softened butter
- 1/3 cup cocoa powder
- 1/4 cup white sugar
- 1 egg
- 1 1/2 cups sweet crumbs (graham wafer crumbs, arrowroot crumbs, digestive biscuit crumbs, a mix of or similar)
- 1 cup fine coconut
- 1/2 cup chopped nuts (walnuts or pecans)
- For the filling:
- 1/2 cup softened butter
- 3 tbsp cream or milk
- 2 tbsp and 1 tsp vanilla custard powder *
- 2 cups icing sugar
- For the topping:
- 125 g (4 oz) good quality dark chocolate (Baker’s bittersweet chocolate is perfect; you can use any type of good chocolate here)
- 2 tbsp butter
Line a 9×13″ or two 8×8″ pans with waxed paper, leaving several inches of the waxed paper overhanging on each end to act as “handles” to pull the Nanaimo bars out. Preheat an oven to 350 F / 180 C.
Mix together the base ingredients, either by tossing them all into a food processor and pulsing until the walnuts are pulverized and mixed in, or by hand with very finely chopped nuts. Pour into your pan(s) and spread evenly, then press down firmly to compact into a solid base. Bake for 10 minutes to set. Remove and allow to cool.
When your base is almost cooled to room temperature, begin preparing the filling. Either by hand, with an electric mixer, or in a clean food processor, blend together the softened butter, cream or milk, custard powder, and slowly add the icing sugar until absolutely smooth in texture. Pour as evenly as you can over the base, and smooth out with a spoon very carefully—if you’re too vigorous in spreading it, you may get crumbs from the base mixed into the filling. While this isn’t the end of the world, it can be avoided with a gentle hand. Place in the refrigerator to cool and set, usually 1.5-2 hours.
Once the filling has set (firm to the touch, like an icing that has hardened), remove from the fridge and allow to warm back up to near room temperature. No, I’m not crazy! Not having your filling too cold will give you more time to work with the chocolate. When it is close to room temperature, heat a couple of inches of water to simmering in a pot, and place a heat-proof bowl on top (or use a double boiler if you have one). Melt the last 2 tbsp of butter in it, then add your chocolate. Stir slowly as it melts. Once it has melted, pour it carefully over the filling, using a spoon to spread it out quickly and gently. Allow the chocolate to cool slightly so it’s just slightly firm, then use a sharp knife to lightly score just the chocolate into the size of squares that you plan to cut later. When the chocolate is completely firm later, this will prevent it from cracking when you slice it up.
Refrigerate until chocolate has hardened, then slice up and serve! Store refrigerated, or freeze in an airtight container well layered with waxed paper. Nanaimo bars should last for a couple weeks.
* Let’s chat about the custard powder. As I said in the preamble, I didn’t think much about having to buy a whole big box of vanilla custard powder when (I thought) cornstarch and some vanilla essence would do the trick. The long and short of it is that the true Nanaimo bar flavour that you loved as a kid is really thanks to that vanilla custard powder! You can find custard powder wherever you might find the Jello and other jelly treats in your supermarket, and it’s actually quite affordable considering how long it’ll last you. In Australia, look for the red and yellow box of Foster Clark’s!