Recipes with Julie Van Rosendaal: Celebrating the Nanaimo Bar

Canadians are so convinced of our unique Canadian desserts, so much so that inaccuracies and misdirections tend to spark lively debates on social media.

Whether it’s the ongoing debate over raisin vs. no-raisin butter pie, or outrage over the proper ratio of base to filling in our beloved Nanaimo bars, there’s plenty to think about.

To celebrate the launch of CBC’s new permanent office in Nanaimo, BC, north by northwest host Margaret Gallagher spoke to food historian Lenore Newman about the bar and its brief history of scandals.

In 2019, Canada Post released a set of stamps featuring iconic Canadian desserts, including the Nanaimo bar.

Canadians quickly realized that the relationship between the filling and the base was far off: the thin base and the thick, milky, coffee-colored filling made them look more like ice cream bars or cheesecake.

And in March 2021, the New York Times posted a recipe for Nanaimo bars with a photo showing a very different ratio: the base was two to three times thicker than the buttercream.

LISTEN | Julie Van Rosendaal talks to the Calgary Eyeopener about Nanaimo’s bars:

Calgary Eye Opener8:05Julie van Rosendaal on Bars of Nanaimo

Our foodie guide, Julie van Rosendaal, joins us to discuss an often controversial Canadian sweet treat: the Nanaimo Bar.

In 1987, the city of Nanaimo held a contest to find the ultimate official recipe for its famous bars.

I modified it a bit, mainly to use salted butter and finely chopped walnuts or pecans instead of almonds, which seem to be more common these days.

If you want to omit the nuts, just leave them out. There is no need to replace them with anything else.

And if you’re looking for something a little more festive, I’ve also included a recipe for Nanaimo Bar Cake.

The recipe makes two loaf-sized cakes, perfect when you don’t need a huge cake, great for gifts or on the go. The second one freezes beautifully or can be shared with someone you really like.

Of course, Alberta has its own iconic no-bake square. They are not that famous, so they have not caused any scandal yet.

The puffed wheat square (or puffed wheat cake) was invented in Red Deer, Alta., by candy maker Alan J. Russell over a century ago.

They mix up quickly – just simmer the butter, brown sugar, syrup, and cocoa, cook for a minute, and pour over the puffed wheat, stirring to coat.

Maybe if we start calling them Red Deer squares, as you suggest Calgary Eye Opener host Loren McGinnis, will begin to gain more notoriety, though nothing will replace the Nanaimo bar.

Nanaimo bars

This is a slightly modified version of the official Nanaimo City recipe, which Joyce Hardcastle contributed to a contest in 1987.

Traditionally, custard powder is used in the buttercream filling. It is made by Bird’s and can be found in the pudding section of most grocery stores.

Don’t worry, it doesn’t take much—the powder stays on the shelf indefinitely.


bottom layer:

  • ½ cup butter
  • ¼ cup sugar (white or brown)
  • 1/3 cup of cocoa
  • 1 large egg, lightly beaten (or 2 tablespoons corn syrup or golden syrup)
  • 1 ¾ cups graham crumbs
  • 1 cup of shredded coconut
  • ½ cup finely chopped walnuts or pecans

Middle layer:

  • ½ cup butter, softened
  • 2 cups of icing sugar
  • 2 tablespoons powdered poultry flan
  • 2-3 tablespoons cream or milk (any kind, coconut milk is delicious)

Top layer:

  • 4 oz dark or semisweet chocolate, chopped (or chocolate chips)
  • 2 butter spoons

In a medium saucepan, melt the butter with the sugar and cocoa, stirring frequently. Beat in the egg and cook, stirring, until slightly thickened.

Remove from heat and add the migas, coconut, and walnuts.

Press firmly into a parchment-lined 8×8-inch or 9×9-inch pan and refrigerate until chilled.

Meanwhile, beat the butter with half the icing sugar, the custard and the milk or cream until creamy and smooth.

A Nanaimo bar with a bite taken out of it lies on a plate on a table.
A classic Nanaimo bar often has equal parts base and buttercream. (Julie Van Rosendaal)

Beat in the remaining icing sugar, adding a little more sugar or milk if needed to make a creamy, spreadable frosting.

Spread over bottom layer and refrigerate until set.

Melt the chopped chocolate (or chocolate chips) and butter in a small saucepan over low heat or in a heatproof bowl or measuring cup in the microwave, stirring until melted and smooth.

Pour over the frosting layer, smoothing the top.

