A Tasty Tradition: Nanaimo Bars

By Jeannette Ordas of Everybody likes Sandwiches

If Canada has a national dessert there would be a fight between butter tarts and nanaimo bars. I love both equally and could never be forced to pick a winner. Butter tarts are like pecan pies without the pecans (raisins and walnuts are subbed instead). But a nanaimo bar is something special.

It's a layered bar. The bottom base is chock full of walnuts, coconut and is heady with chocolate. This is my favourite layer because I like the pinch of salt and the nuts that act as a foil to all of the sweetness that comes next. The middle is made with custard but I've never seen a recipe that makes their own custard from scratch. Bird's custard powder is the tool for this job. I'm not sure how readily available it is in the US of A but you can find it easily in grocery stores around Canada and the UK. If you've got a good US source for this, please leave it in the comments. The top layer is pure chocolate ganache and I like to use the best bittersweet chocolate I can buy. Milk chocolate would make this way too sweet and semi-sweet chocolate chips would suffer from the same fate. Good dark chocolate, people, is key! Smack all three layers together and you've got a true Canadian favourite. 

If you want to read up about these bars, there is a wikipedia page, of course.

Traditional Nanaimo Bars
If nuts are an allergy concern, feel free to leave them out. Or if you hate walnuts, you might get away with using pecans or almonds, but then we're out of traditional territory. Regarding the custard layer, I've heard rumours that you could use vanilla pudding powder, but that wouldn't be proper here. 

1 cup graham cracker crumbs
1/2 cup unsweetened shredded coconut
1/3 cup walnuts, chopped
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup cocoa powder
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/3 cup melted butter
1 egg, lightly beaten

1/4 cup butter, softened
2 tablespoons Bird's custard powder
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 cups icing sugar (aka powdered sugar)
2 tablespoons milk (maybe a little more)

4 oz good quality bittersweet chocolate, chips or chopped
1 tablespoon butter

Preheat oven to 350F. 

In a large bowl, stir together the crumbs, coconut, sugar, walnuts, salt and cocoa. Drizzle in the melted butter and then stir in the egg until well combined. Press mixture into a lightly sprayed or buttered (sides & bottom) 8x8 square cake pan. Bake for 10 minutes and then let cool completely on a wire rack. 

Prepare the filling by mixing the butter with the custard powder and vanilla. Stir in the icing sugar, mixing in the milk until smooth. If you need to add in a tiny bit more milk to get it smooth, go ahead. Spread evenly over the base and refrigerate until firm, about 1 hour. 

Melt butter with the chocolate in a microwave on low (about 50% power) until melted - about 2 minutes. Stir a few times within the microwave cycle to prevent scorching. Or use a double boiler. The choice is yours. Spread chocolate over the filling and refrigerate for 30 minutes. With your knife, score the bars into squares - I like smaller rectangular bars instead of large squares. Refrigerate for 1 hour and then cut into bars using a knife dipped in hot water to keep the cuts clean. Keep in a covered container in the fridge. Makes 18 squares.

Jan Halvarson


Jacaranda Designs Jewelry said...

Those look delicious. Being a South African, I never grew up eating these. I've often seen them in the twenty or so years living in Canada but never actually taste them. I think I may have to add them to my Christmas baking list.

Unknown said...

Mmmm! Delicious!
I follow you every post from Spain! An inspiration!

M de glamour


Alex - The Interior DIYer said...

Salivation has begun. These remind me so much of home = Canada. I make these as a Christmas treat for my family here in Dublin. It's like a party in my mouth. Sooo good.

Cathy said...

Birds Custard is easy to get in the US at a well stocked grocery store (at least if you are in a bigger city). It's essential in my hubbys English Grandmothers' Trifle. Usually I find it in a box that has packets of the powder and rarely in the canister like you pictured. I live in Arkansas but we have family all over the country, east to west, and we all can find it. It's less sweet and has a different texture than vanilla pudding.

CitricSugar said...

We get both nanaimo bars and buttertarts here for Christmas but the buttertarts have never had nuts in them and the war still wages between my mum and her sister: raisins vs currants. It gets a little ugly. Well, Canadian-ugly, so it's not a huge deal. :-)

Bethany said...

Yes! The perfect recipe! I can't tell you how disappointed I was to see a recipe for Nanaimo Bars in Saveur magazine that didn't have the custard powder in it. For shame!

For the readers who have never made them before, they are better the next day. If there are any left, that is. 8^)

Anonymous said...

As a Canadian living in California, I miss Nanaimo bars. No one here has ever heard of them and look at my funny when I mention how yummy they are!! I'll have to make them for all of my US friends. Thanks for the recipe!

Coco Cake Land said...


in a battle between nanaimo bars vs butter tarts, i would personally choose nanaimo bars... i've loved them since forever... !

i agree on the bittersweet chocolate layer too!

i just wanna grab into my computer screen and eat one of those squares...

Kateri said...

Nanaimo bars are always there for Christmas at my parent's house!
My mom(and now my dad!) makes them with a mint flavor and green color instead of vanilla custard.

Untwisted said...

My grandmother learned about Nanaimo bars from a Canadian friend, and always made them for Christmas. My grandmother's bars always had vanilla pudding. I'm intrigued by the custard and will have to try to track this brand down. Let the holiday baking begin!

The Casual Baker said...

Yum. Almost time to break out my Granny's nanaimo bar recipe for the holidays!

Anonymous said...

Yay butter tarts! That said, the Bird's-Custard-Powder-powered layer of a Nanaimo bar isn't really custard. The Bird's is just there to impart a vanilla flavour.

Maybe Mabel Jenkins was out of vanilla the day she invented these legendary yummies.

Jessie said...

I am so looking forward to making these! I grew up in Canada and remember our neighbor making these all the time. Can't wait to bring back some memories with my family, now that we live in California :)

Dale Stokes said...

Hi ... I'm from Australia, I've never made either but am giving it a go this weekend, can't wait to try both.