Nanaimo Bars: northern (de)lights…


It sounds so exotic, doesn’t it?

Bali. Maluku. Oahu.


There’s just one difference between those first three island paradises, and the last-


Or, as the real estate agents say, “Location, location, location.”

Bali, Maluku, and Oahu are all Pacific islands bathed by tropical breezes.

They’re places you’d go when you’re from Buffalo, and it’s -14°F, and the lake-effect snow has risen not only to the eaves of the garage, but to the limits of your patience.

Nanaimo? It’s Pacific, too.

But tropical?

Only if you’re from the aforementioned Buffalo, and you consider Canada’s Vancouver Island a warm-weather retreat.

According to Wikipedia, Nanaimo, a city of nearly 80,000 on Vancouver Island, “has been dubbed the ‘Bathtub Racing Capital of the World…’ It is also fondly known as the ‘Hub, Tub, and Pub City’ because of its association with bathtub racing and the numerous ‘watering holes’ in Old Nanaimo.”

So there, all you cynics out there; man does not live by palm trees and piña coladas alone.

In fact, Nanaimo is known for SO much more than its bathtub racing (honest, it’s not what you think!) Namely: Nanaimo Bars, perhaps the densest, richest, most sinful cream-filled, ganache-topped, chocolate-nut-coconut bars known to mankind.

These tasty bars were born in 1952, when a fund-raising cookbook from the island featured three recipes for chocolate squares. These recipes were reprinted under the name “Nanaimo Bars” in the Vancouver Sun. Canadian food companies adopted them as a convenient vehicle for their products, and the bars have been growing in popularity ever since.

So what if Nanaimo isn’t a tropical paradise? With an average low in January of just under freezing, and an average high in August of about 75°F, it’s wonderfully temperate – Buffalo residents, eat your hearts out!

And besides, anyplace that invents a confection that’s been steadily growing in popularity for nearly 60 years has earned its place in (food) history.

Nanaimo (nuh-NYE-mo), we salute you! (And your bathtub racers, too.)

Thanks for the wunder-bars – let’s make ’em.

First, preheat the oven to 350°F.

Lightly grease a 9″ x 9″ or 11″ x 7″ pan.

To make the crust – place the following  in a mixing bowl:

1/2 cup (8 tablespoons) unsalted butter, melted
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder, Dutch-process cocoa preferred
1 large egg
1 cup sweetened or unsweetened coconut
1/2 cup chopped walnuts or pecans
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Add 2 cups graham cracker crumbs (made from about 13 whole crackers).

Beat everything at medium speed just until thoroughly combined

Transfer the sticky mixture to the prepared pan.

Press to cover the bottom of the pan.

A small pastry roller is helpful here.

Bake the crust for 10 minutes.

Remove it from the oven; it’ll feel soft. Set it aside to cool while you make the filling.

Place the following in a mixing bowl:

1/2 cup (8 tablespoons) unsalted butter, room temperature
1/4 teaspoon salt (omit if you use salted butter)
1 cup confectioners’ sugar or glazing sugar, sifted

Beat until smooth.

Add 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract.

Beat until well combined.

In a separate small bowl, combine 2 tablespoons Pastry Cream Filling Mix or 2 tablespoons instant vanilla pudding mix, and 2 tablespoons milk, stirring until thick and smooth.

OK, I hear you: “What am I going to do with the rest of the pudding mix, now that I’ve opened the box?”

Make instant pudding, of course, reducing the milk in the recipe on the box by 3 tablespoons. Add 1 teaspoon vanilla extract for enhanced flavor.

Add the pudding mix to the butter/sugar mixture; stir to combine.

Add 1 cup confectioners’ sugar or glazing sugar, and beat until the filling is smooth.

Light bulb moment: how about some coconut flavor?

1/8 teaspoon is all you need to really highlight the coconut flavor in these bars.

Dollop the filling onto the cooled crust.

Spread it all the way to the edges.

Cover, and refrigerate until chilled.

Once the bars are thoroughly chilled, make the icing.

Place the following in a small saucepan, or microwave-safe bowl or cup:

1 cup chopped bittersweet chocolate (Belcolade bittersweet disks are tasty) or semisweet chocolate chips
1/4 cup heavy cream or 2 tablespoons butter

Heat until the cream is steaming.

Then start to stir. At first, the mixture will seem unpromisingly lumpy; just keep stirring.

Don’t worry; it’ll smooth out quickly.

Spread the frosting onto the bars.

Refrigerate until the chocolate is set.

Cut into small bars or rectangles to serve. The bars will be very stiff when cold, but will soften quickly at room temperature.

Is that not a thing of beauty?

Can’t let something as good as this “go to waist” in the testing area; I served these at a birthday party we had for Jim, our Web developer.

To great approval from all in attendance: our Web/email team.

The open (mouth) rate was VERY high…

Read, bake, and review (please) our recipe for Nanaimo Bars.

