Why hello there, and welcome back to Kitchen Catatrophes, one man’s attempt to face the culinary Klondike, and come back with some bearclaws. I’m your Yukon yokel yearning for broke-l, Jon O’Guin. Today’s topic is a dish well loved by my family, Nanaimo Bars. If you want to skip the deets and get straight to the eats, follow this link for the recipe! For those of you down with the deets, let’s dive in.
(Editor’s note: Hey guys, Future Jon here. As those of you reading this the day it’s posted can see, this post is SUPER late, due to a dental emergency that knocked me out of commission for several days. In order to give a better understanding of just how bad things were, I’m going to interject whenever you change which Day of Jon you’re dealing with. This first section, for instance, was actually started by Friday Jon.)
Diving Deep with Dessert
The first thing you need to understand is the answer to the question “What is a Nanaimo bar?” And the answer is “a type of bar cookie that is sort of like an oreo on steroids.”
A phrase Nabisco heard in their dark hearts, and thus invented the “Most Stuft Oreo”.
Specifically, Nanaimo bars have a chocolate-coconut base, a pale but creamy center, and a layer of chocolate ganache on top. Chocolate-cream-chocolate, hence the oreo comparison. That question answered, the next question people tend to ask is “what the hell’s a Nanaimo?” And that is another simple answer.
(EDITOR: At this point, Friday Jon felt he’d helped enough, and left the next section for Saturday Jon, who woke up with a weird toothache, and actually spent the whole day doing other stuff. So SUNDAY Jon is the one who picks this up, and by Sunday, the toothache was really starting to kick his ass.)
Nanaimo is a city in Canada, on Vancouver Island, right in the middle of British Columbia (the part of Canada right above Washington state). It was originally inhabited by the Snuneymuxw people, a fact I note mostly just to ruin my life later when I record the audio for this post, as holy crap, how do you do “xw” as an ending set of sounds?! But I digress. The town USED to be based around coal mining, but has since become something of a lumber town, and is really trying to find itself in the modern era. (it also has a really weird history with television: It’s the birthplace of Thing from the Addams Family movies in the 90’s, as well as a guy who played Lurch in the short-lived “New Addams Family” TV show, an actress credited on Netflix shows Hemlock Grove and Black Mirror…and also Justin Chatwin, famous for playing Goku in the famously TERRIBLE movie Dragonball: Evolution, and Jodelle Ferland, who played Bree Tanner in Twilight: Eclipse. So the town’s actors REALLY specialize in horror(s) for some reason.) Probably. I’ve never been.
But I COULD be, pretty quickly. Nanaimo is actually closer to my house than the town at which I went to college (where I learned to use “at which” to avoid ending sentences in prepositions.), and can easily be reached in a few hours’ drive. It’s a pretty easy trip to make. And it’s a good thing it is, because it was the result of a friend MAKING that trip, as far as I know, that my family learned about the dish at all.
Supposedly this is what Nanaimo looks like. Is this picture relevant? Not really, but I really didn’t want to use a still from Dragonball: Evolution for last paragraph’s joke.
Quick Disclaimer here: My family is notoriously bad at hearing and remembering things, my mother and I especially. (Nate is also pretty bad about it, but he covers for it by being very efficient and serious, so you end up assuming that YOU had to be the one that forgot, not him.) As such, it’s entirely possible that my family was aware of the dessert before I became aware of it, or even that I personally had the bars before the events I’m about to describe, and just didn’t remember. But here’s the story as I recall it.
One of the things people tend to be surprised by, the longer they know members of my family, is the number of things we’ve just DONE. Not that we’re super-accomplished people, but rather that we seem to have a sort of experiential Teflon: we don’t look like people who care super much about…anything, so learning about our various hobbies surprises people. Which is understandable, as we tend to drop hobbies after a while and not reference them. My family spent YEARS hiking and camping all over Washington as Boy Scouts. Each one of my brothers and I are Eagle Scouts… and we haven’t really hiked except for a couple special occasions since. As I referenced last week, Stephen and I spent a month in Australia as teens. And one of the hobbies we picked up was Scuba-diving.
The only picture of ANY of us Scuba Diving on social media was one of Stephen, at just enough of a distance that it’s hard to recognize him, so instead, here’s a random picture I grabbed from another site.
