Baking for Canadians: Christmas Treats From Across the Border

What do you do for a Canadian’s birthday? Do you call in the Mounties? Have a “Due South” marathon? And what do you do when that Canadian is Nick Who Hates Chocolate?

I wasn’t sure, so I emailed my friend, Canadian Chris, and his girlfriend, Canadian Christine. (I know, and they’re just as super cute as they sound.) As Torontonians I figured they’d be able to give me the lowdown on Canadian treats.

Sure enough, Christine came through with some stellar suggestions:

“Nanaimo bars are DELICIOUS (although Chris doesn’t like coconut), and butter tarts are also good (like mini pecan pies). Also a lot of people like the beaver tails (particularly if your coworker is from Ottawa, I think of it as being from the Rideau canal). Can you get your hands on Tim Horton’s coffee?”

Beaver tails sounded creepy, but Nanaimo Bars and Butter Tarts, eh? We’ll just see aboot that.

According to Wikipedia, which never lies: The bar originated in Nanaimo, British Columbia. Mabel Jenkins, a local housewife from Cowichan Bay, submitted the recipe to the annual Ladysmith and Cowichan Women’s Institute Cookbook. This cookbook was sold in the early 1950s in the region as a fundraiser. It became popular in many of the province’s households, especially in company towns, and was sold in many of the coffee shops on Nanaimo’s Commercial Street. Tourists in the region, especially US tourists on pleasure boats, came to refer to these as “Nanaimo Bars”.

So that’s cool, that there’s a story behind it. I like treats with a past, even if it’s not sordid. Sordid pasts are the best kinds of pasts.

The Nanaimo bars aren’t difficult to make, just time consuming due to their three layers. You also have to refrigerate them at two different points in the process, so plan to make these on a day when you’ll be around the house for hours. You can’t just throw them together in an hour.

The recipe calls for custard powder, which I’d never heard of. Comments I read on a few different recipes said that youcould get this at any store with a decent international section, but I went to three different grocery stores and never found it. Spotted dick, Cadbury chocolates and other Commonwealth favorites, yes. Custard powder, no. With a few more days I could have ordered it online, but in a pinch I had to substitute vanilla flavored instant pudding powder. There’s always room for J-E-L-L-O, right?

The rest of the recipe is pretty straightforward.

Bottom layer:
1/2 cup butter
1/4 cup sugar
5 tablespoons cocoa powder
1 egg
1 1/4 cup graham cracker crumbs
1/2 cup chopped almonds
1 cup shredded coconut

Combine the butter, sugar and cocoa in a double boiler or heavy saucepan until melted. Take off the heat and let cool a bit. In a medium-sized bowl, whisk the egg. Drizzle in some of the chocolate mixture and whisk, then add the rest. (If you add it all at once and it’s too hot, you risk cooking the egg.)

Stir in the almonds, graham cracker crumbs and coconut. Press into an ungreased 8×8 pan and put in the refrigerator while you make the second layer.

Once you make this gooey, crunchy, chocolatey bottom layer, you might decide you don't even need the other two.

Once you make this gooey, crunchy, chocolatey bottom layer, you might decide you don’t even need the other two.

Middle layer:
1/2 cup butter, softened
3 tablespoons whipping cream (or replace this with Bailey’s)
2 tablespoons instant vanilla pudding powder
2 cups powdered sugar

Cream together all four ingredients until light and fluffy. Spread over the bottom layer and chill for at least one hour.

Top layer:
4oz. semi-sweet chocolate chips
2 tablespoons butter

Melt the chocolate and butter and pour it over the middle layer. Chill for at least one hour. Use a thin knife to cut into squares. Heating the knife under hot water helps.

Difficult to cut, but super easy to eat. Even Chuck Norris probably has a hard time fighting the urge to eat Nanaimo Bars.

Difficult to cut, but super easy to eat. Even Chuck Norris probably has a hard time fighting the urge to eat Nanaimo Bars.

