What’s in a Nanaimo Bar?…

Nanaimo bars

Strippers and drunks.

I wonder how many other fellow bloggers used this old joke as a title to this month Daring Bakers’ challenge post. The host – Lauren of Celiac Teen chose gluten-free graham wafers and Nanaimo bars as the January challenge. She based her recipe on the 101 Cookbooks and www.nanaimo.ca. With the Olympics so close, her choice seems thoughtful and sweet (literally, as well :)

I made a very much original version here. Since, frankly, flavored differently these bars wouldn’t be quite Nanaimo anymore. They still would be bars, and Canadians have probably about hundred of different kinds (I know for sure, being a Vancouverite myself). Anyway, these are traditional Nanaimo bars, loved by so many Canadians.

Although, I would still like to say a word about one particular ingredient – Bird’s custard powder. Available not everywhere, it might seem mysterious and maybe even magical. But it is not. It consists of cornstarch, food color (artificial), and flavor (artificial as well). The Bird’s custard powder can be entirely and successfully omitted. You don’t need any additional cornstarch (there’s plenty of it in the confectioners’ sugar already). Just add about a teaspoon of pure vanilla extract to the buttercream mixture. If you are after a yellowish tint, I recommend adding a drop of natural food color.

Makes 8 x 8-inch square slab, about 24 reasonably-sized bars (or as many as you manage to slice into)

For the gluten-free graham wafers:

  • 1 cup (138 g; 4.9 oz) sweet rice flour (also known as glutinous rice flour)
  • 3/4 cup (100 g; 3.5 oz) tapioca starch/flour
  • 1/2 cup (65 g; 2.3 oz) sorghum Flour
  • 1 cup (200 g) (7.1 oz) packed dark brown sugar
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • ¾ tsp kosher salt
  • 7 tbsp (100 g; 3 ½ oz) unsalted butter, cut into 1-inch cubes and frozen
  • 1/3 cup honey, mild-flavored such as clover.
  • 5 tablespoons whole milk
  • 2 tablespoons pure vanilla extract

Make the gluten-free graham wafers:

In the bowl of a food processor fitted with a steel blade, combine the flours, brown sugar, baking soda, and salt. Pulse on low to incorporate. Add the butter and pulse on and off, until the mixture is the consistency of a coarse meal. If making by hand, combine aforementioned dry ingredients with a whisk, then cut in the butter until you have a coarse meal. No chunks of butter should be visible.

In a small bowl or liquid measuring cup, whisk together the honey, milk and vanilla. Add to the flour mixture until the dough barely comes together. It will be very soft and sticky.
Turn the dough onto a surface well-floured with sweet rice flour and pat the dough into a rectangle about 1 inch thick. Wrap in plastic and chill until firm, about 2 hours, or overnight.

Divide the dough in half and return one half to the refrigerator. Sift an even layer of sweet rice flour onto the work surface and roll the dough into a long rectangle, about 1/8 inch thick. The dough will be quite sticky, so flour as necessary. Cut into 4 by 4 inch squares. Gather the scraps together and set aside. Place wafers on one or two parchment-lined baking sheets. Chill until firm, about 30 to 45 minutes. Repeat with the second batch of dough.

Adjust the rack to the upper and lower positions and preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit (180 degrees Celsius).

Gather the scraps together into a ball, chill until firm, and reroll. Dust the surface with more sweet rice flour and roll out the dough to get a couple more wafers.

Prick the wafers with toothpick or fork, not all the way through, in two or more rows.

Bake for 25 minutes, until browned and slightly firm to the touch, switching the shelves and rotating the sheets halfway through to ensure even baking. Might take less, and the starting location of each sheet may determine its required time. The ones that started on the bottom brown faster.

When cooled completely, place enough wafers in food processor to make 1 ¼ cups of crumbs. Another way to do this is to place the crackers in a large ziplock bag, force all air out and smash with a rolling pin until wafers are crumbs.

