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daring bakers: nanaimo bars

nanaimo bars stacked

The January 2010 Daring Bakers’ challenge was hosted by Lauren of Celiac Teen. Lauren chose Gluten-Free Graham Wafers and Nanaimo Bars as the challenge for the month. The sources she based her recipe on are 101 Cookbooks and Recipes for whole wheat graham crackers and Nanaimo bars at the end of the post.

Let me warn you, I’m slapping these in the “600 calorie death spiral” category ASAP. Nanaimo bars are sweet. Tooth-achingly, sugar coma-inducing sweet. Guess how much butter this recipe packs into an 8 x 8 pan?

Okay, you guessed two. I’ll give that to you, because it was obvious. How about this? What is that yellow, creamy middle layer 90% comprised of?

Drat, you guessed a stick of butter. And you were right.

Nanaimo bars — I keep wanting to call them Nanowrimo bars —are a Canadian invention, intended to nourish moose hunters in the frigid Yukon winters much like the Eskimos gained their needed calories from whale blubber. It’s common for moosers (as the great Yukon moose hunters call themselves) to fabricate dozens of batches of Nanaimo bars in the fall, pack them in their own dogsled, and thus haul the sweets with them throughout their winter hunting on the tundra.

quit making things up already

homemade whole grain graham crackers

There were two required parts to this Daring Bakers Challenge: make your own graham crackers, preferably gluten-free, and make the Nanaimo bars. The gluten-free grahams recipe called for several specialty flours, and I didn’t look forward to a) hunting them down or b) spending $30 on flours I literally would never use again.

Instead, I made a graham cracker recipe I’ve made before: Whole wheat graham crackers from King Arthur Flour Whole Grain Baking. As always with crackers, I had trouble rolling the dough thin enough (read: I couldn’t). However, even the crackers that came out thick and cookie-like were tasty, of course. How could they not be? Crackers are made using the same cutting-solid-fat-into-flour method as pie crust. Don’t expect homemade crackers to be similar to store-bought. They are very rich in comparison — not the kind of cracker you can eat a few dozen of easily.

ingredients for the bottom layer of nanaimo bars

Nanaimo bars are three layers: bottom is crushed grahams, cocoa, chopped nuts, coconut, butter. The butter middle layer is basically butter, with some powdered sugar and custard powder. I can only imagine those dry ingredients are added to the butter to stabilize it, because they don’t add much flavor. The top layer is melted chocolate chips with…guess. Come on, guess. Butter!

nanaimo bar up close and personal

As you also may have guessed, Nanaimo bars aren’t quite my cup of tea. I found them cloyingly sweet (and I like sweets) with little going on other than chocolate and butter. The nuts, coconut, and grahams are entirely lost, and I have no idea what the custard powder is supposed to taste like because the layer it’s in simply tastes like a stick of butter.

nanaimo bars stacked, top view

However! Linda and Dad really liked them. Mom thought they were too dark chocolate-like. So I’m likely the weirdo here, missing out on something amazing.

whole grain graham crackers

Adapted with permission from King Arthur Flour Whole Grain Baking.

oven: 350 degrees
yield: 6 dozen 3-inch crackers
baking time: 12 to 15 minutes

    1 cup (4 ounces) whole wheat flour
    1/2 cup (2 ounces) whole barley flour
    1/2 cup (2-1/8 ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour
    1/4 cup (1-7/8 ounces) packed light or dark brown sugar
    1/4 cup (1-3/4 ounces) granulated sugar
    1 teaspoon baking powder
    1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
    1/2 teaspoon salt
    1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
    1/2 cup (1 stick, 4 ounces) unsalted butter, chilled
    1/4 cup (2 ounces) milk
    Cinnamon sugar (optional)

Combine dry ingredients in a large bowl. Cut in butter until the mixture is crumbly. Alternately, use a food processor, and pulse in short bursts until butter is nearly pea-sized.

whole grain graham cracker dough

Add the milk and combine until you have a stiff dough. You may need to add a bit more or less milk depending on local humidity. Knead the dough lightly until it’s smooth. It’s okay to work with this dough a little bit, but take care to only knead until the bread is smooth — you don’t want to completely incorporate the butter; you want to be able to see bits of butter poking through.

