Nanaimo Bar

Nanaimo Bars

My new favorite no-bake bar.

Nanaimo Bars Graham Crackers Nanaimo Ingredients Nanaimo Base

^^Not ground beef, I swear

Nanaimo Middle Layer Nanaimo Bars Nanaimo Bars Nanaimo Bars

Has anyone ever heard of a Nanaimo bar? I was intrigued when flipping through a 1988 collective style cookbook of “food editor’s favorites” (that set me back $1.49 at the thrift store) and stumbled on the recipe submitted by the food editor (at the time) of The Vancouver Sun. I had never heard of a Nanaimo bar but she described it as a dessert bar – a cross between a cookie and a candy – traditional at Christmas time in British Columbia. I also didn’t know there was a coastal city called Nanaimo on Vancouver Island. But I was certain that I cruised right along that coastline on the Salish Sea 9 years ago on a cruise to Alaska.

At the time, my cell phone wasn’t even capable of Internet access. Unfortunately, I wasn’t invited to Oprah’s Christmas show in December 2005 when she showered the audience members with new Blackberry’s.  The best thing on my Nokia artifact was the snake game. If I had a smartphone, I’d like to think my sticky fingers would have been on the pulse of the best bakeries nearby with a quick Google search. So I blame Oprah for my failure to discover or taste the authentic treat on that trip. Strange, though, to think about not having mobile Internet access or wifi 9 years ago.

On that cruise, we departed Vancouver on a Holland America jumbo ship and sailed north along the Inside Passage up to Skagway and hit Juneau and Ketchikan along the way back. I remember it as some of the most beautiful and breathtaking scenery I’ve ever seen. We did eat some incredible locally caught halibut in one of the villages where we disembarked. I’d go back to Vancouver just for Nanaimo bars and scenery alone.

I’ve made the bars four times now. They are that fantastic. They’re definitely not a quick bar to make but worth the time. The distinct ingredient, custard powder, is difficult to find in the US. I use the substitute pudding powder but always keep my eyes open for custard powder and will make them the traditional way when I can get my hands on it. I also added peanut butter to the top of some of my bars because it’s delicious, but it’s totally optional.

Nanaimo Bars Recipe

Makes one 8×8″ pan.

Use your butter wrappers to butter the pan (or spray with pam) then line with parchment paper.


Base Layer

1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened
1/4 cup packed light brown sugar
4 tbsp unsweetened cocoa powder
1 egg
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 3/4 cups graham cracker crumbs
1 cup sweetened shredded coconut
1/2 cup finely chopped pecans (toasted for deeper flavor, but it’s not totally necessary)


1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened
1/4 cup heavy cream
2 tbsp vanilla instant pudding mix powder (or custard powder if you can find it)
2 cups powdered sugar

Top Layer

4 (1 oz.) squares semi-sweet baking chocolate
2 tbsp unsalted butter
1 tbsp corn syrup
1/2 cup creamy peanut butter, melted (optional)
In the top of a double boiler, combine 1/2 cup butter, sugar and cocoa powder stirring occasionally until melted and smooth. Meanwhile, lightly beat the egg in another bowl. Slowly add about 1/2 cup of the melted cocoa mixture to the egg while whisking vigorously, then slowly add the egg mixture back to the rest of the cocoa mix while whisking continuously until fully combined. (This sounds complicated but it’s not hard and it’s necessary to prevent curdling!)
Cook mixture for 1-2 minutes longer until it has thickened. Remove from heat and stir in vanilla, graham cracker crumbs, coconut and nuts. The mixture will be chunky. Press it into the bottom of the 8×8 pan. Cover and refrigerate or freeze for 15-30 minutes while you make the next layer.
For the middle layer, whip together 1/2 cup butter, heavy cream and custard powder on medium speed for about 3 minutes until light and fluffy. Mix in the confectioners’ sugar and blend for another minute until smooth. Spread evenly over the bottom layer. Cover and return to refrigerator or freezer to chill for another 15-30 minutes.
For the top layer, melt the semisweet chocolate and butter together in the top of a double broiler over medium heat. Spread over the chilled bars. Refrigerate to set the chocolate.
For the optional peanut butter layer, let the melted peanut butter cool almost to room temp before spreading over the chocolate. Refrigerate for 15 minutes to set before cutting into squares or triangles.
 *I usually make these bars when I’m about to shower and get dressed and I’m not in a huge time crunch. (Which is rare because I’m always in a time crunch, but I try to plan ahead.) You can make the first layer and then hop in the shower while it’s chilling. Then make the second layer and dress yourself and your face while it’s chilling. Then make the third layer and dry your hair while it’s chilling. So on and so forth… 

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