By Gabby Peyton
Dessert bars, cookie squares, no-bake desserts. The delicious Canadian phenomenon found at every church basement tea, farmers market and community bake sale across the country (not to mention baby showers and funerals) has been beloved by generations. And the most famous of them all? The Nanaimo Bar.
So, what is a Nanaimo Bar?
The Nanaimo Bar is not a bar as such, but a square, made in large slabs and cut into squares for enjoying. It’s a triple threat of delicious — smooth vanilla icing sandwiched between a crunchy, cakey bottom and chocolate ganache top. This no-bake dessert’s three layers include the cakey bottom filled with chopped walnut, coconut, cocoa and graham crumb, which is found on the bottom of many different cookie varieties across Commonwealth countries like Canada, the UK and New Zealand; the middle layer of custard-like vanilla icing is almost always made with Bird’s custard powder (you can sub instant vanilla pudding powder in a pinch) and the top layer finishes things off with a chocolate ganache.
The cookie, the myth, the legend
When considering the history of the Nanaimo Bar, the origin story would be eagerly consumed, but there isn’t one solid tale. Prolific Canadian author and geographer Lenore Newman delved deep into the history of the Nanaimo Bar, determined to uncover the mystery surrounding the name. In her research paper entitled Notes from the Nanaimo bar trail she concludes that “If the origin of the Nanaimo bar could be discovered at all, it was likely to be found in a newspaper or community cookbook.“ And this is probably true, especially considering that most tattered cerlox-bound community cookbooks sold across the country copy each other for certain recipes (sometimes to the letter), and the Nanaimo bar is everywhere.
There are some theories that 1800s coal miners in Nanaimo immigrated from the UK with slabs of Nanaimo Bars in their trunks or received them in the mail from their wives who stayed behind to manage the home and family. In some parts, they are known there as London Smog Bars. But that theory goes out the window when thinking about the advancement of refrigeration and since most people across Canada wouldn’t have had an ice box or access to the consistent refrigeration required to make these no-bake squares.
The etymology of Nanaimo Bars
While the origin story of the Nanaimo Bar is a bit foggy, the discussion of the name is downright smoggy. In Judy Schultz’s 2006 book, Jean Paré: An Appetite for Life, about the Canadian cooking legend, Paré mentions Nanaimo Bars and their original name when talking about the writing of her seminal cookbook “150 Delicious Squares:”
“Nanaimo bars were originally called smog bars, and everybody made them: graham-cracker crust, cocoa, Bird’s Eye custard in the filling. My Grandma Locke made smog bars, so did my mother,” she said.
Ostensibly they were made in the 1930s and 1940s in Alberta which might check out considering Paré learned the recipe from her mother, Ruby Elford, who lived in Irma, Alberta, southeast of Edmonton. Other names for Nanaimo Bars include but are not limited to New York Slice, New York Special, Mississauga Bars, Edmonton Esks, Georgia Street Slices, Georgia Strait Smog Squares, London Fog Bars and London Smog Bars — coincidentally the London Fog (a hot drink consisting of steamed milk, vanilla syrup and Earl Grey Tea) was invented in Vancouver in the 1990s.
The secret recipe (name)
Regardless of the foggy origin story, one thing is certain — after the Second World War as sugar and butter became readily available across the country again those quick refrigerator squares we know and love became more and more popular. This, along with the advent of easily accessible processed foods like condensed milk, marshmallows and cocoa powder (thanks to wartime ingenuity which brought us powdered cheese, canned spaghetti and instant coffee) led to the creation of dozens of no-bake square desserts.
By the 1950s, brands like Bird’s Custard Powder, Baker’s Chocolate, Fry’s Cocoa and Tropic Coconut would have been as commonplace in Canadian pantries as they were on the TV screens in the living rooms. This perfect storm of invention, ingredients and a craving for sweet treats lead to the creation of Nanaimo Bars.
