A Bite-Size Square of Canada’s History, Culture and Craving
March 23, 2019 6:09 PM   Subscribe

"The square looks something like a geological cross section. Its base is sedimentary: coconut and chopped walnuts bound together by a buttery silt of cocoa and crushed graham crackers. A middle layer of yellow buttercream teeters on the brink of liquefaction. And its top crust of chocolate, hard and brittle, thaws like the Arctic tundra the longer it lingers at room temperature." British Columbia's Nanaimo bar turns up at womb-to-tomb events across Canada. [SLNYT]
posted by theory (50 comments total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
I still remember my newly-immigrated mother being entirely befuddled by a school instruction (on mimeograph, natch) to bring "squares" to a third-grade function. I think she had to phone the principal to figure out wtf they were asking for; the nice Mennonite couple across the alley gave her the recipe for Nanaimo bars.

...this was the same nice couple that butchered bears in their garage. Two things I can tell you: bear sausage is fucking terrible, and a bear that's being hung and gutted really really looks like a large man being slaughtered. So, close your garage doors when you do that.
posted by aramaic at 6:21 PM on March 23 [51 favorites]

I LOVE nanaimo bars, but if you buy them at a coffee shop or such they're so obviously frozen and often still half frozen, and that's gross.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 6:31 PM on March 23 [1 favorite]

My school makes excellent Nanaimo bars and of the various ways they're driving me to an early grave, that's certainly the most enjoyable.
posted by Wolfdog at 6:35 PM on March 23 [2 favorites]

bear sausage is fucking terrible

Either we're very different people or you had a very bad example.
posted by traveler_ at 6:38 PM on March 23 [3 favorites]

I missed my chance when I was in Nanaimo a few years ago. Damn!
(And, I can only suspect that legalization of marijuana has been a boon to the apparent nanaimo bar campaign for word snack food domination.)
posted by Gotanda at 6:53 PM on March 23 [2 favorites]

Nanaimo bars are my jam.

I especially love the ones with mint flavored filling. Once I had bacon Nanaimo bars with la leche (in Nanaimo no less) and they were bonkers-good.

They're so sweet though.

Oh and Nanaimo bar ice cream is unreasonably delicious.
posted by jonnay at 7:17 PM on March 23 [2 favorites]

My family's recipe uses semisweet chocolate for the topping. I'm always disappointed by commercial versions that don't have that thin, intense layer to balance out the often-cloying sweetness of the other layers.
posted by sevenyearlurk at 7:24 PM on March 23 [9 favorites]

One of the proudest moments of my red-and-white hoser heart was when I ate a Nanaimo bar while I was in a bar in Nanaimo.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 7:41 PM on March 23 [25 favorites]

I have a mild nut allergy but goddamit I will still eat the odd Nanaimo Bar, having been born in BC in the 60s and practically raised on them. The one childhood treat I still get cravings for, even though i really shouldn't eat them.
posted by Phlegmco(tm) at 7:41 PM on March 23 [1 favorite]

(This is funny because Nanaimo has a tradition of being a rough town, and because you were expecting to hear about what was in the delicious treat. The old comedy switcharoo.)

The only way this comment could be better is if you abbreviated “old” to “ol’”.

As it is, I still give it a 9.95 out of 10, and a favorite. Shine on you crazy diamond. 💎
posted by darkstar at 7:50 PM on March 23 [5 favorites]

ok look womb to tomb is not verbiage I want associated with candy alright
posted by Hermione Granger at 8:42 PM on March 23 [11 favorites]

Ha, I was taking requests for baked goods to bring to our startup’s Christmas party a couple years ago and one of the founders said offhand “know what I haven’t had in years? Nanaimo bars.” So knowing absolutely 0 about them I found a recipe, followed it, found myself very happy with the result, and delighted my coworker at the party when I handed him a full plate of them. So much sweetness and joy in tiny squares!
posted by olinerd at 8:43 PM on March 23 [3 favorites]

and that's Nanaimo --

pronounced Nan-Eye-Mo


also absolutely world class fish + chips, and for some reason or other, excellent used vinyl
posted by philip-random at 8:48 PM on March 23 [2 favorites]

It's not a Vancouver Island NDP picnic if there ain't no Nanaimo bars.

From my cold dead (diabeetus, most likely) hands.
posted by klanawa at 8:56 PM on March 23 [2 favorites]

"ok look womb to tomb is not verbiage I want associated with candy alright"

Religious leaders prefer the slightly classier "hatching, matching, and dispatching" (birth, marriage, death).
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:59 PM on March 23 [12 favorites]

hatching, matching, and dispatching

This was a TV show with Mary Walsh on CBC. I love Mary Walsh and was really sorry it wasn't picked up for more episodes.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 9:08 PM on March 23 [6 favorites]

hatching, matching, and dispatching

Bred, wed, and dead?
posted by Margalo Epps at 10:15 PM on March 23 [3 favorites]

Bred, wed, and dead?

