For boaters, Nanaimo is known as a stopping-off point and a good place for provisioning, but a visit to the Vancouver Island city wouldn’t be complete without sampling some of the delectable dessert bars it’s known for.
The Nanaimo bar has achieved almost cult-like status among Nanaimoans, who mobilized to have it elected Canada’s favorite confection in a 2006 National Post newspaper survey. The Nanaimo Museum has visitor seats made to look like giant bars and an exhibit devoted to the beloved confection.
I get the obsession. I don’t have much of a sweet tooth, but if there’s one confection I can’t resist it’s that heavenly trifecta consisting of a chocolate and coconut wafer topped by custard filling and a thin layer of chocolate on top. Proust can have his madeleines; give me the Nanaimo bar.
On our recent cruise, we left the boat behind and spent the better part of a day trekking across the city in search of the best Nanaimo bar we could find. Numerous bakeries and shops within walking distance of the waterfront serve up classic Nanaimo bars. Marty and I tried three versions and found them all good, though distinctly different.
The bar made by A Wee Cupcakery (407 Fitzwilliam St., in the city’s old quarter) was the sweetest, while the one from McLean’s Specialty Foods (426 Fitzwilliam St.) seemed the most classic, tasting exactly like the bars my mother has made every Christmas since I was a kid. The version made by Mon Petit Choux (120 Commercial St. downtown) was less sweet and filled with a lighter, almost mousse-like custard layer that I’m still thinking about days later. Though the least traditional of the three, it was my favorite.
Other establishments offer more unusual takes on the Nanaimo bar. The most unconventional of those was the deep-fried Nanaimo bar at the funky Pirate Chips (1 Commercial St.), which sounded like an abomination we had to try.
Served with ice cream drizzled with chocolate syrup, it was dipped in a thick batter and fried to a greasy, artery-clogging crisp. Marty liked it, but I thought the custard layer — in my view, the most critical element of a good Nanaimo bar — was lost in the mix.
I also sampled the Nanaimo bar ice cream at Tea on the Quay (90 Front St., on the boardwalk above the Boat Basin) and found it lacking the necessary coconut flavor.
Other takes on the classic dessert include a Nanaimo bar martini at the Modern Café (221 Commercial St., 250.754.5022), Nanaimo bar cheesecake at the Dinghy Dock Pub, and a Nanaimo bar sundae at Jakeob’s Ice Cream Parlour (306 Fitzwilliam St.).
I’d hoped to try the Nanaimo bar cupcakes at A Wee Cupcakery. Made of a crumb layer topped with chocolate butter cake, custard frosting and a wafer of dark chocolate, they sounded irresistible. Sadly, they didn’t have any the day I stopped by. Owner Medina Mayes said she usually makes the labor-intensive cupcakes once weekly but has long made Nanaimo bars, as did her mother and grandmother. So what, I asked her, is the secret to a good Nanaimo bar?
“The trick is using the best-quality ingredients,” Mayes said. “You cannot scrimp to save a buck or two, because it comes out in the flavor.”
Another key, according to my mother — and which Mayes agreed with — is using Bird’s custard powder for the middle layer. The original custard powder, it’s widely considered by Nanaimo bar connoisseurs the only acceptable ingredient to use for the middle layer; some recipes call for vanilla pudding, which horrifies the purists.
While it seems clear that a good Nanaimo bar is far from good for you, its origins are hotly disputed. The invention of the bars has been attributed to housewives in Cowichan Bay, New Brunswick and Baltimore. Its first printing is equally mysterious, with various accounts crediting it to several different cookbooks published throughout the 1950s.
The official story, according to the city of Nanaimo museum, is that the first printing of the recipe was in a hospital women’s auxiliary cookbook from 1952. In an effort to get to the bottom of the issue, the city of Nanaimo issued the following plea on its website:
“If you actually own or know the whereabouts of a cookbook or other publication dating back to the early 50s or beyond, we would very much like to see it and put an end to all this confusion with documented proof.”
If stymied city leaders couldn’t conclusively put an end to the debate, they could at least identify the best Nanaimo bar around. In 1986, the city held a contest to find the ultimate Nanaimo bar recipe. Almost 100 different variations were submitted, and a woman named Joyce Hardcastle was declared the winner (her recipe can be found here).
Some have devised variations on the Nanaimo bar, with two popular takes involving mint- or mocha-flavored icing, and others using different types of crumb or chocolate. I’m not interested in trying any of them.
After all, why mess with perfection?