Nanaimo Bars, Canada’s Contribution to World Cuisine

Nanaimo Bars

Intro: I’ve forgotten most of the names of teachers, schools, and childhood friends.  But I vividly remember almost everything I’ve ever eaten.  I suspect it might mean I’m shallow. For example, I still feel nostalgic about a chocolate cake that my mother cooked–once–when I was nine years old. It was made, surprisingly, with spices and mashed potatoes and baked in a 9” tube pan. Gone forever, like the names of my childhood friends.

For those of you who are not as shallow as I, it may seem odd to put posts about food in a blog about stories.  What can I say…lots of my memories are about food. This post is to honor one of my favorite sweets: Canada’s own Nanaimo Bars.

In 2006, Canadians voted to designate “Nanaimo Bars” Canada’s Favourite Confection. (Coffee Crisp chocolate bars came in second place.)

If you’re reading this in Canada, you are not surprised. A colleague of mine, originally from Toronto, called them “Canada’s contribution to world cuisine.” You can buy them everywhere in Canada: on the ferry going to Vancouver Island off the West Coast or in some out-of-the-way corner store in Newfoundland off the East Coast. Buy them from your neighborhood Tim Horton’s donut shop, pick up a mix from the grocery store, or use the recipe your mother handed down to  you.

If you’re American, you probably never heard of them. A pity. If you’ve always thought the the expression “can never be too rich” applies to sweets, these Canadian treats are for you. A bottom layer with graham cracker crumbs, cocoa, nuts, and coconut.  A middle layer of creamy butter icing.  A top layer of melted chocolate. They’re easy to make; they look hard; they keep well; and almost everyone loves them. What recipe is better than that?

When my son Raj was about four he was eating a Nanaimo bar and said, “Mommy, when I am very, very, very old and just about to die, give me one of these. I will eat it…quickly.” I don’t recall him ever being so impressed with anything else I ever made.

My son, Raman, in Kansas City has made them his specialty. I remember him trading some years ago with a colleague for a truly outstanding apple pie.

I first tasted them when I was in elementary school in the 1950s. My Aunt Dorothy got the recipe from her friend, Mrs. Layton, and passed the recipe on to my mother. And for most of my life we called it “Mrs. Layton’s recipe.” We liked it very, very much.

According to Wikipedia, Nanaimo Bars were invented in the early 1950s by a woman named Mabel Jenkins who lived just south of Nanaimo, British Columbia.  She submitted them to a fund raiser cookbook called the Ladysmith and Cowichan Women’s Institute Cookbook. Later the recipe turned up in other cookbooks, sometimes called Mabel’s cookies.

Since then, variations have appeared: mint nanaimo bars, peanut butter nanaimo bars, mocha nanaimo bars.

In 1986, the city of Nanaimo had a contest to find the very best Nanaimo Bars.  Out of a hundred contestants, Joyce Hardcastle won.  Find her recipe and several variations here at the website of the Buccaneer Inn, Nanaimo, B.C.

The only literary work I’ve found (so far) about Nanaimo Bars is called “Sex, Life Itself and the Original Nanaimo Bar Recipe.” It’s written by Kim Blank, a professor in British Columbia, who also writes about Wordsworth, Shelley, and Keats. I haven’t found it on amazon or in Chapters (Canadian book stores). But I’ll keep on looking.

Finally, here’s my recipe, or rather, Mrs. Layton’s recipe. It’s not quite traditional: it doesn’t use custard powder or vanilla pudding and it uses unsweetened chocolate on top. Heresy, but equally delicious. Enjoy.

1/2 cup butter (1 stick)
1/4 cup sugar
5 tablespoons cocoa
1 egg
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 cups graham cracker crumbs
1 cup coconut
1/2 cup walnuts
1/2 cup butter
2 cups icing sugar (confectioner’s sugar)
milk (as necessary)
2 teaspoons vanilla
2 squares unsweetened chocolate squares
1 tablespoon butter

1. Melt stick of butter.  Add cocoa and sugar..  Break in egg and cook one minute over medium-low heat.  DO NOT BOIL.

2. Add graham cracker crumbs, coconut, nuts, and vanilla.

3. Press down hard in 8” X 8″ pan.  (If you want thinner slices, use a slightly bigger pan.) Chill.  If this layer is well chilled, it will be easier to spread the next layer.)

4. Melt 2nd stick of butter.  Beat with 2 cups confectioner’s sugar and vanilla.  Add a little milk if necessary to make a spreading consistency,  Spread on first layer.

5. Melt unsweetened chocolate and tablespoon of butter.  Working quickly, Pour over squares, tilting pan to spread.

6. Chill in fridge.  Cut into squares. It helps to dip the knife in hot water before cutting each row.

Copyright by Margaret French (narrative)

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10 thoughts on “Nanaimo Bars, Canada’s Contribution to World Cuisine

  1. My college roommate was from Vancouver. I will always appreciate her for being an incredibly kind, thoughtful, smart, and fun person. And for introducing me to Nanaimo bars! Every once in awhile, I see them down here in Houston, Texas.

  2. Good one. I’d like some Nanaimo bars right now. The thing I like about Mrs. Layton’s recipe versus the others is that the ingredients are easier to come by. For some reason I can never find Custard Powder anywhere. And who buys Cream?

  3. Margaret, what timely info! I am going to be on the ferry to Vancouver Island shortly and will definitely look for Nanaimos. And then I’ll be able to compare them to your Mrs. Layton’s version. I will take your recipe with me and make them for my children in Portland. My mouth is already watering.

  4. Vancouver Island used to be our favorite vacation spot, and I’ve been in Nanaimo many times and eaten many Nanaimo bars. I haven’t been able to take long trips for a while due to my father’s health, but I’m hoping for some more Nanaimo bars in my future!

  5. Margaret, the world has changed. No Nanaimo Bars on the ferry to Victoria! As desperately as I looked for them. I was so disappointed. But of course, stores in Victoria and the cafe in the Butchart Gardens had them and we fully enjoyed them. We would have never had the pleasure without your alert.

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