Unless you’re from or have visited the Great North, you might not have fallen into the diabolical snare that is the Nanaimo Bar. I still simultaneously bless and curse the Canadian friend who brought over a tray of them as a thank-you gift for dogsitting, because my first bite of this odd little confection of crack-like addictiveness set off a cycle of periodic cravings that nothing else seems to satisfy. I usually avoid temptation by making sure one of the key elements is missing from my cupboard, but every now and then the ingredient matrix aligns and the inevitable conclusion will be preparing a batch and scrambling to give away as much as possible in order to avoid inhaling half of it by myself.
That’s what happened last week when, as a result of helping a friend move out of state and inheriting the contents of her pantry, I suddenly had a box of chocolate graham crackers on my hands. One thought led to another, and before I knew it, I had come up with a half-dozen tweaks to the definitive Nanaimo Bar recipe, as democratically determined by the good citizens of Nanaimo, BC, and found myself in front of an entire 8×8 panful of sweet, rich, creamy temptation reinforced with the perfume of Kahlua and the cocoa crunchiness of cacao nibs. The only thing that saved me from complete annihilation this time was that I finished making them so late on Sunday night that my bed’s siren song was just that bit louder than my rumbly tummy.
The essential thing to know about Nanaimo Bars, besides that they have an abuse potential akin to opiates, is that they are the ultimate butter delivery vehicle. A cookie/candy chimera, they begin with a fudgy base of graham cracker crumbs, coconut and nuts bound together with butter and cocoa. The top layer is a simple cap of snappy semisweet chocolate smoothed out with more butter. Sandwiched between them is a thick layer of fluffy vanilla custard buttercream, which is firm just out of the fridge but silky and decadent at room temperature. There’s probably more saturated fat in just one Nanaimo Bar (which, don’t fool yourself, you are never going to limit yourself to) than in three Big Macs, but trust me, this is the worthier way to clog your arteries.
If you value your cardiac health, don’t even think about making these, indescribably delicious though they may be. If you do make them, make sure you have a heavily-populated somewhere to take them immediately after they’ve chilled enough to be portioned, because willpower will avail you for naught here. You’ll need all the help you can get.
Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Nibby Nanaimo Squares
Makes approximately 36 clean 1-inch squares, plus a dozen or so rounded edge bits for the baker
1/2 cup roasted cacao nibs
1 1/4 cups chocolate graham cracker crumbs
1 cup sweetened coconut
1/2 cup unsalted butter
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup natural (not Dutch-processed) cocoa powder
1 egg, beaten
1 tablespoon Kahlua
1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened
3 tablespoons cream or milk
3 tablespoons Bird’s Custard Powder
2 cups confectioner’s sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
4 ounces semisweet chocolate, chopped
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
Line an 8×8 glass baking pan with a sheet of parchment paper or foil just wide enough to cover the bottom and long enough to hang over two opposing sides. This will serve as a sling to remove the finished block easily and cleanly for slicing.
For the bottom layer:
In a food processor, pulse the nibs until finely chopped but not yet sandy or powdery. Mix with graham cracker crumbs and coconut and set aside.
In a double boiler, melt together butter, sugar and cocoa, stirring frequently, until smooth. Remove from heat. Temper the egg by slowly adding a small amount of the hot mixture, then add the warmed egg back into the double boiler. Put over the water and cook, stirring constantly, for 2 minutes, until the mixture has thickened and become glossy.
Off the heat, stir in the Kahlua, then mix in the crumbs, nibs and coconut. Press firmly into the pan, cover with plastic wrap, and chill.
For the middle layer:
In a mixer, cream the butter, cream, custard powder and sugar together until light, adding additional cream or milk as required to achieve a fluffy spreadable consistency.
Beat in vanilla, then spread over bottom layer and chill until firm.
For the top layer:
Melt the chocolate and butter together in a double boiler or microwave until smooth.
Cool until room temperature but still liquid, then spread over second layer. Refrigerate until set.
Using the overhanging parchment or foil, lift the chilled block out of the pan and onto a cutting board, running a sharp knife around the sides of the block to release from the pan if needed. To get a clean slice without cracking the chocolate layer, dip the knife into hot water and wipe off between cuts. Trim off the rounded sides, then cut remainder into neat 1-inch squares.
Squares are best still cool but close enough to room temperature for the middle layer to soften slightly. Store leftovers in the refrigerator or freezer, well-wrapped to prevent the buttercream from absorbing any off flavors.
I used chocolate grahams because that’s what I was given. Regular will work just fine.
Bird’s Custard Powder can be found in specialty shops and, frequently, at Indian or Pakistani groceries. I’ve heard vanilla pudding mix can be used in a pinch, but the real thing is shelf-stable forever and handy to have around when you’ve run out of eggs.
Very small squares are advisable since they’re closer to a bonbon than a cookie. It will also contribute marginally to the probably futile effort to deflect or at least slow down the consumption of one after another until you’re left wallowing in your own crapulence.