One of the fun things about moving around a lot (three states and two countries in the last six years) has been discovering local food favorites. For those that know me this should not be much of a surprise. Food places make up most of my landmark references and anyone asking me how to get anywhere will likely be led by directions to make turns just past certain restaurants or food markets. In fact, when travelling (abroad or domestically) I often try to find time to go to one of the local grocery stores. I love to see what foods are unique to a place, and I can often find gifts for friends and family that travel well and are light weight.
I have also found that when attempting to become a part of a community, one of the best ways of winning over the locals is to try (and try to recreate) one of the foods that is special or unique to that place. When one of our best friends was doing fieldwork research in Illinois she stumbled upon the Horseshoe Sandwich. The Horseshoe seems to be any sort of meat protein (ranging from shrimp to ground beef and anything in between) served open-faced on Texas toast (why this was in Illinois I have no idea), covered with a liberal coating of French Fries and a cheese sauce.
When living in Indiana, the closest thing to a local dish we could find was the Tenderloin Sandwich. This was sadly not as unique as the Horseshoe. The Tenderloin consists of a thin slice of pork tenderloin that has been pounded, breaded and fried to within an inch of its life. The finished product is more like cardboard than food. The tenderloin is then served with a little mayonnaise on indifferent bread. If you want iceberg lettuce and out-of-season tomato on your sandwich then you order the “works.”
Unfortunately I did not fare much better in Iowa. I had some amazing food at the homes of friends and in some great restaurants, but what Iowans seem to be most proud of is “food” that can be fried on a stick. This is found at just about any local community fair, but is produced in spades at the Iowa State Fair. Famous for its mammoth butter sculpture of a cow, this year the fair’s website boasted 60 stick-bound food-ish items with new options appearing each year. While living in Iowa they were proud to introduce fried butter on a stick, deep fried bacon, as well as fried pink lemonade. Don’t ask.
With the move to Vancouver Island I was initially focused on eating anything that swam in the ocean. After five years of living in land-locked Midwestern states, I was all about celebrating fish especially salmon. However, great salmon and seafood are not unique to Vancouver Island, but are hallmarks of the entire Northwest Coast of both Canada and the States (Please don’t call that nation “America” as that tends to get me in big trouble with my Canadian neighbors. We do all live on the North American continent after all…). My quest to find a special food that is unique to our new city led me to the Nanaimo Bar.
For my State-side readers, “Nanaimo Bar” refers to a wonderfully rich dessert, not to the “bars in Nanaimo.” While there is some debate about where the Nanaimo Bar originated (some try to claim them for the States. Check out wikipedia for more details.), the bars are largely considered to be a local delicacy and are jealously celebrated as a part of local culture. At its most basic rendition a Nanaimo Bar is a layered cookie with a chocolate and coconut graham cracker crust, a vanilla cream middle, and a top layer of chocolate. There are numerous variations on this theme with people attempting to put their own spin on the bars with flavors that pair well with chocolate, like peanut butter, raspberry jam or espresso. Nanaimo Bars have become so tied to local culture that there is a permanent exhibit in the Nanaimo Museum dedicated to this dessert. The exhibit is flanked by two Nanaimo Bar-shaped stools for people to sit on and contemplate the displayed recipe and local lore. Stools and recipe tea towels are available in the museum gift store. The Nanaimo Tourism Council has even published a Nanaimo Bar Trail Guide that includes all things Nanaimo Bar, marking not only the best places in town to try one of the bars, but also themed pedicures, soaps, cupcakes, cocktails and the list goes on.
I had heard of these bars before moving to Nanaimo, since Dave had tried a couple on the mainland (aka Vancouver). They were almost always a disappointment, tasting only of intense sweetness. Then when we first moved to Iowa we had a little party at our place where we served a number of dishes that were regional specialties from the different places that we had lived (Yes, Utica Tomato Pie was there as well, but that is fodder for a different post). Dave prepared Nanaimo Bars as the party dessert, but these were different from those that I had sampled before. While still rich and sweet, you could also taste the vanilla, almonds, chocolate and coconut in Dave’s version. I was hooked. He has since made them a couple of times, including most recently at this summer’s Hopwood Family Reunion. The pictures of Dave making the bars (and Little Man trying to score one) come from that event.