Print just the recipe.

PJ Hamel

PJ Hamel grew up in New England, graduated from Brown University, and was a Maine journalist before joining King Arthur Flour in 1990. PJ bakes and writes from her home on Cape Cod, where she enjoys beach-walking, her husband, two dogs, and really good food!


  1. Debbie

    I’ll third the comments on the naming as New York Special. Growing up in Thunder Bay Ontario, you were guaranteed to find these at all baby showers or wedding showers during the 50s and early 60s. Nearly everyone had the recipe and it was commonly called New York special as it remains in my mothers own hand in her cookbook from way back then. It was not until the late 70s or early 80s when they started showing up in grocery stores, that I saw them labeled as Nanaimo bars. For me they are still labeled as New York Special in my cook book. Either way, they are pretty yummy! Many people get hung up on the use of the custard powder for the filling. It is only there to provide flavour and not meant to be a ‘custard’ filling. It is really a ‘custard flavoured’ frosting layer.

    Debbie, thanks for all this information – nothing like hearing the real story from someone who’s “been there,” eh? Thinking of the layer as “custard flavored” rather than a custard layer does make a difference – thanks for that distinction! PJH

  2. Maggie_Shaw

    Can I double this recipe. I will be making these for a christmas party on saturday. There will be about 50 people in attendance. Thank you for this recipe! I love these bars only ever had them from the grocery store so I hope that they turn out well =D

    Absolutely, Maggie, double away. And enjoy the party! 🙂 PJH

  3. shannonphil

    Fabulous. All due respect to the Canadian authenticity stickler, I was wary of the many no-bake versions I saw out there. A little time in the oven does wonders for the cookie crust.

  4. Robbi

    Thank you to Christine for her comment on “New York Special” bars. I also grew up in the 50’s, 60’s and only new the bars by that name and also stand by it. I was from Sask. Although I can’t find it online I thought my mom said she found that recipe on the Bird’s Custard can by that name.

    Robbi, Bird’s custard was an original ingredient in these bars for some, so that makes sense… PJH

  5. Irene in TO

    The real Nanaimo bar base is NOT baked. The butter, sugar, cocoa and egg that you have listed are cooked together for 5 minutes in the top of a double boiler to thicken, then the add-ins are added.

    This makes a difference in the texture. Us Canucks can tell the difference.

    In the base, you CAN substitute anything you like for allergies–use gluten free crumbs, skip nuts, skip coconut, whatever. Use some crumbs–the base is too soft to hold up on its own.

    You can use liquid of choice (booze, coffee syrup, maple syrup, orange liqueur, maraschino cherry juice) in the middle layer too, if you can’t do dairy.

    PS anybody notice how the base sorta resembles the biscuit cake that Prince William requested for his wedding?

    I did notice the biscuit cake resemblance, Irene – albeit sans coconut… Thanks for all the good info. here! PJH

  6. AnneInWA

    Oh, and I forgot, do I also have to add the coconut? My kiddos are allergic to that as well? Is there a substitute or can I just omit? Thanks again for the help with this! This will make a wonderful after lunch treat for them!

    Annie, leaving out the cup of coconut will make a thinner bottom layer, one that you should probably bake for a shorter amount of time. Other than that, I’d think it would work – PJH

  7. AnneInWA

    I would love to make these. Just a few questions though. First, do I have to use nuts in the bottom layer? I have children with nut allergies and need to avoid them! Could I just omit these, add more graham cracker or maybe add chocolate chips? Also, instead of the pudding mix, what about Bird’s custard powder? I have used it in some recipes from Nigella Lawson and found this powder online. It has a wonderful flavor, but maybe not as sweet as the pudding mix.

    Thanks again PJ! I check out this blog daily, and most often times I am baking from this daily! My family thanks you too!

    Annie, you can certainly leave out the nuts; maybe you’d like to substitute Grapenuts cereal (lots of fiber, and it adds crunch); or coarsely ground (rather than finely ground) graham crackers. Chocolate chips would melt and wouldn’t help the structure. And Bird’s is certainly the #1 choice; I just didn’t give it as an option because most people don’t have it and don’t know where to get it. And – thanks for your kind words… PJH

  8. Dianne

    Being Canadian, these are a favourite treat of ours. I’ve been making these for years, as did my mother. Always a hit when bringing them to a gathering – if they make it past the front door without me eating them! There are many variations of this recipe, too, which makes it all the more wonderful. Add a bit of grand marnier, or mint to the filling (I’ve always just used confectioners sugar as mentioned in the recipe, without the pudding). I’ve never used nuts in the base – just coconut – so that works well if you aren’t nuts about nuts! Happy Canada Day! And Happy 4th of July to our American friends!

    Thanks for the info., Dianne – I love it that this bar has so many “tweaks.” It’s a great candidate for doing your own thing while staying somewhat true to the original, isn’t it? 🙂 PJH


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