Nanaimo bars: Bring a Canadian favorite to your table

Boulder culinary students interested in expanding their pastry menus, or just experimenting with new international cuisines, should try their hand at making this delicious Canadian classic.

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December 29, 2018 4 min read


In Canada, the Nanaimo bar – sometimes called the New York slice, London fog bar, prayer bar or a chocolate square – is more than just a confection; it’s a cultural tradition. The no-bake pastry is made up of three distinct layers: coconut and graham crust on the bottom, soft yellow custard in the middle, and chocolate ganache on top. It’s usually served in squares, and called a “bar” in many parts of Canada. Boulder culinary students interested in expanding their pastry menus, or just experimenting with new international cuisines, should certainly try their hand at making this delicious Canadian classic.

History of the Nanaimo bar

The Nanaimo bar takes its name from Nanaimo, a city of just under 100,000 people on the east coast of Vancouver Island, in British Columbia. The earliest documented recipe for the treat was published in a 1952 edition of the Women’s Auxiliary “Nanaimo Hospital Cookbook,” according to British Colombia Magazine.

However, the recipe likely dates further back. According to the Food Network, some experts believe that the treat has its origins in Nanaima’s coal-mining era, which began in the mid-to-late 1800s. It’s difficult to confirm this, but many older generations have said that they recall miners bringing them to work in lunch boxes. While the history of the Nanaimo bar is somewhat shrouded in folklore, and we may never know for certain its precise origin, the treat is arguably the most culturally significant confection in Canada.

In fact, in 1986, the mayor of Nanaimo organized a contest to create the “ultimate Nanaimo bar recipe.” Joyce Hardcastle from B.C. emerged victorious in the contest. Her version is, in many ways, the modern standard for the treat.

The traditional Nanaimo bar sandwiches a sweet custard between a graham, coconut base and a chocolate ganache top.The traditional Nanaimo bar sandwiches a sweet custard between a graham and coconut base and a chocolate ganache frosting.

Making the Nanaimo bar

There’s no shortage of takes on the classic Nanaimo bar, but we would recommend starting with Harcastle’s recipe, which is kept in the Nanaimo Museum, and which Food Network has made available. Interestingly, Hardcastle herself has said that unsalted butter makes all the difference, and yields a more “mellow” flavor, so keep that in mind as you stock up on ingredients.

A slightly more modern take on the classic Nanaimo bar from Rock Recipes contributor Barry Parsons aims to cut the sweetness a little by thickening the base layer made from graham crumbs, unsweetened coconut and nuts (Hardcastle uses almonds, but Parsons replaces them with walnuts). It’s also worth noting that the traditional custard layer can be swapped out and replaced with a variety of alternatives, including Irish cream, cheesecake, peanut butter, raspberry custard, coffee custard and much more. Again, we would recommend trying to get the original recipe right first, but there’s no shortage of opportunities to get creative with this Canadian classic.

To that point, Nanaimo bar pies have also become a thing. This recipe from Food Network Canada retains the classic graham-cracker crumb, coconut and walnut base, but lightens the custard filling and replaces the chocolate ganache with a chocolate glaze. You still get much of the same types of flavors, but bundled into a slightly less rich pie. Another intriguing idea, pulled straight from the Nanaimo bar trail, according to Gusto, is Nanaimo chocolate bites. Think of a fun-size Snickers bar, only the chocolate crust is filled with the bottom and middle layers of a Nanaimo bar. Why stop there? There are also Nanaimo bar cake pops and even a Nanaimo bar martini.

While your customers might not quite be ready for the martini option, we see no reason not to consider adding a Nanaimo bar-inspired pastry to your menu.

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