Yes, Nathan, Stephen and Myself were certified (and maybe still ARE, I don’t know when your certification expires…I looked it up, the answer is ‘never’. My brothers and I are legally still certified.) as fully-trained scuba divers. It was a hobby we got into due to a friend of the family, Andrew Lloyd, who worked at the shipyard with my parents, lived about 1/3rd of a mile from our house, and whose son Charlie joined Cub Scouts with…Stephen or I. And it was on a trip to Nanaimo to go diving there that he found the bars, and brought them back. And I BELIEVE that’s where I first had them, as well as my brothers.
All of which is a great story that’s pretty unrelated to the creation of the dish today, I’m just trying to distract myself because one of my teeth is being a real pain. So let’s try and overcome that by making a rich and sweet dessert!
I was Going to Reference a Song with the line “Break Down” here, but I Literally Can’t Remember Any
Damn this dental dolor, it’s dulled my duties as a…d-logger. Shut up.
Anyway, one of the advantages of Nanaimo bars, especially with all the recent heat-waves, is that you don’t bake them at all. In fact, other than 5-6 minutes on the stove, and 3-4 minutes in the microwave, you don’t cook ANY of it. And the stove cooking is part of this first step! In particular, you’ve gotta toast some pecans. Now, today’s recipe is something of a Frankenstein, as I’ve hinted at in another post, and I’ll explain more thoroughly when we get to it, but the majority of it comes from Cook’s Country, one of the America’s Test Kitchen branch of food publications.
This is the height of heat contained in this culinary enterprise.
I mention this because in my brief research, this is the only recipe that specified to toast the pecans, instead of just mixing in chopped, so if you’re really anxious to avoid anything that would add heat to your house, you can do so. With the nuts toasted (or not), you’ve got to melt down some chocolate baking chips in the microwave. (If you’ve never done this, don’t worry: just set your microwave for like 2-3 minutes on 50% power, and every 30 seconds open the door and stir the chocolate with a spatula) The recipe calls for Ghiradelli 60% Cacao bittersweet chips, which, fortunately, were literally the first bag I grabbed from the pantry. Now, this is technically a 2-step first step. Well, actually, it’s like a 3-4 step first step. Because before you actually make the crust, you want to make sure you can get rid of it, too. By which I mean you want to line a baking dish with aluminum foil, and oil the foil.
Did I not mention that? Dang, I guess the oiled foil must have…slipped…my mind.
This way, the various very sticky components of this dish don’t adhere to the dish and tear when you’re done. THAT out of the way, you want to blend the bottom level in two stages: first, the dry ingredients, which are pretty wet, as far as dry ingredients go: you’ve got sweetened coconut shreds, the aforementioned nuts, a bunch of graham crackers, and some cocoa powder. Blend it for 30 seconds or so, just until it’s fully crumbled, then add the wet ingredients which consist of your melted chocolate and a…sinister sweetener.
If this doesn’t seem sinister enough for you, imagine we did one of those old school 80’s cartoon pull-ins through a thunderstorm into a castle on a mountain, where we discovered the corn syrup playing the pipe organ and wearing a cape.
Corn syrup is something of a nasty word these days, I know, but I do have to speak in this fellow’s defense, as corn syrup is not the same as high-fructose corn syrup, the ACTUAL target of the various health food critiques. The explanation is a little technical, but here’s how it goes: you make corn syrup by processing corn starch into a glucose-dense liquid. High Fructose corn syrup goes farther, processing the syrup to convert some of its glucose into fructose. For a medical analogy, corn syrup is the opium/morphine to High Fructose’s Heroin: it’s a step less refined, and therefore notably less worrying. Yes, it’s still bad to over-use it, but it has legitimate uses as well.
(ED- As the next paragraph states, at this point Sunday Jon calls it a night, and Monday Jon takes over. Not Monday MORNING Jon, as would be standard, since he’s the one who had to go to the Dentist. Oh no, this is Monday NIGHT Jon.)
