Nanaimo Bars: Questions from an American
December 4, 2019 7:13 PM   Subscribe

A Canadian friend of mine has a birthday coming up and has requested I make Nanaimo Bars for her. Being a lifelong resident of the US I have not had or made these and I have a few questions.

1. What in the world is custard powder? I’ve not seen it in a grocery store. Should I just get some Bird’s via Amazon?
2. Are walnuts always used in the base or can I substitute pecans?
3. She has specified that she likes the chocolate layer to be sort of hardened. Is this standard or should I do something different with the layer to make it more firm?
4. The recipes I’ve seen all use butter in the top layer. Shouldn’t I use coconut oil instead?

Any and all tips and tricks are welcome. Would love a tried and true recipe from a real live Canadian.
posted by likeplus to Food & Drink (22 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
If you're trying to make your friend the stereotypical Nanaimo Bar, resist the temptation to embrace your inner Anonymous Internet Recipe Commenter #2 and just follow the recipe, with a minimum of substitutions. If you have to, instant vanilla pudding is vaguely acceptable as a substitute for custard powder.
posted by zamboni at 7:40 PM on December 4, 2019 [18 favorites]

Custard powder is essentially vanilla-flavored cornstarch. I've had reasonable success replacing custard powder 1:1 with cornstarch, and then adding a bit of vanilla extract. Vanilla pudding mix is sweetened. It's not a bad substitute, but if you substitute vanilla pudding mix, tone down the sugar added to the custard layer.

The nanaimo bars I've had have always had a ganache-like chocolate layer. So, hardening it would be non-standard - confirmed by the recipes I find. If you want it to be more firm, simply use less butter/coconut oil on the top layer.

The top layer should taste like chocolate, not coconut. I guess if you used an extremely-refined coconut oil, then that'd be fine, but I wouldn't mess with it. Coconut oil has a higher fat percentage than butter (90% vs 80-82%), so the texture will change a bit when replacing the oil.
posted by saeculorum at 7:50 PM on December 4, 2019

I have nothing to add other than the fact that my sister made them with vanilla pudding after we heard Katherine O'Hara mention them in Schitt's Creek (and A Mighty Wind), and they're worth every single goddamn calorie.
posted by jonathanhughes at 8:00 PM on December 4, 2019 [2 favorites]

I made these after I saw an article about them a while back. I'll just note in my research some Canadians in the comments section were insistent that Birds Custard Powder be used and not substituted, so that might be important to your friend too. I found it at local higher-end supermarket like Whole Foods that stocks imported products.
posted by bluecore at 8:11 PM on December 4, 2019 [1 favorite]

I found birds custard (to make Nanaimo bars with!) in the "British imports" section of my local mega-grocery, and now have a more-than-lifetime supply.
posted by lorimt at 8:11 PM on December 4, 2019 [2 favorites]

As I understand it Bird's Custard Powder is usually what a recipe is referring to when it calls for custard powder. Recipes for making custard powder at home exist, but I'd imagine you could substitute vanilla instant pudding for roughly the same effect.
posted by Aleyn at 8:12 PM on December 4, 2019 [1 favorite]

Every Nanaimo Bar I've had (both in Washington and in BC) has had a firm chocolate layer. And yeah, the custard should not be super sweet.
posted by xedrik at 8:20 PM on December 4, 2019 [7 favorites]

Where I grew up on the Canadian prairies, Nanaimo bars were known as New York Specials. The link contains a very typical recipe.
posted by rpfields at 9:02 PM on December 4, 2019

Canadian here from the Lower Mainland of BC and yes definitely firm chocolate layer. I have never had or seen one without that. It's an important element of being able to hold the bar when you're eating it to kind of keep the custard layer in there (we all eat these with our hands, right?).

Zamboni's recipe on examination, looks like it'll make a mighty fine Nanaimo bar. Coconut in the base layer is essential.

Mmmm nanaimo barsssss
posted by urbanlenny at 9:22 PM on December 4, 2019 [1 favorite]

Ditto saeculorum. Bird's custard is traditional but I've eaten enough of these things to know that a lot of people just use vanilla pudding or whatever other oddball custard powders they can find. Often the bakers don't bother tweaking the sugar as a result so the things get super sweet. I grew up with the bars having a hardened chocolate topping and this might be a regional preference. Generally it isn't mixed with coconut oil as it is usually just melted chocolate that has cooled. As for nuts we usually used ground blanched almonds rather than walnuts or pecans. Now this may be controversial and divisive but the centre layer can be flavoured with other things - we almost always saw bars with a green centre layer flavoured with mint for St. Patrick's day or candy canes for Christmas. It is important to remember that it is the kind of dessert someone could whip together with pantry staples. You can make it fancy but it really isn't supposed to be a fancy dessert.
posted by Ashwagandha at 9:48 PM on December 4, 2019 [2 favorites]

Canadian here with family from Nanaimo BC

Can confirm the hard chocolate layer.