But like I said before, Canadian Nick hates chocolate, which meant I’d better make something without a hint of cocoa in it, or else the birthday boy would just have to watch the rest of us eat and enjoy his birthday for him. So next up, Nick-friendly Butter Tarts.

Canadian Butter Tarts
Pie crust (buy it pre-made or use your favorite recipe)

1 egg
1/2 cup light brown sugar
1/2 cup corn syrup
1 tablespoon melted butter
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup chopped pecans

Mix all ingredients except the pecans. Once everything is well incorporated then stir in the pecans.

Mmmm. Butter and pecan filling.

Mmmm. Butter and pecan filling.

Use a cookie cutter (or coffee mug) to cut the pie crust into about 12 circles.

Can we do it? Yes, we can!

Can we do it? Yes, we can!

Coat the wells of a mini muffin tin with non-stick baking spray and place a circle of dough in each. Press down so that they fit the shape of the pan.

You can make the dough circles bigger if you want to be able to add more filling.

You can make the dough circles bigger if you want to be able to add more filling.

Add a tablespoon of the pecan mix to each. If you make larger circles you may need to add more. Don’t fill to the top of the dough as this will cause the filling to bubble up and burn along the edges.

Bake at 400 for 10 minutes. Allow to cool a few minutes before removing. They should pop out if you push slightly on one side of the tart.

If this blog had smell-o-vision, you'd be drooling right now.

If this blog had smell-o-vision, you’d be drooling right now.

The one thing I couldn’t get fpr the party were real Timbits – doughnut holes from Canada’s favorite doughnut franchise, Tim Hortons. I guess it’s just not in my department’s budget to overnight fried dough from across the border. I know, lame, right? Instead I went by a local doughnut shop and got some faux Timbits. Sometimes you just have to make due.


Luckily Canadian colors are also Christmas colors, so I had plenty of red decorations, plates and napkins around to use. And although Nick wouldn’t touch the Nanaimo bars because of their chocolate content, he took some home to his Canadian wife and she loved them. International peace achieved.


The True North strong and free!

Categories: Bake From Scratch, Office Birthdays | Tags: , , | 3 Comments

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3 thoughts on “Baking for Canadians: Christmas Treats From Across the Border

  1. Firstly, I have the same coffee mug with Rosie the Riveter on it, so good going on that one Lisa! Secondly, the Nanaimo bars, look absolutely delicious and mouth-watering! So much so, that I may have to nominate one of my friends to make them (again, I don’t have a stove, long story). But the butter tarts are no less scrumptious looking! Butter is one of my fav ingredients! I’m completely awed.

  2. Thanks, Katya. I’m pretty sure you could make the Nanaimo Bars without a stove if you have a microwave to melt the chocolate and butter in. They’re a no-bake bar, so you can enjoy them even if your stove and oven are both out of order. Leave it to those clever Canuks, eh?

  3. Hi Lisa! Just found my way to your site through a Pinterest post about your awesome TARDIS cubicle. Since you’re a fellow Whovian, I had to tell you about Custard Powder. I searched high and low for it when I was having a friend over for the Season 6 premier. I hadn’t seen said friend in a LONG time, and he *really* wanted to try fish fingers and custard. After doing a lot of internet research on custard powder, and how it differs from American vanilla pudding, I went searching. I tried the biggest grocery stores in town, with good international sections, but no dice. Tried Big Lots, which has lots of British foods, especially lots of their biscuit brands. No luck. Finally I tried all three actual international markets in town. The Asian one wasn’t much help as it mostly has frozen fish, and the Mexican one was closed that day, but the Middle Eastern one was open and they had it!!! It was in their desserts section. Since most of the writing was in Arabic, I took a gamble that I was buying the right thing. It absolutely was. It came in a purple and red tin, kind of like the tins you buy cocoa powder in here in the states. It was delicious, and was both similar, and completely different than pudding. Since you are clearly quite the baker, you might like trying it in some normally pudding filled recipes, like Boston Cream Pie and such. The brand was called Delight. Here’s a picture of it:

    Good luck in all your baking adventures!

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