Several years ago, not long after I’d started a new job, one of my coworkers threw a potluck at her house. Another coworker, a Canadian woman, brought these cookie bars – or maybe “dessert bars” is a better term. We all said, “Wow, these are great, what are they?” She said, “What, you don’t know?” They’re called Nanaimo Bars, she explained, and are apparently the unofficial national dessert of Canada (the name is that of a small town on Vancouver Island, BC, where they originated, or so goes the story). She kindly wrote out a recipe for us.
A few weeks ago I was casting about for something to take to the Rutgers Gardens annual holiday potluck, and I thought of these. In addition to the basic recipe, my coworker had mentioned that some variations exist. She provided instructions for a cappuccino version, and said there were mint and peanut butter versions, though she wasn’t sure just how to make them beyond putting mint extract/peanut butter in the middle layer. The mint version seemed appropriate for this time of year, so I decided to take a stab at it.
This recipe is not difficult, but does take some time: it involves three layers, each of which has to be cooled/chilled before adding the next. However, if you plan ahead you can split up the work over three sessions. It also can be doubled and made in a 9 x 13 baking dish. Cut them pretty small, because they’re rich.
Two of the ingredients require comments. The recipe calls for “desiccated coconut”. I’m not sure if this is a Canadianism, or something other than the usual flaked coconut. I’ve been using the usual flaked coconut. The other ingredient that puzzles me is the “vanilla custard powder”. The woman who gave me the recipe noted that there’s a product called Bird’s Custard Powder that comes in a red, yellow, and blue box about the size of a large pudding mix box. It may also be called Bird’s Imported English Dessert Mix for Custard Style Pudding. I did see it once at a supermarket, but of course I didn’t need any at that time so didn’t buy it…and I haven’t seen it when I did need it…so I’ve been substituting vanilla instant pudding mix, and it seems to work just fine. I’m not sure if the custard powder is supposed to impart flavor, or helps thicken, or what.
Oh, back to the mint version: I added ½ tsp mint extract and 2 drops green food coloring to the middle layer. I didn’t change the top or bottom layers. I think this was a bit too much mint – about 1/3 tsp might have been better. However, this didn’t seem to hurt their popularity at the potluck (see before and after photos below)…
Verdict: Yum! This one's a keeper!
(source: Thanks to Barb, now living in British Columbia)
½ cup butter or margarine
¼ cup sugar
1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 tsp vanilla
1 ½-2 cups graham cracker crumbs
1 cup desiccated coconut
½ cup finely chopped walnuts
Lightly grease a 9-inch square baking dish. Melt butter; add sugar and cocoa and mix. Remove from heat and add egg and vanilla. Stir in remaining ingredients and press into bottom of pan. Bake at 350°F for about 10 minutes until just firm. Let cool.
¼ cup softened butter or margarine
2 tbsp vanilla custard powder
2-3 tbsp milk
2 cups confectioner’s sugar
Cream together (adjusting milk to give good spreading consistency) and spread over cooled base. Place in freezer (about 7 minutes) or refrigerator (about 40 minutes) until firm.
Melt 4 oz semi-sweet chocolate; can add 1 tbsp butter or margarine to this to make it more spreadable. Spread over chilled bars. Refrigerate until chocolate is firm.
Variation 1: Cappuccino Nanaimo Bars
Bottom layer – same
Middle layer – replace custard powder with 2 tsp instant espresso powder or coffee granules and ½ tsp vanilla
Top layer – add ½ tsp espresso powder to the melted chocolate
Variation 2: Mint Nanaimo Bars
Bottom, top layers – same
Middle layer – add 1/3 tsp mint extract and 2 drops green food coloring
Recycle: vanilla bottle, mint extract bottle, coffee jar