Recipes with Julie Van Rosendaal: Celebrating the Nanaimo bar

Canadians feel strongly about our uniquely Canadian desserts — so much so that inaccuracies and diversions tend to generate lively social media debates.

Whether it’s the ongoing raisin-no raisin butter tart debate, or outrage over the proper ratio of base and filling in our beloved Nanaimo bars, there’s lots of food for thought.

To celebrate the launch of the CBC’s new permanent Nanaimo, BC, bureau, North by Northwest host Margaret Gallagher spoke to food historian Lenore Newman about the bar and its short history of scandals.

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

Canadians were quick to note that the filling to base ratio was way off—the thin base and thick, milky, coffee-colored filling made them look more like ice cream bars or cheesecake.

And in March of 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 as thick as the buttercream.

LISTEN | Julie Van Rosendaal speaks with the Calgary Eyeopener about Nanaimo bars:

Calgary Eyeopener8:05Julie van Rosendaal on Nanaimo Bars

Our food guide Julie van Rosendaal joins us to talk about an often controversial Canadian treat – the Nanaimo Bar.

In 1987, the city of Nanaimo held a contest to come up with the ultimate, official recipe for their famous bars.

I’ve tweaked it a bit, mostly 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 leave the nuts out, simply omit them. No need to replace them with anything else.

And if you’re looking for something a little more celebratory, I’ve also included a recipe for Nanaimo bar cake.

The recipe makes two loaf-sized cakes — perfect when you don’t need an enormous cake — ideal for gifting or transporting. The second freezes wonderfully or can be shared with someone you really like.

Of course, Alberta has its own iconic no-bake square. They’re not as famous, so they haven’t yet generated any scandals.

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’re quick to mix up—simply bring butter, brown sugar, syrup and cocoa to a simmer, cook for a minute and pour over puffed wheat, stirring to coat.

Perhaps if we start calling them Red Deer squares, as suggested by Calgary Eyeopener host Loren McGinnis, it will start to gain more notoriety—though nothing will ever replace the Nanaimo bar.

Nanaimo Bars

This is a slightly tweaked version of the city of Nanaimo’s official recipe, which was contributed to a 1987 contest by Joyce Hardcastle.

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

Don’t worry that it doesn’t call for much—the powder keeps on the shelf indefinitely.


Bottom layer:

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

Middle layer:

  • ½ cup butter, softened
  • 2 cups icing sugar
  • 2 tbsp Bird’s custard powder
  • 2-3 tbsp cream or milk (any kind, coconut milk is delicious)

top layer:

  • 4 oz dark or semi-sweet chocolate, chopped (or chocolate chips)
  • 2 tbsp butter

In a medium saucepan, melt the butter with the sugar and cocoa, stirring often. Whisk in the egg and cook, stirring, until it thickens slightly.

Remove from heat and stir in the crumbs, coconut and nuts.

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

Meanwhile, beat the butter with half the icing sugar, the custard powder and milk or cream until creamy and lump-free.

A Nanaimo bar with a bite taken out of it sits 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 the bottom layer and refrigerate until it firms up.

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

Makes: 16 squares.

Puffed Wheat Squares

Did you know puffed wheat squares are a prairie thing?

Though plain, unsweetened puffed wheat is traditional, you could really coat any type of cereal with the chocolatey goo.

It’s delicious with a handful of salted peanuts stirred in, too.

Dark brown, crispy squares are cut into slices 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 puffed wheat
  • ½ cup butter
  • ½ cup corn syrup or Roger’s golden syrup
  • 1 cup packed brown sugar
  • ½ cup cocoa
  • pinch salt
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • ½-1 cup chopped peanuts (salted or unsalted, optional)

Spray a large bowl with nonstick spray and put the puffed wheat into it. I included a range in the measurements because I scoop it out with a measuring cup and each scoop inevitably winds up a tad 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 comes to a boil, cook it for a minute, whisking constantly. Don’t cook it for too long, or the squares will be crunchy instead of chewy.

Remove from the heat and stir in the vanilla. Pour over the puffed wheat and stir to coat evenly.

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

Makes: About 20 squares.

Nanaimo Bar Cake

Years ago I came across the cake of my dreams at Sweet Relief Pastries in Calgary—a towering Nanaimo bar layer cake. I thought I’d attempt a simpler version at home.

I usually make a ganache for the top, but the 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 layers.
If you enjoy Nanaimo bars and are looking for a celebratory twist, try this Nanaimo bar cake. (Julie Van Rosendaal)



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


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


  • 1 cup butter, softened
  • ¼ cup custard powder (such as Bird’s)
  • 4 cups icing sugar, plus 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 the oven to 350 F and line two 8×4-inch loaf pans with parchment.

In a large bowl, stir together the melted butter, cocoa, sugar and egg. Stir in the graham crumbs, coconut and nuts.

Divide the mixture between the pans and press evenly into the bottom. I find this easier with dampened hands.

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

In another bowl or measuring cup, stir together the water, oil, vinegar and vanilla, add to the dry ingredients and whisk just until well blended.

Divide between the pans, pouring over the 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 custard powder, sugar and ¼ cup of the cream and beat until you have a fluffy frosting, adding a bit more cream (or even a tablespoon of water) if needed.

Once the cakes have cooled completely, spread with the frosting and put into the fridge until it firms up a bit.

To make the ganache, put the chocolate into a bowl, warm the cream on the stovetop or in the microwave and pour it over the chocolate, and let it sit for about 5 minutes.

Whisk until well blended and smooth. It will appear broken at first, but then will turn darker and have a smoother, more even consistency.

Refrigerate until it has the consistency of pudding and spoon or spread over each cake.

Makes: 2 cakes, which serves about 16.

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