Notes for the graham wafers:

  • Glutinous rice flour does not contain any gluten, as it is made from a type of rice called glutinous (or sweet) rice.
  • The graham wafer dough is very sticky. Make sure you are flouring (with sweet rice flour) well, or the dough will be difficult to remove from the surface you roll it out on. Also be sure to keep it cold. You do not want the butter to melt.
  • I chose these flours because of their availability. Tapioca starch/flour and sweet rice flour can often be found in Asian grocery stores, or in the Asian section of you grocery store. Sorghum can be slightly more difficult to find, but it can be replaced with brown rice flour, millet flour or other alternatives
  • You can make the graham crackers with wheat, in this case replace the gluten-free flours (the tapioca starch, sweet rice flour, and sorghum flour) with 2 ½ cups plus 2 tbsp of all-purpose wheat flour, or wheat pastry flour. Watch the wheat-based graham wafers very closely in the oven, as they bake faster than the gluten-free ones, about only 12 minutes.

For the Nanaimo bars (adapted from www.nanaimo.ca):

For the bottom layer:

  • 1/2 cup (115 g; 4 oz) unsalted butter
  • 1/4 cup (50 g; 1.8 oz) granulated sugar
  • 5 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa
  • 1/8 tsp salt
  • 1 large egg, lightly beaten
  • 1 1/4 cups (160 g; 5.6 oz) gluten free graham wafer crumbs (or just regular graham crumbs)
  • 1/2 cup (55 g; 1.9 ounces) sliced almonds, lightly toasted (or ½ cup rice crispies for nut-free version)
  • 1 cup (130 g; 4.5 ounces) unsweetened dry coconut, lightly toasted

For the middle layer:

  • 1/2 cup (115 g; 4 oz) unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 2 tablespoons and 2 teaspoons whipping cream
  • 2 tablespoons vanilla custard powder (such as Bird’s, or vanilla pudding mix, or you can omit it altogether and add 1 tsp of pure vanilla extract to the mixture instead – more natural way and no less delicious)
  • 2 cups (254 g; 8.9 oz) confectioners’ sugar, sifted
  • 1/8 tsp salt

For the top layer:

  • 4 ounces (115 g) semi-sweet or bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
  • 2 tablespoons (28 g; 1 oz) unsalted butter


Make the bottom layer:

Line an 8 X 8-inch square baking pan with parchment paper, don’t grease the paper. Set aside.

Place the unsalted butter, sugar, cocoa, and salt in a large heatproof bowl set in a wide skillet of barely simmering water and stir frequently until the butter is melted; do not overheat. Gradually whisk in the egg and continue whisking until the mixture is thickened and reaches 160F (to remove a raw-egg issue). Remove from the heat. Stir in the crumbs, nuts (or rice crispies) and coconut. Press firmly into the prepared 8 x 8-inch square pan. Refrigerate while making the middle layer.

Make the middle layer:

In a large bowl, beat the butter, cream, custard powder (if using), icing sugar, pure vanilla extract, and salt together well until light in color. Spread over the bottom layer. Refrigerate while making the chocolate glaze.

Make the top layer:

Place all the ingredients in a small heatproof bowl set in a wide skillet of barely simmering water and stir frequently until the chocolate and butter are almost completely melted; do not overheat. Remove the glaze from the water bath and set aside to finish melting, stirring once or twice until perfectly smooth. Cool the glaze to 88-90 F. Once cool, pour over the middle layer, tilt the pan to spread the glaze. Chill thoroughly before slicing.

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50 Responses to “What’s in a Nanaimo Bar?…”

  1. Hahahaha! I have never heard that joke! And nobody else has used it on any of the blogs I’ve looked at! These look fantastic and bonus points for the Vancouver paper with the Olympic countdown. How did you find the graham crackers? They were my favourite part.

  2. Ha! Love the joke and your bars are beautiful!

  3. Perfect as ever Vera!! The proportions are always JUST RIGHT!!

  4. what a gorgeous looking Nanaimo bars…
    Never heard the joke before… I am Lebanese married to a French Canadian/Acadian, I dont think my inlaws know about it either…
    something new to learn..

