Classic, no-bake Nanaimo bars with a chocolate coconut base, custard buttercream filling, and a layer of chocolate on top. Learn how to make this iconic Canadian dessert – with or without custard powder.
If you’ve never tried Nanaimo bars – you are seriously missing out. They’re an easy, no-bake bar with 3 layers of deliciousness.
- The base has tons of texture and flavor thanks to graham crumbs, coconut, and chopped walnuts.
- The middle layer is a thick and creamy buttercream with a vanilla custard flavor.
- Then the bars are topped with semi-sweet chocolate.
As a Canadian, Nanaimo bars always have a place on my Christmas baking tray. But you can also find these delicious treats at just about any bakery or grocery store. They’re very sweet, very delicious, and a retro dessert that just about everyone’s grandma made.
Nanaimo Bars – A History Lesson
Nanaimo bars – pronounced NA-NEYE-MOE – are named after the city of Nanaimo, British Columbia on the west coast of Canada. The origin of the bars is unknown – but the first time they appeared in a cookbook was in 1953. In 1985 the mayor of Nanaimo held a competition for the ultimate Nanaimo bar recipe – and today – most Nanaimo bar recipes you find are based on the winner, Joyce Hardcastle’s, concoction.
There are also many variations of Nanaimo bars that use different flavorings for the middle layer – such as mint, cappuccino, or even cherry.
How to Make Nanaimo Bars
Nanaimo bars are very simple to make. However – because of the 3 layers there are quite a few steps.
The base is chewy, somewhat crunchy, and filled with chocolate.
- First, we melt together the butter, sugar, and cocoa powder in a double boiler.
- Once melted – whisk in 1 egg until the mixture thickens and looks smooth and glossy. There shouldn’t be lumps in it.
- It is EXTREMELY important to whisk constantly when you add in the egg so that it doesn’t scramble. The heat will cook the egg so it’s safe to eat. It also ensures that the base will hold together.
- Then we stir in graham crumbs, coconut and finely chopped walnuts. The mixture is pressed into the bottom of the pan and then goes in the freezer to harden.
You could easily use digestive biscuits instead of graham crumbs if you live outside of North America. For the coconut – I recommend using finely shredded coconut because it makes the bars easier to cut. You could also use pecans or almonds instead of the walnuts. I prefer walnuts because it makes it easier to slice the bars (and because I think they’re more delicious).
Custard Buttercream Middle
The middle layer is essentially a very thick vanilla buttercream that’s flavored with custard powder. Custard powder adds a deliciously creamy flavor and gives the middle its distinctive light yellow color. If you can’t find custard powder, you can make Nanaimo bars without custard powder. Simply use vanilla pudding mix instead (you don’t need to make the pudding – just add in the powder).
You’ll cream together the butter, custard powder, and cream until fluffy. Then mix in the powdered sugar a little at a time. You want the middle to be thicker than normal frosting. Then spread the layer over top of the base, and place the bars in the fridge to firm up.
Traditionally, the chocolate topping is made with semi-sweet chocolate. You’ll notice I’ve added a little oil to the chocolate. This makes it extra glossy and makes the bars easier to cut because the chocolate isn’t so hard. Some people use butter instead of oil – but I find that oil works better. The melted chocolate gets spread on top, and then the bars go in the fridge to set.
Cutting Nanaimo Bars
The chocolate layer on top often makes it difficult to make clean cuts without the chocolate cracking. Here are my tips:
- Don’t forget the oil in the chocolate topping.
- When the chocolate is about 75% hardened, score the top of the bars by gently tracing the line where you’ll cut them. Slide the knife across as you score the bars – just going into the chocolate layer.
- Use a thin, sharp knife (not a table knife).
- Don’t cut the bars when they’re cold from the fridge. Room temperature chocolate is much easier to cut.
- To make Nanaimo bars without coconut – use 2 1/4 cups graham crumbs and 3/4 cup chopped walnuts in the base layer.
- To make Nanaimo bars without nuts – use 2 cups graham crumbs and 1 cup shredded coconut in the base layer.
- For a less sweet Nanaimo bar – make sure to use unsweetened coconut in the base layer. Use 1/4 cup less powdered sugar in the middle, and dark chocolate for the topping.
Looking for more Canadian desserts? Why not try:
- 1/2 cup unsalted butter
- 1/3 cup cocoa powder
- 1/4 cup sugar
- 1 large egg
- 1 3/4 cups graham crumbs or digestive cookie crumbs
- 3/4 cup shredded coconut
- 1/2 cup chopped walnuts* chopped very finely
- 6 tablespoons unsalted butter softened
- 2 tablespoons custard powder or vanilla pudding mix
- 3 tablespoons heavy cream
- 1 1/2 -2 cups powdered sugar
- 4 oz semi-sweet chocolate or 50-60% dark chocolate
- 2 teaspoons oil
- Line an 8x8 or 9x9 inch pan with parchment paper (or lightly greased aluminum foil) leaving an overhang around the edges.
- Add about 1-2 cm (1/2 -1 inch) of water to the bottom of a medium saucepan over low heat. Place a glass bowl on top so that the bottom of the bowl doesn't touch the water.
- Add the butter, sugar, and cocoa powder to the glass bowl. Melt the ingredients together while stirring occasionally.
- Once completely melted, add in the egg while whisking constantly. Whisk the mixture until thick, glossy and smooth.
- Carefully remove the bowl from the heat and stir in the graham crumbs, coconut and chopped walnuts.
- Press the mixture into the bottom of the prepared pan and place in the freezer to firm up for 20 minutes as you make the filling.
- In a large bowl, beat the butter until soft and fluffy.
- Mix in the custard powder and cream.
- Slowly beat the powdered sugar in a little at a time - until it's very thick (thicker than normal frosting).
- Spread the custard buttercream over the base layer, and place in the fridge for at least 15 minutes to firm up.
- Add the chocolate to a large heat proof bowl.
- Microwave on medium power (not high - otherwise it won't melt properly) for 45 seconds. Remove from the microwave and stir. (Or melt using a double boiler).
- Repeat the process until the chocolate is melted.
- Stir in the oil.
- Pour the mixture over the bars and smooth the top.
- Place in the fridge to firm up.
Cutting the Bars
- Once the chocolate is about 75% hardened (after 20 minutes or so in the fridge), score the bars by lightly tracing lines through the chocolate where you'll cut the bars.
- Return to the fridge until completely firm.
- When the chocolate is fully hardened, take the bars out of the fridge for 10 minutes to warm up for easier slicing. Then cut into bars along the lines that you scored in the chocolate.
- Enjoy bars cold from the fridge, or at room temperature (they'll take 10-15 minutes to warm up).