There is nothing wrong with Nanaimo Bars. They are sweet and chocolatey, and although time consuming, relatively easy for a novice in the kitchen to put together. And I like them. But I always thought that Nanaimo Bars should be something more. Graham cracker crumbs and custard powder ranked pretty low on my list of ingredients I want to see in a recipe, so for awhile I’ve been pondering how to take the simplicity of the Nanaimo Bar and kick it up a notch while still maintaining the essence of the classic.
My current obsession with sponge cakes, cookie frosting and other cake fillings led me to the answer. So I present to you Nanaimo Bars+, the Janis-over-complicated-version of the classic holiday treat.
A classic nanaimo bar base had graham cracker crumbs, walnuts, and cocount held together by melted butter, cocoa and egg. I decided to use ground ginger snap cookies, candied spiced walnuts, and browned butter. Instructions to brown butter here: http://www.seriouseats.com/2015/01/how-to-make-brown-butter-technique.html.
Here’s a photo of the recipe to candy the nuts (I used walnuts though, and added cardamom)
1/2 cup browned butter, 1/4 cup sugar, 6 tbsp cocoa, 1 tsp vanilla, 2 cups cookie crumbs (made from ~3 cups small ginger snap cookies from bulk barn), 1 cup coconut, 1/2 candied walnuts coarsely chopped.
I ended up buying sweetened coconut because I couldn’t remember what it called for, and then with the candied walnuts I was worried about all the added sugar making it too sweet, but I don’t think it was too overly sweet in the end.
Instructions: To the browned butter, add sugar, cocoa and vanilla in sauce pan (I don’t remember if I let the sugar melt at all). Take off heat and stir in beaten egg. Add cookies crumbs, coconut and nuts. Press into square 9×9 pan lined with parchment paper. Chill until you need it.
The filling is what always REALLY bothered me about Nanaimo bars. It always just tasted sweet, not flavourful. The standard filling is just icing sugar, butter and custard powder. I can’t fault it too much though, as it was the custard powder that provided the inspiration for my improved filling.
Experiments with buttercream, and some studying up on the differences, led to me to a German custard buttercream. However, French buttercream called for yolks not whole eggs, which sounded much more decadent and that’s what I settled on (spoiler alert: no regrets there. I could eat the filling happily with a spoon. Indeed, I did). I adapted this recipe for the filling: http://joepastry.com/2008/french_buttercream/, but here’s the final product.
3 egg yolks, 1/2 cup of sugar, 2 tbsp water, 1/2 cup unsalted butter (room temp), 1tsp vanilla bean paste (or some other flavour), 2 cups icing sugar
Whip the egg yolks until they appear light in colour and a little foamy (there are nice pictures on the blog above, and the person who wrote it is kinda funny, so give it a read).
To make the sugar syrup, add water to sugar in a sauce pan, do not stir, let melt until it reaches 238F. If you don’t have a thermometer, let it reach the “soft ball stage”, or boil for a few minutes and if it turns brown you waited way too long. Good thing you only wasted 1/2 cup of sugar. If you’ve never made sugar syrups before, take careful heed of the “do not stir” instructions. You don’t want the solution to get on the sides of the pan as it will create sugar crystals, and they ruin everything. Use a wet pastry brush to get rid of syrup on the sides, or just ignore it.
The blog guy suggests that you pour a little of the syrup into the whipped yolks, and then turn the mixer on, and so on and so forth, but I say drizzle slowly just far enough away from the whisk to not hit the whisk but not be running down the sides of the bowl. As I write this, it occurred to me that using a handheld mixer might give you more control, but I’ve never tried that.
Note: the hot syrup cooks the egg yolks if uncooked egg yolks are something you worry about. But if you add the syrup too fast, you’ll get lumpy weird, cooked eggs, instead of smooth creamy whipped eggs.
After all the syrup is added, continue to whip it for awhile, until it’s not warm any more. If you do not wait until it’s room temperture, you’ll have issues. Once room temp, you can start adding the butter, a tbsp at a time or so, incorporating it fully before adding more. Keep whipping until it’s lighter in colour and airy-er. Then add your vanilla (I wasn’t paying attention and accidently added mine earlier, and the world didn’t end). Then whip in the sugar, adding slowly at first until it’s incorporated (just so it doesn’t fly everywhere). You can judge things as you go here, you want to maintain the lovely rich flavour of the custard buttercream, but still have it thick enough to hold up in the squares. I think I added just over 2 cups but the butter firms up in the fridge so it’s your call if you want softer while cooled, or stiffer at room temp.
I ended up putting the filling into a piping bag to put it on the base, and then spreading it. I didn’t use about 1-2 tbsp in the bars because it tasted freaking amazing and I ate it.
Chill the filling until it’s stiff enough that you can spread the chocolate over it (a few hours is probably best, I did overnight)
Standard Nanaimo bars are usually covered with melted semi-sweet chocolate chips or other baking chocolate. You can really only improve that with better quality chocolate.
I used about 200gs of dark chocolate, and I have no idea how much white chocolate. Maybe 20-30g. Melt the dark chocolate in a double boiler or the microwave, spread on the chilled filling, add a few lines or dots of also-melted-white chocolate with a piping bag or the like, drag a toothpick through the white chocolate to make swirls or other designs.
Chill for just long enough for the chocolate to hold shape but still be soft. You should cut the chocolate topping then so that it doesn’t crack. Or, if you’re like me and you forget, use a hot knife (I used a kettle to steam the knife, wiping it off before slicing), to melt through the top layer, and then slice the bottome. That works too, although not forgetting is much less of a pain in the butt. I just wanted you to know that if you DO forget, all is not lost.
I would cut this 9×9 pan into 25 squares. Then, I would feel that there aren’t enough bars to go around and I would hoard them. Then I would feel guilty for hoarding them, realizing I can’t possibly eat 25 Nanaimo bars in a reasonable amount of time, and then I’d give a bunch away. And then I’d feel sad that they were almost gone, reverting back to my hoarding. I go through this a lot. It’s a normal process (for me at least, if normal can be defined as something that happens a lot, not something that isn’t weird).
The only things that remain to be answered are: 1) Are these still nanaimo bars, and 2) If yes, are they BETTER??
Taste test to be continued….