Much like the butter tart and date square, the Nanaimo bar fits Canada’s apparent fondness for rich, decadent sweets. It is a dessert bar that requires no baking and generally consists of three layers: a graham wafer crumb and shredded coconut base, custard-flavored butter icing in the middle, and a layer of chocolate ganache on top. It is named after Nanaimo, British Columbia, where it was popularized in the years following WWII. It subsequently rose to wider prominence after Expo ’86.
Susan Mendelson is perhaps most responsible for commercializing the Nanaimo bar. She sold the bar during the 1970s to help pay her tuition, and in 1979 founded The Lazy Gourmet, a café and catering company in Vancouver, which claims to be the first business to sell the dessert. Mendelson wrote the official cookbook for Expo ’86, held in Vancouver, and included the Nanaimo bar.
After that, the Nanaimo bar began to be sold on BC Ferries and spread in popularity across Canada. It can now be found in Costco, Starbucks and countless cafes in Canada and the United States. There can be some variations with each of these layers — e.g., adding mint, mocha or other flavoring, as well as food coloring, to the icing center, or various nuts to the base — but a classic Nanaimo follows the traditional trio.
In a bid to take advantage of the bar’s popularity, the city of Nanaimo launched a tasting trail much like Ontario has done for the butter tart. Different locations in and around Nanaimo serve different variations on the classic dessert, from flavors such as maple bacon and peanut butter to deep-fried Nanaimo bars, Nanaimo bar spring rolls, Nanaimo bar waffles and cheesecake and Nanaimo bar coffee and cocktails.
All that being said , here’s my Christmas version of a Nanaimo thumbprint cookie.
- 1/3 cup butter, softened
- 1 1/4 cups powdered sugar
- 2 Tbsp Bird's Custard Powder SEE NOTE AT BOTTOM
- 1-2 Tbsp cream (whipping or half & half)
- 1/2 tsp vanilla
- 1/4 tsp salt
- In a bowl, beat the butter, powdered sugar, custard powder, cream and vanilla until smooth and fluffy, adding a bit more cream or powdered sugar as needed to create a spreadable frosting. Place the filling in a piping bag fitted with a 1/2-inch plain tip, or in a zip-lock bag; seal and and cut off one corner.
- Pipe some frosting into each cooled cookie. In a small bowl, melt the chocolate & butter in the microwave in 10 second increments, stirring in between, until smooth. Drizzle the cookies with a fork. Set back on the cooled baking sheets to allow them to set.
Substitute for Bird's Custard Powder:
- For each Tbsp of custard powder that's called for in the recipe, you can make your own custard mix with 1 Tbsp of cornstarch plus 1 tsp of vanilla extract & a pinch of salt.