When Dave made the first batch in Iowa, he had done some internet research and combined multiple recipes to create his perfect Nanaimo Bar. Then as I was doing a bit of internet research for this post I discovered that what he had created was incredibly similar to what is largely thought to be the most authentic Nanaimo Bar recipe. In 1986 the city of Nanaimo hosted a contest for the Ultimate Nanaimo Bar and the winner was Joyce Hardcastle. It is her version of the Nanaimo Bar that is the closest to what Dave put together as well. Unknowingly Dave had stripped out away of the “unique” add-ins and found his way back to the classic version.
As I mentioned above, Dave’s most recent reason for making Nanaimo Bars was as a special dessert for the recent Hopwood Family Reunion. These are worlds away from the first bite of a Vancouver bakery’s Nanaimo Bar that I had on the mainland, and they will continue to be a part of special celebrations with our family. Just remember that a little goes a long way. A small square with good coffee or tea is a great dessert. However, since we just had them this summer it is going to be a good couple of months before I want to have one anywhere near my vicinity. One of Dave’s young cousins found out the dangers of Nanaimo Bar proximity at the reunion. One night we were all up late playing a get-to-know-you-better game on the deck of the cabin. A number of desserts had been brought out to munch on while we played. One of the teenage cousins had the luck (good or bad) of having the plate of Nanaimo Bars sitting directly in front of him the entire night. We lost count of how many bars he ate, but it was a substantial number. So be warned, these things are good.
Dave’s Nanaimo Bars
Nanaimo Bars are famously three-layered cookies, with a graham cracker base, a custardy center and a chocolate top. Dave’s version is intensely chocolaty with the added richness of coconut and almonds. For the reunion Dave doubled the batch and therefore used a larger baking dish as is seen in the accompanying pictures. A small square with a cup of black tea or coffee is divine.
1 ¼ c. graham cracker crumbs
1 c. unsweetened flaked coconut
½ c. almonds, toasted and finely chopped
2/3 c. unsalted butter
1/3 c. unsweetened cocoa powder
¼ c. sugar
1 egg, lightly beaten
2 c. powdered sugar
2 tbsp. vanilla pudding mix
3 scant tbsp. cream
½ c. unsalted butter, softened
8 oz. semi-sweet chocolate (not chips)
4 tbsp. butter
Preheat the oven to 350º.
Prepare an 8-inch square baking dish by buttering it and then lining it with parchment paper or aluminum foil. Be sure to leave an inch or so of overlap on two sides to serve as a handle to help remove the bars once they are firm.
Make the base:
In a large bowl stir together the graham cracker crumbs, coconut and almonds. Set this aside.
In a saucepan melt the butter with the cocoa powder and sugar. Remove the pan from the heat and temper the beaten egg by adding a few spoonfuls of the hot chocolate mixture to the beaten egg and whisk like mad. Tempering heats the egg gently so that it hopefully will not scramble when you add it to the mix. Once you have beaten in the few spoonfuls of chocolate mixture to the egg, then pour the egg mixture back into the pan with the chocolate and again whisk like mad. Pour the chocolate and egg mixture into the crumbs and stir until combined.
Pour the crumb mixture into the prepared baking dish and press it down evenly in the pan. Bake the base in the 350º oven for 10 minutes and then cool it on a rack.
Make the filling:
In a medium bowl add the powdered sugar and pudding mix. Then stir in the cream and softened butter. Beat until smooth. Spread this over the cooled cookie base.
Make the topping:
Using a double-boiler, or a heat-proof bowl over a pot of simmering water, place the chocolate and butter over low heat and stir until both are melted and smooth. Spread this evenly over the custard filling and refrigerate the baking dish until the chocolate topping is firm.
Just before serving, take the dish out of the refrigerator and let it stand on the counter for 5-7 minutes so that the bars can be cut without shattering the chocolate. Lift the bars from the baking dish by pulling up on the parchment or aluminum foil “handles.” Peel the paper or foil from the bars and place them on a clean cutting board. Cut the bars into 16 squares (4 cuts horizontally and 4 vertically) and place them on a serving plate.
The bars can be stored in an air tight (and cousin-tight) container in the refrigerator for 2-3 days or frozen for up to 2 weeks.
Click on the following link to open a separate page with the recipe for easier printing.