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Not many Americans know how to make Nanaimo bars or have even sampled the sweet, decadent, layered dessert that is a household name across Canada.
The true origin of Nanaimo bars is a mystery. Although many have made the recipe, none are known as the actual originator. What is known is that the sweet treats are named for Nanaimo, British Columbia, where it was popularized following WWII.
The treat rose to more significant popularity in 1986 when Nanaimo Mayor Graeme Roberts initiated a contest to find the ultimate Nanaimo Bar Recipe. In 2006, a reader’s poll in the National Post declared the Nanaimo bar to be Canada’s favorite confection. There is even a Nanaimo bar postage stamp.
While there are hundreds of recipes, when it comes to making Nanaimo bars, there are three fundamental layers that make up the dessert: a crumb base made of wafers, nuts and coconut; custard icing in the middle; and a layer of chocolate ganache on top.
How To Make Nanaimo Bars
Delish shared what it calls the best Nanaimo bars recipe, and it is almost as easy to put together as it is to devour. It starts with a thick, rich crumb layer made from graham cracker crumbs, coconut and nuts. They recommend pecans, but add that you can use any nut and that toasting the nuts first will add more depth to the flavor. Butter, cocoa powder, sugar and eggs complete the decadent crust.
The custard layer is made using a basic buttercream frosting recipe with the addition of custard powder — or, if you can’t find that, instant pudding mix will work. Finally, a two-ingredient dark chocolate ganache seals the deal along with a little flaky salt for a chocolatey, chewy, creamy, custardy, slightly salted slice of heaven.
You can also try other versions. Cooking Classy’s recipe uses almonds specificalfly and blogger Jaclyn says she prefers dry milk over the more authentic custard powder. The New York Times Cooking version isn’t picky about which nuts you use. Many recipes are relatively similar.
It’s important to note that the best recipes will make a base that’s thicker than the custard layer, and you may wish to score the bars with a hot knife before this no-bake dessert fully hardens. Otherwise, it’ll be hard to cut them apart.
Other Canadian Desserts You’ll Want To Try
Once you learn how to make Nanaimo bars and decide you have been missing out, you might be tempted to try other recipes from our neighbors to the north. And you would be wise to do so, as there are many Canadian confections that the U.S. has somehow overlooked.
Following are some of the most popular desserts from the Land of Maple Leaf. Flavors range from sweet and spicy to fresh and fruity to creamy, gooey, buttery and sugary: something for every palate.
Cinnamon Sugar Bannock
Bannock, sometimes called fry bread, is a type of flatbread that was a staple for early Canadian settlers and fur traders. It is conventionally believed that Scottish traders introduced bannock to the Indigenous peoples of North America, who prepared it in a variety of ways. One sweet way to enjoy it is to sprinkle it with sugar and cinnamon while still warm and serve with butter. Rebecca from Sugar and Soul has a recipe using pantry staples such as flour, baking powder and salt.
A nostalgic dessert that was a staple in the prairies of western Canada during the first half of the 20th century, Flapper Pie is a traditional recipe for a creamy custard pie. It begins with a pinch of cinnamon added to an uncomplicated graham cracker crust. Next is a luscious vanilla custard filling, topped with thick, toasted meringue. Some home chefs prefer dusting the meringue with graham cracker crumbs, while others enjoy the simpleness of the three distinct layers.
Often enjoyed as a treat to accompany a warm mug of coffee or a steaming cup of tea, date squares are another traditional Canadian dessert. Sweet, chewy and comforting, Date Squares consist of dates pureed with brown sugar and vanilla enveloped by an oatmeal crumble crust. Canadian Living’s recipe also allows you to add prunes or substitute blueberries, if you prefer.
Tarte Au Sucre
It turns out that sugar pie is more than just a term of affection. French Canadian Sugar Pie, also known as a tarte au sucre, is a super-sweet and creamy pie baked in a flaky, buttery crust. If you are a fan of old-fashioned pies such as Buttermilk or Vinegar Pie, you will want to try this Canadian confection. This recipe is from Food Duchess.
Pubnico Molasses Cookies
Soft, sweet, and soothingly spiced like a thick, chewy, gingerbread hug, Canada’s Famous Pubnico Molasses Cookies originated in the village of Pubnico on the Southern tip of Nova Scotia. A grandmother named Edith d’Entremont first baked this recipe in the mid-1900s. Now the cookies are prepared daily at the Historic Village and shared with visitors from around the globe. Most Pubnico residents make them at home as well. A blog from Valerie Lugonja, who calls herself A Canadian Foodie, offers one version.
Saskatoon Berry Pie
Saskatoon Berry Pie, also from blogger Lugonja, might be a bit more challenging to make in the States than other recipes. This is because Saskatoon berries are only native to the Canadian Prairies, Northern Canada and British Columbia, as well as Alaska and the Northwestern and North Central United States. However, it is said that blueberries come close, so you might opt to whip up a blueberry version of this traditional Canadian prairie dessert.
With so many chewy, creamy, crispy, crumbly, highly enticing confections from our neighbors up north, will you be tempted to try Nanaimo bars first, or might you sample something different?