Nanaimo bars“The Nanaimo bar is a decadent, three-layer dessert, the exact proportions and ingredients of which are often hotly debated in its home country of Canada. Wikimedia Commons (CC By-SA 2.0)

The rest of the world is a bit spoiled by the outpouring of cultural contributions from the great country of Canada. To think, so many beloved people, products and treats come from there: baseball bats, Ryan Gosling, Swedish fish, poutine, Ryan Reynolds, maple syrup, Seth Rogen and British Columbia’s famed Nanaimo bars, to name just a few.

Made exclusively from packaged items, Nanaimo bars are a three-layer, no-bake dessert made with a wafer, nuts, a delicious coconut crumb base, and custard icing in the middle, all topped with a decadent layer of chocolate ganache.

The Origins of the Nanaimo Bar

Hailing from — where else — the West coast city of Nanaimo, British Columbia, Nanaimo bars’ origins are somewhat shrouded in mystery. You can find the very first mention of this distinctly Canadian delicacy in a 1952 cookbook entitled "Women’s Auxiliary of the Nanaimo Hospital Cookbook," where it was labeled simply as "chocolate squares." One year later, the no-bake treat appeared in The Vancouver Sun’s "Edith Adams Cookbook" under the name Nanaimo bars.

Voted "Canada’s Favourite Confection" by the National Post in 2006, Canadians adore this no-bake dessert because of how they easy it is to make and its devilishly-sweet taste. Can you believe there are even Nanaimo bar postage stamps?

"It is a signature dessert for this country, up there with the famous butter tart and the other desserts," said Nanaimo mayor Leonard Krog in a 2019 interview preceding the release of the official Nanaimo bar stamp. "I always say to everybody, whenever I’m at an event if there’s Nanaimo bar: ‘Be patriotic. Eat some Nanaimo bar.’"

Despite the public’s overwhelming support for the Post’s immortalization of the popular dessert, the Nanaimo bar stamp found itself in the center of a Canadian scandal because of how its custard base was depicted, as noted by one particularly peeved Twitter user:

The questionable proportions caused so much of a stir that Joyce Hardcastle (the winner of a 1986 competition held to find the go-to Nanaimo bar recipe) weighed in on #NanaimoGate saying the following:

"The only comment I can make is that I don’t disagree. The two bottom layers are pretty equal. The top layer is a bit thinner. And it does look nicer than that."

An Award-winning Recipe

Think you’ve got what it takes to make the ultimate (and proportional) Nanaimo bar? Here’s Joyce Hardcastle’s award-winning recipe:

Bottom Layer Ingredients

  • 1/2 cup unsalted butter
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 5 tbsp. powdered cocoa
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 1 1/4 cups graham cracker crumbs
  • 1/2 cup finely chopped almonds
  • 1 cup shredded coconut

Melt butter in double boiler. Add sugar and cocoa. Stir in egg until the mixture thickens. Remove from heat immediately. Add graham cracker crumbs, almonds and coconut. Once mixture is cool to touch, press firmly into an ungreased 8 x 8 inch pan.

Middle Layer Ingredients

  • 1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened
  • 2 tbsp. plus 2 tsp. cream
  • 2 tbsp. vanilla custard powder
  • 2 cups icing sugar (powdered sugar)

Add butter, cream, custard powder and icing (powdered) sugar to mixing bowl and beat until light and fluffy. Spread over bottom layer.

Top Layer Ingredients

  • 4 squares semisweet chocolate (1 oz. each)
  • 2 tbsp. unsalted butter

Melt chocolate and butter over low heat. Once cool, but still liquid, pour over the second layer and chill the entire dessert in the refrigerator until solid.

Now That’s Sweet

Nanaimo introduced the town’s mascot, a walking Nanaimo bar named Nanaimo Barney, in 1986 during Expo 86. Along with the introduction of Nanaimo Barney, a contest was held by Mayor Graeme Roberts to determine the best Nanaimo bar recipe. The winner was submitted by none other than Nanaimo resident Joyce Hardcastle.


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