Let stand at room temperature or refrigerate until firm before cutting into squares.

Brands: 16 squares.

Puffed Wheat Squares

Did you know that puffed wheat squares are a thing on the prairie?

Although unsweetened puffed wheat is traditional, you really could top any type of cereal with the chocolate mixture.

It’s also delicious with a handful of salty peanuts scrambled.

Crisp dark brown squares are sliced ​​on a piece of parchment paper.
The puffed wheat square (or puffed wheat cake) was invented in Red Deer, Alta., by candy maker Alan J. Russell over a century ago. (Julie Van Rosendaal)


  • 8-9 cups of puffed wheat
  • ½ cup butter
  • ½ cup corn syrup or Roger’s golden syrup
  • 1 cup packed brown sugar
  • ½ cup of cocoa
  • pinch of salt
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • ½-1 cup chopped peanuts (salted or unsalted, optional)

Spray a large bowl with nonstick spray and place the puffed wheat in it. I included a range in the measurements because I take it out with a measuring cup and each tablespoon inevitably ends up a little on the heaping side.

In a medium saucepan, bring the butter, corn syrup, brown sugar, cocoa, and salt to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring until smooth.

Once it boils, cook for one minute, stirring constantly. Don’t cook it too long, or the squares will be crunchy instead of chewy.

Remove from heat and add vanilla. Pour over the puffed wheat and toss to coat evenly.

Press into a parchment-lined 9×13-inch pan and leave at room temperature until set. Don’t refrigerate them – the fridge might just make them crunchy instead of chewy!

Brands: About 20 squares.

Nanaimo bar cake

Years ago I stumbled upon my dream cake at Sweet Relief Pastries in Calgary: a towering Nanaimo bar layer cake. Thought I’d try a simpler version at home.

I usually make ganache for the top, but four ounces of chopped semisweet chocolate (or chips) melted with two tablespoons of butter—that’s typical for a Nanaimo bar—works well here, too.

A cake with candles on top sits on a table, with a slice cut off.  Inside, you can see the classic Nanaimo bar coats.
If you like Nanaimo bars and are looking for a celebratory touch, try this Nanaimo Bar Pie. (Julie Van Rosendaal)



  • ½ cup butter, melted
  • 1/3 cup of cocoa
  • ¼ cup sugar (white or brown)
  • 1 large egg or 2 tablespoons golden syrup or honey
  • 1 ½ cups graham cracker crumbs
  • 1 cup of shredded coconut
  • ½ cup finely chopped pecans, walnuts, or almonds


  • 1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup of sugar
  • 1/3 cup of cocoa
  • 1 teaspoon of baking soda
  • ½ teaspoon fine salt
  • 1 cup of warm water or coffee
  • 1/3 cup canola or other mild vegetable oil
  • 1 tablespoon white or cider vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla


  • 1 cup butter, softened
  • ¼ cup custard powder (such as Bird’s)
  • 4 cups icing sugar, more extra if needed
  • ¼-1/3 cup cream, milk, or coconut milk


  • 1 ⅓ cups chopped dark chocolate or chocolate chips (6 oz/175 g)
  • 1 cup whipping cream or coconut milk

Preheat oven to 350 F and line two 8×4-inch loaf pans with parchment.

In a large bowl, mix together the melted butter, cocoa, sugar, and egg. Add the graham crumbs, coconut, and walnuts.

Divide the mixture among the ramekins and press evenly into the bottom. I find this easier with moistened hands.

In the same bowl (no need to wash it), mix the flour, sugar, cocoa, baking soda, and salt.

In another bowl or measuring cup, combine the water, oil, vinegar, and vanilla, add the dry ingredients, and mix until well blended.

Divide among ramekins, pour over Nanaimo bar base, and bake for 50 to 60 minutes, until puffed, cracked, and springy to the touch. Let cool completely while you make the frosting.

In a large bowl, beat the butter until smooth, then add the pastry cream, sugar, and ¼ cup of the cream and beat until fluffy, add a little more cream (or even a tablespoon of water). if required.

Once the cakes have completely cooled, brush with the frosting and place in the fridge until slightly hardened.

To make the ganache, put the chocolate in a bowl, heat the cream on the stove or in the microwave and pour it over the chocolate, letting it sit for about 5 minutes.

Beat until well blended and smooth. At first it will appear broken, but then it will darken and have a smoother, more uniform consistency.

Refrigerate until pudding consistency and spoon or spread over each cake.

brands: 2 cakes, yielding about 16.

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