What was I talking about? The crust, yes! Sorry, I went from a day of discomfort with a pounding toothache to 3 hours in a Dentist’s office to be told ‘Yep, that looks like a problem that someone ELSE should handle”, and getting sent home with warm regards and a bottle of painkillers. So at least now my pain is in management, if my mind has gone out to pasture. Now, personally, I think the Corn syrup might actually be something of a mistake here. Corn syrup is, in addition to being a sweetener, a humectant, which is a two-dollar word for “moist-maker”. Since it doesn’t crystallize easily at room temp, it keeps things wetter longer. And our crust turned out almost fudge or brownie-like, where most varieties I try are closer in consistency to say, shortbread.
This does look straight-up like brownie batter. But then again, doesn’t almost all chocolate treats poured into square pans?
So maybe try making it with straight sugar, but I have no idea if that’d work out, so if it explodes, blame the pain pills. Now, then, enough of our exploding fudge-like base, it’s time to abandon the recipe entirely for the middle portion!
You know, I frequently reference the Wu-Tang Song C.R.E.A.M, but, 100% Honesty, I really only know it from Wyclef Jean’s “Sweetest Girl”
Really long title there, Title Jon, but It’s my fault for asking you for a Cream joke knowing where we are medicinally. Anyway, the point is that we’re talking about the creamy filling, and why I completely abandoned the recipe to handle it. And the answer is, because I’m rad as shit. Because Cook’s Country recipe explicitly notes that they like to make it with Bird’s Custard Powder, but that it can be a bit difficult to find in America. But it ain’t hard for ME. (For some reason, multiple grocery stores in my area have British sections. I’m CONSTANTLY getting fucked up on Wine Gums and Tim-Tams. Neither of which are alcoholic. They’re just candy.)
(ED - That enormous digression convinced Monday night Jon that he was in over his head, and he passed out to let Tuesday Jon handle it. Which he did..starting fairly late. )
But yeah, Cook’s Country’s recipe is for those who can’t get Custard Powder. I can, so I just found the first Nanaimo bar recipe with Custard powder on Google, and swapped in their cream recipe. Which was…intense. Like, “3 cups of sugar and a stick and a half of butter” intense.
Which is what this is. Butter, not sugar.
Luckily for all of our hearts, other than those, it’s just a bit of milk and custard powder. Also, if you’re confused at the way my butter looks in that pic, it’s because a trick my mother learned about a year or two ago for softening butter is shredding it. On a scientific level it makes sense: softening butter is just heating it ENOUGH, by shredding it you vastly change the ratio of surface area to volume, and that means it’ll absorb ambient heat a lot quicker. The custard powder is, by default, vanilla, which is why you’ll see vanilla in the other recipe (since I’ll include the Cook’s Country Cream recipe below in case you’re not as amazing and procuring British baking bits and bags) but not this one: it’s in the powder.
If it seems like I’m rambling, it’s because this step is literally just “mix the ingredients together until smooth, spread on chilled crust. Shit I forgot to tell you that: when you finish the crust, tamp it down in your prepped pan and chill it for like, 10 minutes as you make the cream. Then spread the CREAM on top, and chill the whole thing again for 2 hours.
That’s the real beauty of the recipe: it’s just so chill.
Finishing a section with a pun? How Ganache!
Gauche and ganache don’t even sound the same, Title Jon. And no one says it anymore. YOUR PUN IS TOO NICHE.
Anywho, the last step is to make a chocolate ganache and top the whole thing. Cook’s Country does it by mixing chocolate, butter, and corn syrup, since that’ll make it a little shinier. Other recipes just use chocolate and butter. Ganache is just Chocolate+cream, and the amount of butter (which is just CHURNED cream, after all) or cream you add to the chocolate just changes how wet it is when it cools down. We want a pretty solid one on this, so aim for 2 parts chocolate to one part cream source.
See how set it is on top, and not at all like cake frosting? That’s because you did the numbers right.
Spread THAT on top, chill at least 30 minutes, and then you can pop your bars out of the pan, cut them up, and serve them.
Not this many to one person, though. That’s too much chocolate and cream.
