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Daring Bakers Go Canadian (Nanaimo Bars)


The January 2010 Daring Bakers’ challenge was hosted by Lauren of Celiac Teen [2]. 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 [3] and www.nanaimo.ca [4].

The Nanaimo bar is a dessert of Canadian origin popular across North America. It’s a type of layered no-bake bar named after the city of Nanaimo, British Columbia. It consists of a chocolate and graham cracker crumb layer, topped by a layer of light vanilla or custard flavored buttercream, which is covered in yet more chocolate.  The bar is thought to have originated south of Nanaimo in Ladysmith in the early 1950s by a local housewife from Cowichan Bay, by the name of Mabel Jenkins.  Mabel submitted the recipe for publication in the Cowichan Women’s Institute Cookbook.  The bars became quite popular and were soon being sold in many of the coffee shops in and around Nanaimo.  They were originally called Mabel Bars, but area tourists came to refer to them as “Nanaimo Bars”, and the name caught on.  They have since come to be known as one of Canada’s favorite confections.


Okay, I’m just going to say it and get it over with. While I love my neighbors north of the border, I did not like these bars.  Not even a little bit.  I really wanted to. I mean, what’s not to like about chocolate, coconut and custard?  The recipe and the pictures I saw looked so good!  And, I’m pretty sure that I made them correctly, because mine looked just like the ones in the pictures.  I used really good quality ingredients too.  But, when it came right down to it, I just didn’t like the way they tasted.  They were just waaaaay too rich and sweet for me.  Almost sickeningly sweet!  And, they had a weird mouth feel too.  It was like biting into a hunk of really sweet, chocolate-flavored butter. It was kind of sad, really.  Other people liked them, though.  Mini SGCC ate several. And, the folks at the office enjoyed them. Then again, if they didn’t like them, they probably wouldn’t have said so for fear that I would stop bringing them treats.


On the bright side, I really did like the gluten free graham crackers that we had to make for the crust layer of the Nanaimo Bars.  In fact, I liked them so much that I made a second batch using regular flour, even though that dough was a b%&#@ to work with!  They were crunchy and deeply permeated with the flavors of honey and dark brown sugar.  They were so delicious that even Mr. SGCC indulged!  I will definitely make them again.  I’ll bet they would make awesome s’mores!


If you’d like to see how the rest of the Daring Bakers fared with this challenge, stop by the Daring Kitchen [8] and check out the blogroll [9].   If you’d like to try making Nanaimo Bars for yourself, the recipe follows.


Nanaimo Bars


For 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 (recipe follows)
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)

For Nanaimo Bars — 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

For Nanaimo Bars — Top Layer
4 ounces (115 g) Semi-sweet chocolate
2 tablespoons (28 g) (1 ounce) Unsalted Butter



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.


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


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


  • These bars freeze very well, so don’t be afraid to pop some into the freezer.
  • The graham wafers may be kept in an airtight container for up to 2 weeks.
  • If making the graham crackers with wheat, replace the gluten-free flours (tapioca starch, sweet rice flour, and sorghum flour) with 2 ½ cups plus 2 tbsp of all-purpose wheat flour, or wheat pastry flour. Watch the wheat-based graham wafers very closely in the oven, as they bake faster than the gluten-free ones, sometimes only 12 minutes.
  • For the Nanaimo Bars, if making with wheat, replace the gluten-free graham wafer crumbs with equal parts wheat graham wafer crumbs!

Gluten-Free Graham Wafers


1 cup (138 g) (4.9 ounces) Sweet rice flour (also known as glutinous rice flour)
3/4 cup (100 g) (3.5 ounces) Tapioca Starch/Flour
1/2 cup (65 g) (2.3 ounces) Sorghum Flour
1 cup (200 g) (7.1 ounces) Dark Brown Sugar, Lightly packed
1 teaspoon (5 mL) Baking soda
3/4 teaspoon (4 mL ) Kosher Salt
7 tablespoons (100 g) (3 ½ ounces) Unsalted Butter (Cut into 1-inch cubes and frozen)
1/3 cup (80 mL) Honey, Mild-flavored such as clover.
5 tablespoons (75 mL) Whole Milk
2 tablespoons (30 mL) Pure Vanilla Extract



1. In the bowl of a food processor fitted with a steel blade, combine the flours, brown sugar, baking soda, and salt. Pulse on low to incorporate. Add the butter and pulse on and off, until the mixture is the consistency of a coarse meal. If making by hand, combine aforementioned dry ingredients with a whisk, then cut in butter until you have a coarse meal. No chunks of butter should be visible.

2. In a small bowl or liquid measuring cup, whisk together the honey, milk and vanilla. Add to the flour mixture until the dough barely comes together. It will be very soft and sticky.


3. Turn the dough onto a surface well-floured with sweet rice flour and pat the dough into a rectangle about 1 inch thick. Wrap in plastic and chill until firm, about 2 hours, or overnight.

4. Divide the dough in half and return one half to the refrigerator. Sift an even layer of sweet rice flour onto the work surface and roll the dough into a long rectangle, about 1/8 inch thick. The dough will be quite sticky, so flour as necessary. Cut into 4 by 4 inch squares. Gather the scraps together and set aside. Place wafers on one or two parchment-lined baking sheets. Chill until firm, about 30 to 45 minutes. Repeat with the second batch of dough.

5. Adjust the rack to the upper and lower positions and preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit (180 degrees Celsius).

6. Gather the scraps together into a ball, chill until firm, and reroll. Dust the surface with more sweet rice flour and roll out the dough to get a couple more wafers.

7. Prick the wafers with toothpick or fork, not all the way through, in two or more rows.

8. Bake for 25 minutes, until browned and slightly firm to the touch, rotating sheets halfway through to ensure even baking. Might take less, and the starting location of each sheet may determine its required time. The ones that started on the bottom browned faster.

9. When cooled completely, place enough wafers in food processor to make 1 ¼ cups (300 mL) of crumbs. Another way to do this is to place in a large zip lock bag, force all air out and smash with a rolling pin until wafers are crumbs.