Archival research of newspapers across the country shows that the first ever recipe for the Nanaimo Bar showed up in the Vancouver Sun in 1947 as the “unbaked chocolate cake” but it was those community cookbooks from British Columbia, specifically Nanaimo, that cemented Canada’s favourite cookie into the cookbook canon.
The 1952 edition of the Women’s Auxiliary to the Nanaimo Hospital Cookbook, which has been credited with the original recipe, had three versions of Nanaimo Bars but each had a different name. This cookbook refers to two of the recipes as “Chocolate Squares” and the other as “Chocolate Slices.”
It was Edith Adams, the fictional name given to the Vancouver Sun’s cooking column which ran from 1924 until 1999 (akin to Dear Abby for cooking), where we see the name Nanaimo Bar appear for the first time. Adams notes that Mrs. David Orr’s London Fog Bars on April 11, 1953, edition of the Sun are also known as Nanaimo Bars.
A square becomes an icon
While the Nanaimo Bar slowly gained popularity in knitting circles and church bake sales across the country in the second half of the 20th century, Sue Mendelson is credited with catapulting the cookie into its star status as an iconic Canadian food. Her Vancouver cafe, Lazy Gourmet, served them where they became a cornerstone of Mendelson’s cooking and catering in the 1970s. In 1986 she helped create The Official Cookbook of Expo 86 where she included three recipes for Nanaimo Bars, and they gained popularity quickly.
The very same year, the city of Nanaimo held a contest spearheaded by Mayor Graeme Roberts for the best Nanaimo Bar recipe. Joyce Hardcastle’s recipe won, and her recipe is still on the city’s website. Nanaimo even has a Nanaimo Bar Trail, featuring more than 39 establishments showcasing their own iterations of the classic dessert — from Nanaimo Bar flavoured ice creams, macarons and cheesecakes to lattes, cotton candy and even spring rolls.
These days Nanaimo bars are ubiquitous in cafes and bake sales across the country, and even Loblaw’s in-house brand President’s Choice has a Nanaimo Bar cheesecake. The humble, no-bake square even has its own stamp — a figurative commemoration for Canada’s most recognized cookie.
- 1/4 cup butter, softened
- 3 Tbsp whipping cream
- 2 Tbsp custard powder (if you can’t find Bird’s custard powder, swap for instant vanilla pudding mix, an easy substitution!)
- 2 cups icing sugar
- 5 oz semi-sweet chocolate, broken into pieces (chocolate chips work too)
- 2 Tbsp butter
- Line an 8-inch (20 cm) square baking pan with parchment, or grease lightly with butter.
- Prepare bottom layer: In a double boiler whisk butter with granulated sugar, cocoa powder, and egg until melted and mixture thickens slightly.
- Remove from heat and stir in graham wafer crumbs, chopped walnuts and shredded coconut until the mixture is well combined and resembles wet sand.
- Firmly press mixture into the square baking pan, making sure to press it into an even layer. Transfer pan to the refrigerator to chill until firm, at least 15 minutes.
- Next, prepare the middle layer of buttercream: In a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, cream butter on medium speed until whippy then add whipping cream and custard powder and mix until combined. Add 1 cup (250 mL) of confectioners’ sugar and mix on low until incorporated, then add remaining confectioners’ sugar and mix on medium-high speed until the icing is light and fluffy.
- Once the bottom layer is chilled, pull it from the fridge and later the buttercream on top of the bottom layer and spread it evenly on top using a spatula, making sure to create a layer as thick as the bottom layer. Transfer pan to the refrigerator to chill until buttercream is set; around 30 minutes.
- For the top layer: In a small saucepan or a double boiler, heat the chocolate and butter over low, stirring often, until melted and evenly combined. Spread the chocolate evenly over the buttercream using a spatula and return pan to the fridge to chill and the chocolate hardens; around 25 minutes.
- Score the chocolate top using a warm knife then cut it into 16 squares. Nanaimo bars can be kept in the refrigerator for a few days before serving and freeze well.