This is the fifth and last instalment in my series about classic Canadian desserts featured on a booklet of stamps released by Canada Post this year called Sweet Canada.
I previously wrote about blueberry grunt, tarte au sucre, butter tarts and Saskatoon berry pie. Today, I wrap things up right here on Vancouver Island with another dessert sweet-toothed Canadians love: Nanaimo bars.
Of all the desserts I’ve written about, this one, named after the city of Nanaimo, appears to have the shortest history. I say appears, because when this type of bar was first made is debated.
Several sources suggest the earliest confirmed printed recipe for Nanaimo bars appeared in the 14th edition of Edith Adams’ cookbook, published in 1953. A copy of that book is on display at the Nanaimo Museum (nanaimomuseum.ca).
A 2012 article by the Vancouver Sun’s Randy Shore, notes that Edith Adams was a Sun institution for three quarters of a century, though she never existed in the flesh. She was the invention of an editor in 1924, and given life by generations of reporters and editors who provided sage advice, homemaking tips and recipes.
Perhaps one of those writers or editors saw a copy of the 1952 Women’s Auxiliary to the Nanaimo Hospital Cookbook, a collection of recipes from city residents and others. That book contained a recipe featuring the ingredients and technique used for Nanaimo bars, although it was called “chocolate square.”
It had a graham-cracker-crumb base with cocoa powder, nuts and coconut, a middle layer of custard-powder-flavoured buttercream and a top chocolate layer.
After the Second World War, when rationing ended and butter and sugar became more readily available, this style of unbaked confection became fashionable again in Canada and elsewhere.
Some featured ingredients similar to those in that chocolate square recipe and went by names such as chocolate slice, New York slice, Mabel’s squares, prayer bars and London fog bar. But in Canada, the version called Nanaimo bars became the most famous of this sweet treat.
According to a great article about Nanaimo bars by Brad Dunne on the Canadian Encyclopedia website, Vancouver’s Susan Mendelson is perhaps most responsible for commercializing it.
Dunne writes that Mendelson sold the bars during the 1970s to help pay her tuition, and in 1979, founded The Lazy Gourmet, a café and catering company in Vancouver that claims to be the first business selling Nanaimo bars.
When Expo 86 was held in Vancouver, Mendelson wrote that event’s official cookbook and included a recipe for Nanaimo bars, further spreading the word.
Also in 1986, according to the City of Nanaimo website, then Nanaimo mayor Graeme Roberts, in conjunction with Harbour Park Mall, held a four-week contest to find the ultimate Nanaimo bar recipe, attracting almost 100 entrees.
Joyce Hardcastle’s recipe won and was dubbed Nanaimo’s “official” Nanaimo bar recipe.
When you compare her recipe with the one in the 1953 Edith Adams book, the ingredients are almost the same. Some of the tweaks she made, though, were to use unsalted, European-style cultured butter instead of salted butter, and chopped almonds instead of walnuts because she was allergic to the latter.
Hardcastle’s recipe is on the Tourism Nanaimo website. Go to tourismnanaimo.com and enter Nanaimo bar into the search and a link will pop up. So will a link to the Nanaimo Bar Trail, which Tourism Nanaimo describes as a self-guided adventure through the streets of the city and surrounding region guiding folks toward numerous businesses selling Nanaimo bars and creative interpretations of it.
Nanaimo bars have also become known in other parts of the world. Early this year, Sara Bonisteel wrote a feature story about them in the New York Times that caused quite a sugary buzz on both sides of the border.
My recipe for Nanaimo bars is adapted from Hardcastle’s. The ingredients are the same, except I used walnuts instead of almonds, because I prefer them. For novice cooks, I also expanded the method to more clearly explain each step.
Sweet, rich Nanaimo bars have become such a well-known treat in Canada that they were featured on a postage stamp.
Preparation time: One hour, plus chilling time
Cooking time: 10 to 12 minutes
Makes: 24 bars
• vegetable oil spray
1 large egg, beaten
1/2 cup unsalted, cultured butter (I used Lactancia brand)
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup plus 1 Tbsp cocoa
1 3/4 cups graham wafer crumbs
1 cup medium, unsweetened coconut flakes
1/2 cup chopped walnuts
1/2 cup unsalted, cultured butter, at room temperature
2 Tbsp and 2 tsp 10 per cent cream
2 Tbsp custard powder (I used Bird’s brand)
2 cups icing sugar
Top layer and to serve
4 (1 oz.) squares semi-sweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
2 Tbsp (1/8 cup) unsalted, cultured butter
For the bottom layer, lightly grease an eight-inch-square pan with oil spray. Cut an 8x12-inch piece of parchment paper to fit the bottom and up two of the four sides of the pan. (The parchment on the sides of the pan will later be used as handles to lift the bar out when set and ready to serve.)
Crack egg into a small bowl and beat until yolk and white are well blended. Place the butter, sugar and cocoa in a medium-to-large heatproof bowl or double boiler and set over a pot of simmering water.
Heat and stir until butter is melted and well combined with the other ingredients. Slowly mix 2 Tbsp of this mixture into the beaten egg. Quickly mix the egg mixture into the remaining melted-butter mixture and cook a minute or two, until mixture lightly thickens.
Remove bowl from the heat. Thoroughly mix in crumbs, coconut and nuts. Transfer mixture to the pan. Firmly packed it in, as evenly as you can.
For the middle layer, place the ingredients in a mixing bowl, or in the bowl of your stand mixer. Use an electric mixer, or the paddle attachment of your stand mixer, to beat the mixture until well combined and lightened. Scrape sides and bottom of the bowl with a spatula, then beat again to make sure everything is well combined. Spread this mixture over the bottom layer, as evenly as you can.
For the top layer, place chocolate and butter in a small- to- medium heatproof bowl or double boiler and set over a pot of simmering water. Heat and stir until chocolate is melted and blended with the butter. Spoon and carefully spread this mixture evenly over the middle layer. Refrigerate bar until the chocolate is set. Cover bar and keep chilled until ready to serve.
To serve, run a paring knife around the outside of the bar to loosen it from the pan. Grab onto the parchment and lift the square out and onto a cutting board. Use a sharp knife to carefully cut into 24 bars, and enjoy.
Eric Akis is the author of eight cookbooks. His columns appear in the Life section Wednesday and Sunday.