Creative Holiday Cookie Recipe: How to Make Nanaimo Bars

Posted by on Dec 1, 2013 in Cake Decorating, Food & Cooking | Comments


In the third installment of our Homemade Holiday Cookies series, we’re covering how to make Nanaimo bars. Once you learn how to make these, they may enter your permanent recipe rotation. They’re really just that good. Anyone you share your food and cooking projects with will certainly thank you.

homemade Nanaimo bars, Creative Holiday Cookie Recipe - Craftsy

If you’ve never heard of a Nanaimo bar, let’s quickly get you acquainted with this no-bake bar cookie.

For one thing, it’s pronounced “nuh-nye-moe,” after a town by the same name in British Columbia, Canada, from which the bar hails.

The origins of the recipe itself are hazy. Similar recipes for “chocolate slice” or “smog bars” appear in books and newspapers of the 1950s. Likely, versions of the recipe had been kicking around in the area before the bars became known by one specific name: Nanaimo bars. Their reputation was cemented in the area when the recipe was a winning entry in a baking contest, and they’ve been a source of civic pride ever since. They’ve even been dubbed “Canada’s favorite confection.” In Nanaimo, there are even benches shaped like the bars in the museum.

Seats Shaped Like Nanaimo bars

As for the physical construction, the Nanaimo bar has three layers. The bottom layer composed of a base layer of graham cracker crumbs, cocoa, nuts and coconut; the middle layer is buttercream fortified with custard powder; the topping is a firm chocolate. Visually, they are striking, and taste-wise, they’re not quite like anything else. Clearly, the good people of Nanaimo knew a good thing when they saw it, because the bar has been a beloved local specialty since the early days of home refrigeration.

Recipe notes

Bird's Custard Powder

A note on the custard powder:

Traditionally, the middle section of Nanaimo bars is made with Bird’s Custard Powder. This is a popular custard powder invented in the UK that immigrated to British Columbia in the early 1900s when there was a large wave of new immigration from Europe. This would have been well timed with the advent of iceboxes as a common household item in Canada, which would explain for the bar’s UK influence.

Instant vanilla pudding powder will do in a pinch, but do try to find Bird’s Custard Powder for a truly authentic taste. It’s not extremely difficult to find: look for it in the international aisle of your local grocery store, or online.

Can they be made without coconut?

Yes, the recipe will work without coconut; however, don’t you dare tell someone from Nanaimo you did it!

Can I flavor the bars?

Nanaimo bars work splendidly in a variety of different flavors. Consider adding a flavored extract to the middle section to add festive flavors, such as peppermint, or stir in a tablespoon of peanut butter with the butter in the middle layer for a peanut butter cup inspired taste.

Will the egg be fully cooked?

To ensure that the egg is fully cooked, either pasteurize the eggs or check the bottom mixture to ensure it has attained a temperature of 140 degrees F or 60 degrees C before pressing into the pan.

Where is this recipe from?

This is an adaptation of the official City of Nanaimo version.

How to make Nanaimo bars

Makes 24 bars

Ingredients:

For the bottom layer

  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) butter
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 5 tablespoons cocoa
  • 1 large egg, beaten
  • 1 cup shredded sweetened coconut
  • 1 1/2 cups (about 20 crackers) finely crumbled graham crackers
  • 1/2 cup finely chopped nuts (almonds are traditional; pecans or walnuts work well, too)

For the middle layer

  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) butter
  • 2 tablespoons heavy cream
  • 2 tablespoons Bird’s Custard Powder, or substitute vanilla pudding powder (instant)
  • 2 cups confectioners’ sugar, sifted

For the top layer

  • 4 ounces chocolate, coarsely chopped
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons butter
Note: International readers may enjoy our handy metric conversion guide.

Directions:

Step 1: Prepare the bottom layer.

Melt the butter, sugar and cocoa in a double boiler until fully incorporated, but do not let the mixture come to a boil. Add the beaten egg and stir constantly until the mixture begins to thicken, less than 5 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in the graham cracker crumbs, coconut and nuts. Press down firmly into a greased 8″ by 8″ pan; try to make the mixture as flat as possible in the pan. Let this cool for about 20 minutes in the refrigerator.

