Earlier this year, a photo of Nanaimo Bars — a classic Canadian dessert named for a city on Vancouver Island — became a source of controversy. Canadians were outrage that an Instagram post from The Times’ Cooking account depicted a version which skewed the proportions of this beloved confection. It was clear that there were rules to follow and I needed to know more.
The first recipe dates back to 1952. In addition to being called Nanaimo Bars, they also were known as smog bars or chocolate squares. In an era of “set it and forget it” desserts, these bars were designed to be made quickly from packaged ingredients and without baking. Although available year-round, they are a Canadian holiday favorite.
These intensely sweet, no-bake desert-squares are made of 3 layers: a chocolate-coconut-walnut-cookie base (the thickest part); a distinctly yellow, velvety buttercream middle (slightly thinner than the base); and a chocolate coating as smooth as freshly Zambonied ice (the thinnest part). To a Nanaimo Bar expert, the ratio of each layer is important. It’s an easy dessert to make whenever convenient, as long as you properly chill each layer before adding the next.
115 grams (4 ounces) semi-sweet or dark chocolate, in pieces [Note: Use dark chocolate to offset the sweet middle layer]
16 grams (1 tablespoon) butter
* If making this dessert gluten-free, Schär or McVitie’s gluten-free digestive biscuits or Pamela’s gluten-free graham crackers are excellent options.
** If you can’t find a custard powder like Bird’s, substitute it with an equal amount of instant (gluten-free) vanilla pudding mix. However, experts may question where this is a true Nanaimo Bar if custard powder is not used.
Line an 20-by-20 cm (or 8-by-8 in) metal baking pan with parchment, allowing a 5 cm (2 in) overhang.
Measure out all of the ingredients.
Prepare the base layer by first melting the butter in a saucepan over medium heat. Remove from the heat and whisk, or stir, in the sugar and cocoa powder and then gradually whisk in the beaten egg. Return the saucepan to low heat and cook, stirring constantly, until the mixture thickens (about 1-2 minutes). Remove from the heat and stir in the vanilla extract, cookie crumbs, coconut, walnuts and salt until well combined. Press the mixture evenly onto the bottom of the prepared pan, using your fingers. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until firm, about 1 hour.
Next, prepare the middle layer by beating the butter until it's light and fluffy (about 1–2 minutes). Add the heavy cream, custard powder, vanilla and salt and mix until combined, scraping the sides and bottom of the bowl as needed. Add half the confectioners’ sugar and mix slowly until incorporated. Add the remaining confectioners’ sugar and mix again slowly until combined, scraping the bottom of the bowl as needed. Once all the ingredients are combined, beat the cream until smooth, light and fluffy (about 2–3 minutes). If the mixture is too thick to spread, add a little more milk.
Remove the pan from the refrigerator and remove the plastic wrap. Dollop the buttercream on top of the base layer and then gently and evenly spread it, using an offset spatula. Re-cover with plastic wrap and return it to the refrigerator to chill until the buttercream is set (about 30 minutes).
When the buttercream is almost set, prepare the top layer by melting the chocolate and butter together in a heatproof bowl over a saucepan of simmering water (i.e. double boiler or bain-maire), stirring constantly and making sure that the bowl does not touch the water. When the chocolate has melted, remove from the heat and let rest for about 3-5 minutes — you want the temperature to come down slightly but the chocolate needs to remain warm to make it easier to spread.
Remove the pan from the refrigerator and remove the plastic wrap. Pour the chocolate over the middle layer. Working quickly and carefully, spread the chocolate evenly over the buttercream using an offset spatula to ensure that it is as smooth as freshly Zambonied ice. Re-cover with plastic wrap and return it to the refrigerator and chill until the chocolate sets (about 30 minutes).
Cut (or score) your bars before the chocolate fully hardens or the top layer will break when trying to cut them and the middle layer will squish to the sides. To cut, lift the dessert out of the pan using the parchment overhang. Using a sharp knife, cut 16 squares (5-by-5 cm or 2-by-2 in). Clean and heat your knife (in hot water) in between cuts to get the best-looking squares. Nanaimo Bars usually are cut into small squares as they are intensely sweet.
Store bars in the refrigerator for several days. Bring to room temperature before serving.
The March 2021 New York Times article on the Nanaimo Bar outrage can be found here.