    Great posting… Yes you are true about the bird’s custard, my original recipe has homemade custard and not powder and less sugar.
    its delicious

  5. Thanks for the tip on the custard powder. I just bought a brand that was available here in Australia, but figured it was a critical ingredient.

    It was so fun doing this challenge. I stuck to the original, too!

    BTW, I so love the crispness of your photograph.

  6. Good joke! And fantastic bars. I take you point on the custard powder. I actually thought it might taste “floury” but it didn’t. I loved the bars.

  7. LOL.. Never heard that one before!! :))
    And, Gorgeous bars!!

  8. Your bars are so beautiful and clean looking! My chocolate shattered when I cut mine…a sad day. Love your site.

  9. Your photog skills are amazing. Your bars look great~!~

  10. Thanks for the info on the custard powder. I couldn’t find it where I am in the US so I used vanilla pudding instead. I thought it was what gave the filling a bit firmer texture. Can just a little cornstarch be added to achieve the same results? I made another version with a different filling that wasn’t as firm and had such a hard time getting nice even cuts.

  11. Very neatly cut on your bars, and the chocolate cover looks so perfect. Great joke btw, there seems to be some truth to that… ;-)

  12. That photo is AMAZINGLY perfect. The best photo yet because it incorporated everything this challenge and the bars are all about. Wow. Lovely.

    I’m glad you wrote about the custard powder. It confirmed what I did for my bars. I didn’t have the custard powder or the vanilla pudding mix, so I used cornstarch and vanilla extract. Good thing to know that I don’t need the cornstarch either.

    Your bars are perfect. Your photography is amazing. Great job on this challenge, and I hope we all did BC proud! :)

  13. P.S. I don’t get the joke! I guess it’s an inside joke. :)

  14. Beautiful bars. Glad to know that the custard powder isn’t essential to the success of the bars, I couldn’t find it in my area.

  15. Beautiful bars… the top layer so smooth… How did you get it like that?

    I too thought Bird’s custard powder was an essential ingredient so I did a whole middle layer substitution. Thanks for the tip. Good to know.

  16. Lol at the joke. Good one.

    The bars are mighty impressive..love the neat chocolate layer.

  17. ooh, I love Nanaimo bars. Great photography.

  18. That’s the first time I’ve ever even heard of that joke! And your bars are great. How did you get the chocolate to slice so neatly? Mine cracked all over the place when I cut them (even warmed up a bit from fridge).

  19. Beautiful result as always
    Love the presentation
    And the photographs are amazing!
    (also a DB)

  20. That is true about the custard powder…

    Your bars are gorgeous!



  21. Your bars look fabulous!

  22. Such beautiful, streamlined bars! Cute joke.

  23. ha–great little joke. :)
    your bars are a beautiful sight to behold, vera. and thanks for the tip about the ‘magical’ custard powder.

  24. Lol! Nope, you’re the first to have made this joke! (I had never heard it, but then I’d never heard of Nanaimo bars either)

    Fantastic job, the bars look pitch-perfect!

  25. The joke is hilarious! :D And your bars are just perfect.

  26. I have read through A LOT of posts, and nobody mentioned that joke. LOL! And thanks for clarifying the mystery about the Bird’s Custard Powder. I used vanilla pudding mix in mine and thought it worked great. How did you make your top layer look sooooooooo perfect???!!!!

  27. Ba dum bum, chhh. That’s a cute joke that I haven’t heard before!

    Your bars look GORGEOUS — lovely bars, and lovely photography! I love seeing them on the paper like that.

    Your top layer does look store-perfect… what’s your secret???

  28. Very pretty, I see you were much more disciplined than me in waiting to cut your bars! I realized the birds custard trick too, and just added some vanilla.

