Nanaimo Bars, where have you been all my life? How, in my coast-to-coast travels throughout Canada—including Nanaimo itself (where you, Dear Readers, must visit because it’s totally gorge), did I miss your creamy goodness? The road to find you has been long, with many a winding turn, but now that I’m here, I shall make up for lost time and sing your praises.
The road to Nanaimo (bars) went like this: In my first post for #CreativeCookieExchange, I whinged about the loss of my beloved Sunshine Biscuit Cookies. Karen, of the lovely blog Karen’s Kitchen Stories (a fave of mine), commented how SHE missed Sunshine’s Custard Cups. I’d never heard of them so I Googled. Google turned up nothing on said cookies but did lead me to a plethora of other custardy cookies. Custardy cookies that are made with Bird’s Custard Powder. Not being one to let a new ingredient pass me by, one short visit to Amazon and two days later, Bird’s Custard Powder was delivered to Chez Dough. I chose a popular custardy cookie recipe (which shall remain nameless just in case it was ME and not the recipe) for my first attempt and it was awful beyond words, thus wasting a full cup of the precious powder. My bad. Not to be bested, I Googled again, looked a little deeper and Nanaimo bars came up time and time again. If nothing else, I figured such a beautiful city couldn't possibly produce a bad cookie so I took a chance. I’m not sorry. Had I not just started back on Weight Watchers (nice timing, eh?), I’m sure I would have snarfed down the entire batch, possibly without taking a breath.
So what IS a Nanaimo Bar anyway? At its roots a Nanaimo bar is a layered bar cookie with a cookie-crumb bottom layer (most often made with graham crackers, coconut, cocoa and almonds), a creamy custardy middle layer and a chocolate top layer. Wikipedia (I know, I know, but even the official website for the city of Nanaimo links to it) traces the origins of the Nanaimo bar to the Modern Cafe in Nanaimo and its first appearance in print back to 1953. (Let us note here that New York has also laid claim to this delectable treat but we New Yorkers tend to do that with everything. New Yorkers are like Star Trek's Mr. Chekov in that. No matter what it was, he'd always say "You know, that was inwented in Russia.” But I’m going with Canada on this one.) There are countless variations on the theme, so in 1986, the city of Nanaimo held a contest to determine the Ultimate Nanaimo Bar. And out of nearly 100 recipes, they chose this one, baked by Joyce Hardcastle. Even I, a non-lover of chocolate and a hater of nuts, have to admit that this is cookie perfection. Not too sweet (in spite of what you’d think looking at the ingredients). Not too rich. Just right. Joyce, you done good.
Now since this is essentially a no-bake cookie (there’s just a bit of stove-top cooking involved), I thought I’d be cheating if I didn’t actually bake something for a post for a baking group, so I did bake the graham crackers that ended up as crumbs (I used the wonderful grahams from Nancy Silverton’s Pastries From the La Brea Bakery). You certainly wouldn’t be wimping out, though, if you used store-bought. In fact, for the instant-gratification junkies among us, it’s probably the better way to go since this is a very quick and easy recipe and you’ll be miffling* Nanaimo bars in no time. Seriously—and I know bloggers say this all the damned time—this really could be the Best. Cookie. Ever.
So I thank you, Joyce. I thank you, Nanaimo. And I thank you, Canada. Poutine AND Nanaimo bars? Is Canada a great country or what?
*It’s a family word—and we’ve all got ‘em—that basically means to inhale your food. In my family we miffle a LOT.
- ½ cup unsalted butter
- ¼ cup sugar
- 5 tbsp. cocoa
- 1 egg, beaten
- 1 ¼ cups graham cracker crumbs
- ½ cups finely chopped almonds
- 1 cup shredded, sweetened coconut
- ½ cup unsalted butter
- 2 Tbsp. and 2 Tsp. cream
- 2 Tbsp. vanilla custard powder
- 2 cups confectioners sugar
- 5 squares semi-sweet chocolate (1 oz. each)
- 2 Tbsp. unsalted butter
- For the bottom layer, melt the butter, sugar and cocoa in a double boiler or a heatproof bowl set over simmering water. Stir until smooth.
- Beat the egg in a small bowl, then stir in a couple of tablespoons of the chocolate mixture (this helps prevent curdling).
- Whisk the egg mixture into the chocolate mixture. It will look like it's curdled and separated, but keep whisking until the mixture is thickened and smooth.
- Remove from the heat and stir in the graham cracker crumbs, almonds and coconut.
- Firmly press the mixture into a ungreased 8" x 8" pan and set aside.
- For the second layer, beat the butter, cream, custard powder and confectioners sugar together until light and fluffy. Spread the mixture over the bottom layer.
- For the top layer, melt the chocolate and butter over low heat or in the microwave until smooth. Set aside until the mixture is cool but still liquid, then spread over the second layer.
- Chill until firm.
Adapted from Joyce Hardcastle's award-winning recipe
About Step 3: I was definitely a bit worried when I stirred the egg mixture into the butter and sugar mixture in the double boiler. It separated immediately and definitely looked like it curdled, even though I tempered the eggs before adding them. Even after stirring it vigorously for a few minutes, it still looked pretty bad and I was about to toss it and start over. Then it suddenly came together and was smooth and creamy and thickened perfectly. So hang in there.
Joyce's original award-winning recipe calls for four squares of chocolate for the top layer but this seemed pretty skimpy to me. I used five here but I'd probably go for six next time. Not that I'm a chocolate fan, but the coverage would be better.
The original also calls for finely chopped nuts. Since I'm not a fan of nuts, particularly their texture, I sort of pulverized mine. Worked just fine for me but you might want some crunchy nutty bits in your cookies.
I think these are definitely a cool-weather cookie, since the custard layer remains somewhat soft, even after chilling. It was pretty warm the day I made them—and the day after when I photographed them too—and they were just a teensy bit tough to deal with from an artsy-fartsy blogging standpoint since they got melty very quickly despite being chilled overnight. (Should I mention the condensation on the chocolate layer in the photos? Nah…). Not that it matters TOO much, since they still taste fabulous, but they're kind of squooshy and I don't think they'd travel well.
Layered Bar Cookies from #CreativeCookieExchange
The theme this month is Layered Bar Cookies—if you like crispy, crunchy, chewy, creamy or gooey layers packed into one cookie you have come to the right place!! If you are a blogger and want to join in the fun, contact Laura at thespicedlife AT gmail DOT com and she will get you added to our Facebook group, where we discuss our cookies and share links.
You can also just use us as a great resource for cookie recipes--be sure to check out our Pinterest Board and our monthly posts (you can find all of them at The Spiced Life. You will be able to find them the first Tuesday after the 15th of each month!
Also, if you are looking for inspiration to get in the kitchen and start baking, check out what all of our bloggers have made this month:
- Caramel Swirled Cheesecake Bars from The Spiced Life
- Hawaiian Layer Bars from Food Lust People Love
- Praline Pecan Coconut Shortbread Bars from Karen’s Kitchen Stories
- Cookie Dough Brownie and Cheesecake Bars from Spiceroots
- Club Chocolate Peanut Butter Layered Bars from Our Good Life
- Gooey Pumpkin Cookie Bars from Hezzi-D's Books and Cooks
- Magic Peanut Butter S'mores Cookie Bars from Rhubarb and Honey
- Double chocolate caramel squares from Flours and Frostings
- Caramel Apple Bar Cookies from 2CookinMamas
- Churros Cheesecake Bars from A Baker's House