Step 2: Prepare the middle layer.

In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter, cream, custard powder and confectioners’ sugar together until very light and fluffy, 3 to 5 minutes. Spread over the bottom layer, taking care to spread it as flat and evenly as possible. Consider flattening with an offset spatula.

Basically, the flatter this level, the flatter the chocolate will lie on the top. Return the pan to the refrigerator while you prepare the topping.

Adding the Frosting to the Top Layer

Spreading the Frosting

Step 3: Prepare the top layer.

In a medium saucepan or double boiler, melt the chocolate and butter over medium heat, stirring often to ensure that the mixture doesn’t scorch. Remove from heat. Let sit until the mixture is still liquid but very thick, then pour it over the second (middle) layer and gently spread it with a spatula to ensure even coverage

Note: Work carefully, because the still-warm chocolate will get messy if you press too hard while spreading it and tear up the buttery layer below.

Chocolate on the Top Layer of Nanaimo bars

Be sure to score the tops of the bars before the chocolate totally sets on top. This will make slicing them much easier later.

Typically, Nanaimo bars are sliced in fingers rather than squares. You can slice them any way you like, of course, but for an authentic look, split into eight rows in one direction and six rows the other way, so that they are slightly elongated when sliced.

Finished Nanaimo Bar, on Craftsy

Let the chocolate set on the bars, then place in the refrigerator for at least 20 minutes before serving. Run a knife under hot water and then dry off before slicing; this will help the knife go through the bars easily. Clean the knife frequently between cuts.

Have you ever tried Nanaimo bars?

Comments

  1. Rosemary says:

    These bars have interested me for several years, but I am very allergic to eggs and my family doesn’t like coconut. Any suggestions? Could you substitute cream cheese?

    1. Rosemary says:

      I make something similar.. the crust. I don’t use the egg and the butter seems to hold it together nicely.

      When I make Ceasar salad dressing I sub a Tbl of mayo for each egg, I wonder if that would work here? There are chocolate cakes made with mayo.. just a thought.

      Yes, I am Rosemary too.

      1. Rosemary says:

        One more thought… I wonder if the crust was baked for about 10 minutes or so, cooled, and then continue building the bars. The heat may make the crust less crumbly.

  2. CakeSpy says:

    Hi Rosemary! While I think the bars are ambrosial as-is, I understand allergies. I think that since the egg is mostly a binder here, you could get away with either omitting it (the bottom will be more crumbly), or using egg substitute. Maybe a little cream cheese would work – I have never tried it but I don’t see any issues with your thinking.

    As for the coconut, you can successfully omit it, but don’t present them to any Canadian and call them Nanaimo bars :-)

  3. Mary says:

    I just finished baking two batches of these last night in time for Christmas. This is the original recipe and Birds is the best. Love these bars.

  4. Mary: Yum! I wish I were coming over to eat half a tray! :-)

  5. Nancysue says:

    Have never tried these, but will try this Christmas! Easy to make gluten free, just substitute with gluten free graham crackers….. can’t wait to try it. I won’t fret in trying to pronounce them, I’ll just call them “Oh, Me Oh, My Oh’s”!!! Thanks for sharing the recipe!

  6. Ann says:

    Had these many years ago as an afternoon treat when I returned from heli-hiking in British Columbia and then later on when I visited Nanaimo! To die for!!

  7. Joyce Holloway says:

    Plan to make these as my husband and I rode the ferry several times between Vancouver and Nanaimo TO visit friends who live at Port McNeil. Met them in Arizona square dancing. I live in Cape Girardeau, Missouri. He has gone home to be with our Lord so will make these for my family in memory of him.

  8. Sally Specht says:

    My family has enjoyed these bars – Gramma Cann always made them….just didn’t have a name for them so we called them Bird’s Custard 3 layer bars. LOVE them.

    1. Sally Specht says:

      meant to say we have enjoyed them for over 60 years.