Nah, more of a fan of Birth, School, Work, Death.

And Nanaimo bars.

Not particularly in this order.
posted by stannate at 10:21 PM on March 23 [2 favorites]

All I will say about this is if you don't visit Newcastle Island when you are in Nanaimo, you will be missing something special.
posted by Mei's lost sandal at 10:23 PM on March 23 [1 favorite]

I made and served these at my wedding reception in lieu of cake, in honor of my Canadian grandmother-in-law.
posted by St. Oops at 10:29 PM on March 23 [1 favorite]

Looks tasty! Nice that the caramel slice gets a mention too.
posted by phigmov at 10:33 PM on March 23 [1 favorite]

They're Nanaimo style bars but they were made right here in Saskatchewan.
posted by bleep at 10:59 PM on March 23 [1 favorite]

I tried to do the Nanaimo Bar trail in Nanaimo: made it as far as the third stop and the Nanaimo Bar sundae before I tapped out.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 11:24 PM on March 23 [3 favorites]

That article taught me about London fog slices and...Nanaimo Barney?
posted by stevil at 11:36 PM on March 23

i like the much rarer green oens, though a vegan place near me makes the yellow ones that will destroy you.
posted by PinkMoose at 1:00 AM on March 24

These sound much better than the NaNoWriMo bars, because you don’t have to write 50,000 words before eating one.
posted by GenjiandProust at 3:23 AM on March 24 [9 favorites]

Memories of the old 1960s BC Ferries C-class, the Gulf Islands milk run: The Queen of Nanaimo bars
posted by anthill at 4:03 AM on March 24 [7 favorites]

Having come from an old Nanaimo family (before there was a Bastion, when the European settlement was still called "Colville") and suffering from a sweet tooth there's a running gag that Mrs. Acroyear brings out occasionally, when I ask / tell her how much I love her, along the lines of... "Even more than Nanaimo Bars?"...

Oh, and someone referred to Nanaimo Bars (the "B" is always capitalized as far as I've ever seen) as "candy". They're desserts, not candies. Don't know why that make a difference to me, but apparently it does.
posted by acroyear at 7:34 AM on March 24 [2 favorites]

Frozen Nanaimo bars are no problem. I put them in the freezer to avoid temptation. I actually find they are easier to when frozen. And only a zillion calories per piece.
posted by Savannah at 7:48 AM on March 24 [2 favorites]

Oh hey I have some coconut and graham crackers in the cupboard that I've been looking for a use for. Guess I'm making Nanaimo bars next weekend. Like Jonnay, I prefer the mint variant.
posted by quaking fajita at 7:51 AM on March 24

"[Ms Hardcastle] has made so many bars that she can tilt her baking pan so the molten chocolate forms a topping as smooth as freshly Zambonied ice."
This author gets it.
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 8:29 AM on March 24 [6 favorites]

Memories of the old 1960s BC Ferries C-class, the Gulf Islands milk run: The Queen of Nanaimo bars

govt sanctioned drinking and driving -- the good ole days indeed
posted by philip-random at 9:01 AM on March 24

These were a Christmas staple growing up and one of the things I miss most being celiac. However a cafe up the way just started making gf ones and I have visited way more often than is healthy lately. As I grew older my family moved to box mixes that were way too sweet but I still remember anxious awaiting for the chocolate to harden and usually getting in trouble because I messed up the chocolate glaze with finger prints testing to see if I could have one when I was 7. Such a Canadian classic.

Also that Nanaimo joke was perfect and I always love the posts that bring out the Islanders. Even if I do feel that Port Alberni shame in my bones waiting to be mocked :)
posted by kanata at 9:01 AM on March 24 [2 favorites]

I saw this article earlier and really want to try making them! Does anyone have a good recipe they can recommend? (Preferably one in metric, rather than cup measures. I can never get my head around cups.)
posted by winterhill at 9:06 AM on March 24

ok look womb to tomb is not verbiage I want associated with candy alright

When Bill Kirchen plays his song "Womb to the Tomb" live the lyrics include some mix of "from the birth to the earth," "from the basket to the casket," "from the nurse to the hearse," "from the sperms to the worms," and my favorite "Portland east to Portland west."
posted by Killick at 9:11 AM on March 24 [7 favorites]

Somehow despite growing up in upstate New York my mother stumbled on a recipe for these around the time I was born so we grew up with “Napoleons” being a family staple and somewhat unique Christmas treat. She often makes them with various puddings including pistachio, coffee, or adding maraschino for cherry. That started in the 70s and it was only about fifteen years ago that I learned their origin and proper name. For me they will always mean Christmas and nostalgia.
posted by meinvt at 9:15 AM on March 24 [1 favorite]

