The city of Nanaimo, British Columbia, lies on the eastern shore of Vancouver Island, some 55 kilometres across from the Canadian mainland. While it is locally known as a hub for ferry lines that cross the Georgia Strait to and from Vancouver, Nanaimo is a familiar name for millions of Canadians (and dessert aficionados around the world) for an entirely different reason: the Nanaimo bar.
This triple-level no-bake dessert bar features a base of graham crackers, coconut and nuts; a middle layer of yellow, buttery custard icing; and a firm chocolate ganache on top. Canadian confections tend to be both rich and sweet, and Nanaimo bars are no exception. But in reasonable doses (or not), Nanaimo bars are wonderfully luxurious, satisfying treats; the shredded coconut and nut counterpoint to the thick velvety texture of the icing and ganache has been winning the hearts of sweet-toothed Canadians and visitors for decades.
The Nanaimo bar’s earliest appearances date back to the early 1950s, when recipes for unbaked chocolatey squares were published in local cookbooks and newspaper columns in Nanaimo and Vancouver. The city’s name was attached to the bar soon thereafter and it grew steadily in popularity, not least because it was finished in the fridge rather than the oven. The city of Nanaimo has also been happy to embrace the fame that its namesake bar has brought, and the city even created the Nanaimo Bar Trail, a list of 40 restaurants dotted around town where people can try different variations on this iconic treat – and test their sugar tolerance.
The trifecta of sugary deliciousness in the original Nanaimo bar is what gives it its unmistakable appearance and buttery-chocolate flavour explosion, but its eye-catching triple-layer design and no-bake assembly also make it an excellent springboard for tasty variations and original creations. Let’s have a look at different spins on the Nanaimo bar, starting of course with the traditional recipe.
In 1986, the mayor of Nanaimo announced a contest in which participants could send in their Nanaimo bar recipes, and local citizens would vote on the definitive recipe for the city’s official treat. Of course, choosing a winner didn’t put an end to debate about the right and wrong way to make one. For a true traditional Nanaimo bar experience, this recipe ticks all the right boxes, with a lovely swirl on top from the chocolate ganache, and a nice thick bottom crumb that picks walnuts over almonds.
Nanaimo bar cheesecake
What other kind of dessert often includes a graham cracker crumb, a soft, airy middle and a thin sweet topping? Cheesecake, of course! Check out this clever recipe to see how just a few tweaks can yield an entirely new dessert with some lovely texture differences. For those who find the buttery custard icing in a traditional Nanaimo bar a bit too rich, the cream cheese centre helps even out some of the sweetness, while the ganache topping uses cream instead of butter. As an added bonus, serving sizes are bigger (and triangular).
With butter playing a starring role in all three layers of a traditional Nanaimo bar, along with an egg and plenty of cream thrown in, this may not seem like a treat that would lend itself to vegan versions. That said, vegan chefs are nothing if not creative and resourceful, and here’s where to find a recipe for not one but three different kinds of tasty vegan Nanaimo bars: a classic vanilla version, as well as mint chip and pomegranate almond variations.
Those with gluten allergies will probably be wary of desserts that have ground-up graham crackers as a central ingredient. Luckily, you don’t have to stray too far from the original Nanaimo bar recipe to come up with something just as delicious and also gluten-free, as this recipe proves nicely. The key step here is replacing the traditional graham cracker crumb, either with gluten-free crackers or simply with Nilla wafers.
Vegan AND Gluten-free
Coming up with a recipe that’s both gluten-free and vegan is considerably more challenging, requiring more than a few creative substitutions. Vegan butter offers some help, particularly given how well many plant-based butters simulate the texture and round flavour of regular butter. Either way, when a recipe comes along that delivers simultaneously gluten-free and vegan Nanaimo bars, it’s definitely worth trying. The addition of dates in the crumb gives added structure, and coconut milk is a worthy replacement for the cream in the filling. The author even came up with a clever way to add a yellowish tint to the custard-free centre layer.
Nanaimo bar pie
A somewhat Canadian spin on this quintessentially Canadian dessert is to turn it into an easy frozen ice cream pie – genius. Many of the traditional ingredients remain in place, but custard ice cream gets swapped into the centre to create a whole different kind of dessert. In keeping with the Nanaimo bar tradition, there’s of course no oven involved – just leave aside enough time for each layer to take shape in the freezer.