Honestly, in my opinion, these were incredibly on point. The only complaint I had was the texture of the bottom crust. My mother said they were richer than most, and Nate said they were “pretty good, except for the weird bottom”, so I’m counting this as a win. What I’m NOT counting as a win is the fact that it’s currently WEDNESDAY, and we’re just now uploading Monday’s post. I’m so sorry, this dental business has been a real pain. It jacked with my sleep, had me driving around to do visits that weren’t super helpful, and while the pain pills at least clear out the mental static the pain creates, they also blunt my enthusiasm and energy. (ED - By this point, the clock had ticked over to Wednesday, and I figured that by going to bed 3 hours before my pain pills wore off, and taking a sleep aid, I’d be able to sleep all night, and get up at 8 or 9 and finish the pictures and captions before my root canal appointment. That…did not work out. I woke up 90 minutes after I went to sleep, had to redose on pain pills, and didn’t get up in time to handle typing up the recipe, formatting the post, finding, editing, and uploading the pics, and setting the links. Which is why this post is going up just before midnight on Wednesday.)
Luckily, I was able to get the whole thing sorted out fairly quickly, so I’m actually going to get my tooth worked on and sorted out TODAY, in what will be my third dentist visit in three days. Depending on how doped up I am afterwards, I hope to be able to churn out Thursday’s post on time, but we may need to push it back to Friday. (ED - Oh, that is DEFINITELY happening. There is no way I’m writing a whole new post and getting it out in the next 15 hours.)
FRIDAY: JON ANNOUNCES WHETHER OR NOT YOU’RE GOING TO WANT TO READ THE SITE FOR THE NEXT MONTH. QUELLE SURPRISE!
MONDAY: IF I EXPLAINED, IT WOULD GIVE AWAY THE ANNOUNCEMENT.
Makes around 20 bars
½ cup bittersweet chocolate chips
6 whole graham crackers, broken into pieces
⅔ cup sweetened shredded coconut
½ cup pecans, toasted (or not, if you want)
¼ cup unsweetened cocoa powder
⅛ teaspoon table salt
⅓ cup light corn syrup
3 cups powdered sugar
3/4 cup butter, softened
1/4 cup milk
1/4 cup Bird's custard powder
1 recipe Cook’s Country Cream
⅔ cup bittersweet chocolate chips
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 tablespoons light corn syrup
Cook’s Country Cream (for those unable to find custard powder)
1 ¼ cups) confectioners' sugar
8 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
¼ cup nonfat dry milk powder
⅛ teaspoon table salt
¼ cup heavy cream
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
Preparing the Pan: Make a foil base for 8-inch square baking pan by folding 2 longer sheets of aluminum foil so that each is 8 inches wide. Lay sheets of foil in pan perpendicular to each other, with extra foil hanging over the edges. Push foil into corners and up sides of pan, smoothing foil flush to pan. Spray foil with vegetable oil spray.
Creating the Crust: Microwave chocolate in bowl at 50% power until melted, 1-2 minutes, stirring occasionally. Process cracker pieces, coconut, pecans, cocoa, and salt in food processor until finely ground, roughly 30 seconds. Add corn syrup and melted chocolate, and pulse until combined, 8 to 10 pulses (mixture should hold together when pinched). Transfer to prepped pan. Using bottom of greased measuring cup, press crumbs into bottom of pan. Refrigerate while making filling.
Filling the Form: Use whichever of the following 2 apply
FOR THE BIRD’S CUSTARD CREAM: Add all the cream ingredients to a large bowl and cream them together using electric beaters. Pour the custard over the first layer and smooth the top. Place the pan in your fridge for at least 20 minutes, or until the custard is firm.
FOR THE COOK’S COUNTRY CREAM: In clean, dry food processor, process sugar, butter, milk powder, and salt until smooth, about 30 seconds, scraping down sides of bowl as needed. Add cream and vanilla and process until fully combined, about 15 seconds. Spread filling evenly over crust. Cover pan with plastic wrap and refrigerate until filling is set and firm, about 2 hours.
FOR THE TOPPING: Microwave chocolate chips, butter, and corn syrup in bowl at 50 percent power until fully melted and mixture is smooth, 1 to 2 minutes, stirring occasionally. Spread chocolate mixture evenly over set filling. Refrigerate until topping is set, about 30 minutes.
Using foil overhang, lift bars out of pan and transfer to cutting board; discard foil. Using chef’s knife, trim outer ¼ inch of square to make neat edges (wipe knife clean with dish towel after each cut). Cut square into thirds to create 3 rectangles. Cut each rectangle crosswise into 6 equal pieces. Let bars sit at room temperature for 20 minutes before serving. (Nanaimo bars can be refrigerated for up to 2 days.)