I can feel my blood sugar spiking just contemplating these things. I must have them someday.
posted by Halloween Jack at 9:17 AM on March 24 [3 favorites]

As someone from the Island, I would just like to say Nanaimo bars are revolting. The sledgehammer of desserts.
posted by JamesBay at 10:56 AM on March 24 [2 favorites]

My mom makes, bar none, the best Nanaimo bars in the world and any other treat I consume that goes by that name is always hugely disappointing. It has to use Bird’s Custard Powder and don’t even start with mint or walnuts (which differentiated my grandma’s from my mom’s). On this I am a complete purist.
posted by synecdoche at 1:05 PM on March 24 [3 favorites]

Could a non-chocolate version be made with peanut butter?
posted by parmanparman at 1:16 PM on March 24

For American shoppers looking for Mrs. Bird's Custard, you can find it either in the international aisle of the grocery store, and I include places like Cub/Rainbow/Large warehouse like grocery stores or your local Jamaican/Islander store. For Aussies, Mrs. Bird's was found at Coles' international aisle as well. How is Mrs. Bird's compared to other powdered custard? All a matter of taste. Mrs. Bird's is OLD school flavor. I am a big Mrs.Bird Custard fan and can say that the stuff is delicious and good. Because of its simple ingredients, you want to use really good milk. Enhancements to the custard include vanilla paste, and booze (amaretto or Frangelico work a treat). It is excellent to spoon in a bowl or plate topped with an almond cake slice.

Why not make old fashioned custard? Mrs. Bird's becomes really thick and only requires a spoon or two of sugar and milk. When making custard you are looking at eggs, milk/cream and technique with making a custard like a creme anglaise that thick.

Some recipes just work better with the more convenient method such as sausage rolls. I mean you COULD make your own puff pastry and sausage but really, why? Buying puff sheets and decent mass produced sausages will work fine. Also, your heathen children will inevitably like it better than the posh version.
posted by jadepearl at 1:27 PM on March 24 [1 favorite]

The sledgehammer of desserts.

That literally makes me drool
posted by The Toad at 1:48 PM on March 24

They are best when one (or even two) of the layers is just a little bit unsweetened. I salute the principle of semisweet chocolate for the top, but I also cut sugar in the bottom crumb crust too -- you get the rich taste without the cloying gloopy quality,

And Nanaimo is becoming the haven of choice for Vancouverites fleeing the insane property prices, so it's less bikers and hookers and more small-scale Granville Island. Source: three cousins on the Island now.
posted by jrochest at 2:04 PM on March 24 [2 favorites]

I buy mine from the Chinese woman who runs the café on the lower platform at Lionel-Groulx metro station.

They're wonderful.
posted by zadcat at 3:02 PM on March 24 [1 favorite]

Yeah a bunch of fellow poor people I know are getting priced out of Nanaimo and it is unrecognizable from when I lived there in the 90s. But biker weed from Nanaimo is still a thing.
posted by kanata at 6:10 PM on March 24 [2 favorites]

I am a lifelong Vancouver Islander.
My mom made them all the time, but Nanaimo bars were never my thing.
I have a sweet tooth, but usually found them too... rich?
After all this talk, I tried one today.
It was incredible.
posted by wats at 9:08 PM on March 24 [3 favorites]

Could a non-chocolate version be made with peanut butter?


Or!! Creamy PB layer in the middle of the chocolate, Reese's style?

My mom actually used to do a variation with cherry filling in the middle instead of the vanilla custard.
THAT one was freaking good...
posted by wats at 9:27 PM on March 24 [1 favorite]

This kinda reminds me of something ubiquitous to the States’ school bakesales, sometimes called Hello Dolly Bars or Magic Bars (I’ve heard other names too). It’s a layered thing with graham cracker crumbs, nuts, shredded coconut and chocolate pieces loosely bound together with sweetened condensed milk. The result is intensely sugary with goo supplied by the condensed milk, slightly offset by semi-sweet chocolate pieces, a little like a Mounds bar with a crust. The main difference is speed of preparation—there’s no mixing, only layering. I recommend it highly for those craving bars but lacking mixing utensils and time.
posted by kinnakeet at 7:05 AM on March 25

For American shoppers looking for Mrs. Bird's Custard, you can find it either in the international aisle of the grocery store

I had a conversation with my purveyor of Bird's Custard recently... Apparently, Brexit has made it more difficult for him to bring it into his shop! *shakes fist at the heavens*
posted by Ashwagandha at 2:28 PM on March 25

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