The trick for the custard layer is that it has to be Firm. If you substitute pudding like suggested above then it turns into a gooey mess... delicious but messy... ask me how I know 😝 So be certain that it has enough thickener to hold a shape.

Coconut in the bottom

Can add some mint in the chocolate for kicks !
posted by St. Peepsburg at 10:22 PM on December 4, 2019 [2 favorites]

I would use Bird's custard powder, wherever you can find it and not a substitute, but would not fuss between a walnut or pecan base. I've had both ganache and harder chocolate tops, but can't remember which I make when I do them myself.
posted by jeather at 4:20 AM on December 5, 2019 [1 favorite]

I don't even know how you'd eat a Nanaimo bar that didn't have a firm chocolate top. This is not intended to be a fork and plate food product. It's a social dessert square, you eat it with your fingers or at most pinched in a napkin.
posted by seanmpuckett at 4:53 AM on December 5, 2019 [4 favorites]

I am Canadian and I would not be happy to find my Nanaimo bar was a mint bar with no warning. They are perfect as they are, a lily that needn't be gilded.
posted by zadcat at 6:16 AM on December 5, 2019 [8 favorites]

I'm a Canadian who doesn't like the super firm layer on top. Using milk chocolate baking squares instead of semi-sweet chocolate baking squares and some extra cream in the top layer is what we do. Which is to say for your friend, do not use milk chocolate for the top layer. Maybe consider lowering the amount of cream used in the top layer to further harden it.

I'll also second that is a great recipe. My wife doesn't like nuts in the crust, and I don't miss leaving them out. Both walnuts and pecans are much stronger tasting than almonds, and may disrupt the nanaimo bar experience of whatever recipe you have.

Like zadcat, I would not be happy to be surprised with a mint nanaimo bar when expecting a normal nanaimo bar. I think mint in nanaimo bars would be more of a misfire than the divide over raisins in butter tarts.

Pro tip - make 1.5x or 2x the middle layer while keeping the bottom and top the original amounts. I like 1.5x; my wife likes 2x better. To me (raised in the US, never experiencing nanaimo bars until I was 26), the 2x middle layer is just too much butter.
posted by nobeagle at 6:53 AM on December 5, 2019 [1 favorite]

World Market definitely sells custard powder if you prefer to buy it in-person.
posted by mosst at 6:57 AM on December 5, 2019 [1 favorite]

thin ganache
custard (not pudding)
hard layer (peacans would be wrong, walnuts optional.)

texture is fucked up if you substitute pudding. Not sure where you are, but Birds can often be found in Caribbean grocery stores.
posted by PinkMoose at 7:02 AM on December 5, 2019

Canadian who lived in Nanaimo and grew up with this being a Christmas staple and made by my mom.

Hard topping is the only way I've had them. I wouldn't take this opportunity to play around with it. When craving a certain food especially a childhood or homeland food you don't want something fancy. You want the exact same thing. So Birds Custard and hard top. Just let the chocolate cool.
posted by kanata at 8:19 AM on December 5, 2019 [1 favorite]

With a soft topping, I hold only the base. It's fine.

Do not switch butter to coconut oil.
posted by jeather at 8:52 AM on December 5, 2019

Not Canadian so no input there but I can say that if you make cooked pudding with 1/2 and 1/2 it sets up very firm. Instant pudding with skim milk is very soft.
posted by fiercekitten at 8:11 PM on December 5, 2019

Grew up on Vancouver Island and have a sister in Nanaimo and have been to MANY a church-basement and elementary-school-gym function in small town Canada (which is where you find the authentic Nanaimo bar in its natural habitat).

All that to say, the the following is a pronouncement buttressed by True Knowledge:

A soft or fudgey ganache topping on a Nanaimo bar is sacrilege of the highest order. The chocolate should SNAP satisfyingly before your teeth sink into the custard layer, only to come to a gentle bump against the coconutty bottom layer. The stability of the sandwiching layers is utterly essential to the portability and eatability of the bar.

Please note: I’ve been vegan for almost 20 years, so perhaps take my lustful Nanaimo bar reminiscences with a rather large particle of salt.
posted by Dorinda at 2:10 AM on December 6, 2019 [2 favorites]

I am from BC and feel very strongly about Nanaimo Bars and my mom's are the best. I've never had another that holds a candle to it. She uses my grandma's recipe but does not put nuts in the base--something I strongly prefer. Definitely a firm top. If you can find Bird's Custard Powder, use it--it does make a big difference. Definitely no on the coconut oil.

I also happen to prefer them very, very cold. They happen to keep very well in the freezer and they're even good straight out of there.
posted by synecdoche at 5:09 AM on December 7, 2019 [1 favorite]

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