These classic Nanaimo bars are one of Canada’s most popular desserts. They have a fudgy chocolate and coconut cookie base, a creamy custard buttercream filling, and a smooth chocolate ganache on top. Every bite is like a taste of heaven that will keep you coming back for more! A tall stack of Nanaimo bars on a marble cutting board.

What are Nanaimo bars?

Nanaimo bars are a no-bake dessert consisting of three distinct layers: a chocolate-coconut graham cracker base, a custard buttercream filling, and chocolate ganache on top. Each layer is extremely different from one another, but put together it’s like a trifecta effect of flavours and textures, which is what makes this dessert so unique and amazing.

It was named after the city of Nanaimo, British Columbia, where it became popular in the years following the Second World War. It subsequently rose to wider prominence after Expo 86 where it was featured in The Official Cookbook of Expo 86. In 2006, the Nanaimo bar was declared Canada’s favourite confection by a reader’s poll in the National Post. (source: The Canadian Encyclopedia)

Sliced Nanaimo bars on wax paper and white cutting board.

Why this recipe is so great:

  • A classic made even better – Keeping things as authentic as possible, there are just a few minor tweaks I made to the original recipe:
    • Added more custard powder for more flavour and made the center part thicker for a better filling-to-crust ratio.
    • Increased the amount of chocolate on top for a slightly thicker chocolate ganache layer.
    • Used pecans instead of almonds because pecans are much easier to finely chop and provide a better flavour.
    • Used heavy cream in the ganache instead of butter for a creamier top layer that is easier to cut.
  • Keeps well – These bars will last up to a week refrigerated and they freeze really well up to 3 months. Simply thaw overnight in the fridge and they are good as new.
  • A triple threat treat – Between a rich creamy buttercream filling, a coconutty brownie-like base, and smooth bold chocolate, this is the ultimate triple threat dessert. Each layer is uniquely delicious and melt-in-your-mouth good.

A slab of Nanaimo bars with two stacked on top.

What is in a Nanaimo bar:

  • Unsalted butter – use good-quality butter like European-style or country churned
  • Granulated sugar & powdered sugar
  • Unsweetened cocoa powder – regular or Dutch-processed
  • An egg
  • Pinch of salt
  • Graham cracker crumbs
  • Shredded coconut – use unsweetened finely shredded coconut for the best taste and texture
  • Pecans – walnuts work too if you prefer
  • Custard powder – Bird’s original custard powder is the key ingredient to an authentic Nanaimo bar, but any kind of custard powder will work, or even instant vanilla pudding mix if custard powder is not available
  • Vanilla extract
  • Heavy cream or whipping cream – highly preferred over milk for a creamy thick buttercream and smooth ganache
  • Semi-sweet chocolate – use good-quality melting chocolate like Callebaut, or baking chocolate like Baker’s brand

How to make Nanaimo bars:

(the ingredient amounts are listed in the printable recipe card further below)

making chocolate mixture and adding coconut, graham cracker crumbs, and pecans to the mixture.

  • Melt the butter in a large heatproof bowl over a saucepan of very gently simmering water. Whisk in the sugar, cocoa powder, and salt. Remove from heat and slowly add in the egg while whisking vigorously. Return to heat and cook for 1-2 more minutes until the mixture is smooth and resembles hot fudge.
  • Add in the graham cracker crumbs, shredded coconut, and chopped nuts.

preparing chocolate coconut graham cracker cookie base for bars

  • Stir until well combined. The mixture might appear dry at first, but keep mixing and it will come together.
  • Transfer the mixture to a parchment paper-lined 9×9″ pan. Press it firmly and evenly into the bottom of the pan and place in the fridge to chill while preparing the next layer.

making custard buttercream filling for Nanaimo bars

  • In a large mixing bowl, beat the butter, custard powder, and vanilla until combined. Mix in 1 cup of powdered sugar along with 1 tablespoon of cream at a time, mixing in between until smooth.
  • Spread the buttercream evenly on top of the base layer using an offset spatula. Place in the freezer for 10-15 minutes to firm up while preparing the next layer.

melting chocolate for chocolate ganache topping

  • Melt the chocolate with the cream in a medium heatproof bowl over a saucepan of very gently simmering water until completely melted and smooth.
  • Pour over the cold buttercream and quickly spread it all over using an offset spatula. Place back in the fridge until ready to cut into squares or bars. See expert tips on how to cut below.

Expert tips:

Tempering the egg

Lightly beat the egg in a small bowl beforehand, so you can easily add it to the chocolate-butter mixture in a slow steady stream while whisking vigorously to prevent scrambling the egg. Now the mixture might still look curdled and separated, but continue whisking and cooking it for another 1-2 minutes, and it will become smooth and homogenous.

Alternative method – For those who don’t feel comfortable or trust tempering eggs, you can bake the base. Simply mix all the ingredients together including the egg. Press it evenly into the prepared pan and bake at 350F for 10 minutes. Let it cool completely before spreading the buttercream on top. Please note: Baking will make the base drier, so it will not be as fudgy.

