A Bite-Size Square of Canada’s History, Culture and Craving

A Bite-Size Square of Canada’s History, Culture and Craving

The Canadian city of Nanaimo, in British Columbia, has been a scrappy outpost of the Hudson’s Bay Company, a coal mining center and a timber town. But its place in history may be forever entwined with its culinary namesake, one of the world’s sweetest treats.

The Nanaimo bar (pronounced nuh-NYE-mo) is a three-layer no-bake square that for the last seven decades or so has been a steadfast source of comfort to Canadians at weddings and funerals, birthdays and bar mitzvahs. Across the country, you’ll find the sugary bars for sale at small-town gas stations and supermarkets, where they compete with Nanaimo bar baking kits. The Tim Hortons restaurant chain even created a filled doughnut with the flavors of the Nanaimo bar for the nation’s sesquicentennial in 2017, a nod to its status.

Even its name is proudly Canadian.

“I like to call it the Kardashian of Canadian desserts because really, if it had been named anything else, I don’t think it would have lasted,” said Lenore Newman, the author of “Speaking in Cod Tongues: A Canadian Culinary Journey.” “But it’s the Nanaimo bar, so of course people make it.”

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.

Joyce Hardcastle, a widow with two children, pulled a recipe, provenance unknown, from her recipe box and decided to enter Nanaimo’s contest. Allergic to walnuts, she swapped in almonds. And she made the bars with European-style unsalted butter, rather than the salted butter that was often used.

“I really think that the city didn’t want peanut butter in them, or mint or liqueur,” Ms. Hardcastle said. “I think they just wanted something basic, and that’s what I did — the really basic Nanaimo bars — and that’s what won, to my surprise.”

She has since sold tea towels and aprons printed with her recipe, and 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.

Custard powder may be one reason the Nanaimo bar hasn’t spread farther south. While it is available online and at some specialty stores in the United States, it remains a relatively obscure ingredient to Americans. Some recipes say instant vanilla pudding can be used as a substitute, but that makes the buttercream clumpy, and the finished bar lacks that essential yellow hue.

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