  9. Marilyn R says:

    I have never heard of Nanaimo bars. They look to die for and I will make these . Thanks for the recipe and history

  10. judy says:

    have to have birds custard otherwise not Nanaimo bar! I live near Nanaimo! Custard can be found in world market as well!

  11. Grayce says:

    Very excited to try this recipe. Had them years ago and was given the recipe but in was all in metric measurements!

  12. Arty says:

    That looks so yum. I wish someone could send me a piece :)

  13. Diane says:

    Looks a great recipe and would love to try it , but as a ‘English foreigner’ , what is a graham cracker? From the picture it looks like digestive biscuit, would that do instead?

    1. janice says:

      Hi as an Australian reader what is a Graham cracker? and what does a stick of butter weigh please? This recipe looks awesome, I will try it for Christmas for my grandchildren :-)

    2. Marisa says:

      Hi, I’m from Australia, and I’d use Arnotts Granita biscuits, I think you can get those there, but pretty much any digestive would work.

    3. Karen Kelty says:

      Hi Diane!

      I have heard that you can substitute digestive biscuits for graham crackers. Or, if you’d like to try making your own homemade graham crackers, you can learn how in this previous post from the Craftsy blog: http://www.craftsy.com/blog/2013/08/how-to-make-homemade-graham-crackers/

      I hope this helps :)

      1. Diane says:

        Thanks Karen, will give it a go

  14. Kathy M says:

    Can’t wait to try these. I saw pasturized eggs in my local grocery and wondered what they were for, doh, recipes using raw eggs. I think I saw custard powder in the international foods area too.

  15. Kathy M says:

    Would these bars freeze well? Xmas make ahead going on in my house this week.

  16. Alicia says:

    Where do you get Birds?

  17. CakeSpy says:

    @kathy m – as long as the egg mixture reaches a certain temperature, it will kill the bacteria. Also, the bars freeze beautifully. But let them come to lightly chilled (and soft enough to slice) gradually or you will see condensation form on the chocolate topping. It won’t affect flavor but might not be the look you’re going for.

    @alicia – if your supermarket has an “International” aisle, it’s likely to be there, particularly with the British imports. At one shop near me though, they have it in the baking aisle.

  18. N6MQQ says:

    You can find Bird’s Custard Powder at Fresh & Easy stores, it’s about $4.50 a tub, It’s a lot cheaper to find a friend who’s going to England and have them bring it home it’s only £1 (about $1.50) for a tub. I have found a custard powder at the 99¢ Store made by Clapper Girl for 99¢. I did not buy it, because I have Bird’s Custard Powder, but the instructions are identical to Bird’s so I would give it a try.

  19. Jo Ann says:

    Yes I’ve had them before but it’s been years since I’ve had them. Going to have to try the recipe. We used to go to BC every couple of years when I was growing up (from Washington State) and I learned all about them then. Our family loved them.

  20. natalie says:

    I would love to make these bars but have the same problem as Diane… I have never heard of a grahams cracker, what can us Brits use as a substitute?

    1. Karen Kelty says:

      Hi Natalie,

      Over the summer we published a post all about graham crackers, which includes a recipe for how to make them at home! You can find it here: http://www.craftsy.com/blog/2013/08/how-to-make-homemade-graham-crackers/

      I hope this helps!

  21. Cassandra says:

    I am going to make these tonight. Went to the store yesterday and was fully sure that I would have to substitute the Bird’s custard powder… but lo and behold. My local grocery store in Seabrook, NH had it!

  22. CakeSpy says:

    To the foreign bakers (or in this case, I suppose “no-bakers” since this bar isn’t baked), a stick of butter is 113 grams.

    Karen commented with the link to graham crackers, but I like the idea of using digestive biscuits. I have read that US recipes actually employ graham crackers for a substitute for digestive biscuits, so the logic seems sound to me.

    Though the taste wouldn’t be quite the same, you could employ a number of crisp cookies or biscuits for the graham crackers–vanilla wafers, chocolate wafers, etc.