Divide dough into 2 pieces and flatten into a rectangle. Wrap in plastic wrap and chill until firm, about an hour, or overnight. I chilled mine overnight.

whole grain graham cracker dough, rolled out

Working with one piece of dough at a time, and leaving the other in the fridge, roll out the rectangle very thin on floured parchment paper, about 1/16th of an inch thick. With a sharp knife or a pizza cutter (I prefer the pizza cutter), trim the edges from the dough to form a clean rectangle about 9 x 12 inches. Save scraps to re-roll later.

whole grain graham cracker dough, edges trimmed

Cut the dough into 3-inch squares, then cut each square in half. Prick the crackers with a fork or a dough docker. Transfer the parchment, dough and all, to a baking sheet.

whole grain graham cracker dough, cut and docked

Repeat with second piece of dough, saving its scraps as well. Re-roll the scraps into more crackers. The re-rolled dough bakes up surprisingly well, not much tougher at all, nearly indistinguishable from the “virgin” crackers.

homemade whole grain graham crackers topped with cinnamon sugar

Top crackers with cinnamon sugar, if desired.

sheet of whole grain graham crackers, freshly baked

Bake crackers until lightly browned, 12 to 15 minutes. I found 14 minutes worked well in my oven, and I did one pan at a time while rolling and preparing the next. Transfer crackers to a wire rack to cool.

For Nanaimo bars, place graham crackers in a plastic bag and crush with a rolling pin to make 1-1/4 cups graham cracker crumbs.

nanaimo bars

Bottom Layer

    1/2 cup (115 g) (4 ounces) Unsalted Butter
    1/4 cup (50 g) (1.8 ounces) Granulated Sugar
    5 tablespoons (75 mL) Unsweetened Cocoa
    1 Large Egg, Beaten
    1 1/4 cups (300 mL) (160 g) (5.6 ounces) Gluten Free Graham Wafer Crumbs (See previous recipe)
    1/2 cup (55 g) (1.9 ounces) Almonds (Any type, Finely chopped)
    1 cup (130 g) (4.5 ounces) Coconut (Shredded, sweetened or unsweetened)

Middle Layer

    1/2 cup (115 g) (4 ounces) Unsalted Butter
    2 tablespoons and 2 teaspoons (40 mL) Heavy Cream
    2 tablespoons (30 mL) Vanilla Custard Powder (Such as Bird’s. Vanilla pudding mix may be substituted.)
    2 cups (254 g) (8.9 ounces) Icing Sugar

Top Layer

    4 ounces (115 g) Semi-sweet chocolate
    2 tablespoons (28 g) (1 ounce) Unsalted Butter


nanaimo bars, bottom layer "dough"

1. For bottom Layer: Melt unsalted butter, sugar and cocoa in top of a double boiler. Add egg and stir to cook and thicken. Remove from heat. Stir in crumbs, nuts and coconut. Press firmly into an ungreased 8 by 8 inch pan.

nanaimo bars bottom layer in pan

2. For Middle Layer: Cream butter, cream, custard powder, and icing sugar together well. Beat until light in colour. Spread over bottom layer.

nanaimo bars second layer

3. For Top Layer: Melt chocolate and unsalted butter over low heat. Cool. Once cool, pour over middle layer and chill. Makes 16 servings.

Each serving is 312 calories. Two bars surpasses the 600 calorie death spiral threshold.

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your comments

  1. Brady says:

    Nanaimo bars often include mint in the middle layer, so you may want to try adjusting your recipe to include that, if you’re a fan of mint and chocolate (generally green food colouring is added to the icing if you flavour it with mint, to warn the crazy people who don’t like mint and chocolate)

    Traditional bars have a custard or vanilla flavour to the middle, I’ve never had one that simply tastes like butter, and let me tell you, I’ve eaten a LOT of Nanaimo bars! My grandma used to make these babies every weekend when I was young.

    • Amy says:

      Thanks for the ideas. I LOVE mint and chocolate. It’s good to know that maybe it was just a bum recipe (or I was a bum cook!).

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