  29. Cute joke! Your bars look so perfect. Also, thanks for the tip about the custard powder. I used vanilla pudding mix instead, but I wasn’t sure how much the consistency varied from the real thing. My middle layer was like a buttercream frosting.

  30. Your bars look so gorgeous !

  31. Wow, those bars from Nanaimo look wonderful, I also like the newspaper under ! They really sounds perfectly perfect :) Well cut, strong enough !
    Good job !

  32. Your bars look beautiful! I like your presentation as well, very creative.

  33. Love your Nanaimo Bars… They look wonderful! Great to know about the custard powder. I ended up subbing some vanilla pudding mix for the custard powder in mine. Next time I will simply use the vanilla extract like you mentioned.

  34. Wonderful photo! Your bars look just like the ones you would get a bakery. Great job!

  35. @ Asha@FSK
    Nanaimo bars refer to the town Nanaimo in British-Columbia, Canada. The joke asks what would you find in bars in the town of Nanaimo : strippers and drunks. Get it? ;-)

    Les barres sont très bien réussies, bravo! Et excellente photo, comme toujours!

  36. Nice! Love the Vancouver sun in the shot. Nice touch! Once again, the cleanest cut bars I’ve ever seen.Not sure how so many of you are doing this. I agreed with you on doing it traditional since as soon as you put cherries or other things in it its no longer a nanaimo bars. Wish I’d left our the custard powder since I bought it specifically for this, but I’m a purist. Even though I loathe the stuff. Nice job, from one Vancouver DBer to another!

  37. I live very very close to Nanaimo….Strippers and Drunks sounds pretty acurate! LOL (That was terrible to say, Nanaimo is a wonderful city with tons to see and do!) There’s a small part of downtown that I would avoid by myself…especially in the dark lol

    Your bars look wonderful! I haven’t had a Nanaimo bar in a long time and now I’m craving one :) Gorgeous photos as usual!

  38. LOL on the joke…look at your Nanimo’s! Splendid! That’s a gorgeous picture Vera. Really really nice!

  39. Its been a while since I was here. Your bars look as good as always.

  40. Gorgeous! I’m so impressed at how perfect your bars look…delish! :)

  41. These are so pretty! I wish they were dairy free but maybe I could use soymilk???? Anyway- I would love to try them and would also love to use Kamut Khorasan Wheat (which I highly recommend for people who have wheat sensitivities. THey are not gluten free but a large number of wheat sensitive people can tolerate it. So we will just have toe experiment!! FUN!!

  42. Thank you, everyone, from my whole heart for such kind comments you left!

    Mary, I loved crackers; they were truly great.

    Allison, I’d rather add a bit more butter and, probably, some icing sugar to reach firmer consistency than adding cornstarch.

    Natalie, I poured the chocolate glaze as soon as it wasn’t warm.

    Romy, warm dry knife slices quite easily through the chocolate.

    Smilinggreenmom, I’m thinking whole fat coconut milk should work instead of cream. The flavor would compliment the dry coconut in the bottom layer perfectly.

  43. It’s like you sliced those bars with a laser! Beautiful! Enjoy the Olympics!!!

  44. Hahah I have never heard of that one! The bars look amazing! Love the clean cuts you achieved. And thanks for the heads up on custard powder, even though it’s easily available here, I’m just going to use my own blend from now.. so that I can play with flavors!

  45. Beautiful Nanaimo bars! And educational to see them made by an authentic Canadian :) Will have to model the proportions on your ones on my next attempt

  46. Sometimes a classic is the best. What perfect little things!

  47. Hi, i’m wondering… is there any cornstarch in confectioner’s sugar? I think it’s just very finely ground sugar.

  48. Thank you, everyone who left comments, for your kind words! I appreciate it greatly!.

    Mel, yes, there’s some cornstarch (up to 3%) in confectioners’ sugar.

  49. Your blog its amazing thx a lot !

  50. Your pictures were great! Can you freeze them? I really like making a variety of them, including the mint ones, with a green tinge filling… Yes, Birds Custard is great!

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