Melting the chocolate

Make sure the bowl fits tightly over the saucepan, so no steam escapes and no small amounts of water can splash onto the chocolate, which will cause it to seize. Also, make sure the water is not touching the bowl. Just a shallow amount, like an inch or two of water, is needed. When it comes to melting chocolate, low and slow is key. Keep the water just steaming and not boiling to slowly melt the chocolate and cream together.

Alternative method – You can also melt the chocolate and cream together in the microwave at 50% power for 30 seconds at a time, stirring in between, until completely melted and smooth.

How to cut Nanaimo bars without cracking the chocolate 

After you spread the chocolate ganache on top, place in the fridge for about 20-30 minutes for the chocolate to be almost set. Using a thin, sharp knife, score along the chocolate, creating lines where you are going to cut the bars. Just score through the chocolate and not the buttercream layer. Place back in the fridge for another 30 minutes or until completely firm, then cut along the lines all the way through the bars, pressing downwards. Wipe the knife clean between each cut for perfect slices.

Cut Nanaimo bars on a sheet of wax paper and marble cutting board.

FAQ:

What is in custard powder?

The main ingredient is cornstarch. Other ingredients are salt, colour, and artificial flavour.

Do you have to refrigerate Nanaimo bars?

Yes, you do have to refrigerate them because they contain eggs and dairy.

Can you freeze Nanaimo bars?

Yes, they freeze exceptionally well. Place them in a freezer-friendly container or heavy-duty ziplock bag and store them in the freezer for up to 3 months. Thaw overnight in the fridge before serving.

A slab of Nanaimo bars partially cut on parchment paper.

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BEST Nanaimo Bars Recipe


  • Author: Lily Ernst
  • Prep Time: 25 min
  • Cook Time: 20 min
  • Total Time: 45 minutes
  • Yield: 16-32

Description

These classic Nanaimo bars have a fudgy chocolate and coconut cookie base, a creamy custard buttercream filling, and a smooth chocolate ganache on top. Every bite is like a taste of heaven that will keep you coming back for more!


Ingredients

Base:

  • ½ cup (113g) unsalted butter
  • ¼ cup (50g) sugar
  • 5 tbsp (30g) unsweetened cocoa powder
  • ¼ tsp salt
  • 1 large egg, lightly beaten
  • 1 ¾ cup (180g) graham cracker crumbs
  • ½ cup (50g) pecans, finely chopped
  • 1 cup (85g) unsweetened finely shredded coconut

Filling:

  • ½ cup unsalted butter, softened
  • 3 tbsp custard powder
  • ½ tsp vanilla
  • 3 cups (375g) powdered sugar
  • 3 tbsp heavy cream (plus 1-2 tsp only if needed)

Top layer:

  • 6oz semi-sweet chocolate, chopped
  • 3 tbsp heavy cream

Instructions

  1. Butter and line a 9×9″ square pan with parchment paper or aluminum foil, leaving an overhang on two sides for easy removal. Set aside.
  2. Melt the butter in a large heatproof bowl over a saucepan of very gently simmering water. Whisk in the sugar, cocoa powder, and salt. Remove from heat and slowly add in the egg while whisking vigorously. Return to heat and cook for 1-2 more minutes until the mixture is smooth and resembles hot fudge.
  3. Add in the graham cracker crumbs, shredded coconut, and chopped nuts.
  4. Stir until well combined. The mixture might appear dry at first, but keep mixing and it will come together.
  5. Transfer the mixture to the prepared pan. Press it firmly and evenly into the bottom of the pan and place in the fridge to chill while preparing the next layer.
  6. In a large mixing bowl, beat the butter, custard powder, and vanilla until combined. Mix in 1 cup of powdered sugar along with 1 tablespoon of cream at a time, mixing in between until smooth. Add 1-2 more teaspoons of cream, ONLY if needed, to reach a thick and spreadable consistency.
  7. Spread the buttercream evenly on top of the base layer using an offset spatula. Place in the freezer for 10-15 minutes to firm up while preparing the next layer.
  8. Melt the chocolate with the cream in a medium heatproof bowl over a saucepan of very gently simmering water, stirring frequently, until completely melted and smooth.
  9. Pour over the cold buttercream and quickly spread it all over using an offset spatula. Place back in the fridge until ready to cut into squares. See expert tips on how to cut below.

Notes

How to cut: 

After you spread the chocolate ganache on top, place in the fridge for about 20-30 minutes for the chocolate to be almost set. Using a thin, sharp knife, score along the chocolate, creating lines where you are going to cut the bars. Just score through the chocolate and not the buttercream layer. Place back in the fridge for another 30 minutes or until completely firm, then cut along the lines all the way through the bars, pressing downwards. Wipe the knife clean between each cut for perfect slices.

How to store:

Refrigerate leftovers in an airtight container for up to a week or freeze them in a heavy-duty ziplock bag or freezer-safe container for up to 3 months.

  • Category: dessert
  • Method: stovetop
  • Cuisine: Canadian

Keywords: Nanaimo bar recipe

Recipe adapted from the City of Nanaimo website.

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