Vegan Nanaimo Bars

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I was watching a BBC series recently about the history of the native peoples of the Pacific Northwest, and it gave me a hankering for Nanaimo bars. I used to have a co-worker from Manitoba, who would make this typical Canadian treat from time to time, and bring it in. Those were good work days. It’s something in between a millionaire’s shortbread and a cheesecake, requires no baking, and is totally delicious. As well as the standard vanilla filling, mint or coffee variations are also common.

Nanaimo bars originated unsurprisingly from the city of Nanaimo on Vancouver Island. If I had drawn pine forests, Mounties, beavers or other Canadian clichés for the illustration, it would have been all wrong. That part of Canada is more redwood trees and continual rain. I’d very much like to visit that part of the world, but a trip’s too expensive for me right now. Vancouver is a very pricy city, and my closest friends live in Ontario and Oregon, so I’d have to shell out for a hotel.

As well as the beautiful mountains, rainforests and bays full of whales, British Columbia is known for the sculpture and artwork of the Tlingit, Haida and Salish people and other local groups. Watching the documentary, I felt it must be very frustrating for the local archaeologists. You have a region where there’s a 10,000 year unbroken history of civilisations known for their expert sculpting, boatbuilding and weaving, but also one of the wettest climates on the planet, so all that cedar wood and wool rots away very quickly.

A blog from that area I like is The Woman Who Married a Bear. The writer Milla is a Finnish woman who lives with her partner on a small island in the Salish Sea in between the USA and Canada (their island is on the US side). She is a herbalist, and he makes traditional tools used in the local sculpture and boatmaking techniques. The blog focuses a lot on nature and life on a small island and has a lot of beautiful photos.

The city of Nanaimo has a free recipe for the toponymous bars on their website, but it uses North American ingredients and volume measurements, and has a semi-cooked egg in the base that didn’t seem entirely necessary. So here’s the vegan version I evolved by trial and error, using metric weight measurements and ingredients found in every British supermarket. The recipe is vegan, and can also be easily made gluten free with a few substitutions.



Glass lasagne dish
Silicone spatula
Small pan (a milk pan is ideal)
Electric mixer

For the base:

100g vegan baking margarine (Stork has dairy in, but a lot of supermarket own brands are vegan)
50g brown sugar
5 tablespoons cocoa powder
100g dark chocolate
150g digestive biscuits (can easily be substituted for gluten free digestives)
70g finely chopped almonds
100g dessicated coconut
5 tablespoons golden syrup

For the filling:

100g vegan baking margarine
2 tablespoons custard powder (gluten free is also available)
300g icing sugar
3 tablespoons soya or almond milk (vanilla soya milk is great for this recipe)

Optional variations:
Add 1 teaspoon of peppermint or coffee flavour along with matching food colouring

For the covering:

150g dark chocolate
2 tablespoons baking margarine

To make the base:

  1. Put the biscuits in a sandwich bag, and hit with a spoon until they are completely crumbled. (They don’t have to be perfectly crushed, as long as there are no big lumps)
  2. Mix the biscuit crumbs, almonds and coconut in a bowl
  3. Melt the margarine, sugar, cocoa and chocolate over a low heat in the pan
  4. Pour the liquid ingredients into the dry ingredients, add the golden syrup and mix well
  5. Line the bottom of the lasagne pan with the mix
  6. Chill the base for 30 minutes. If you don’t chill the base, it will come apart when you add the filling.

To make the filling

  1. Mix the icing sugar and custard powder well in a small bowl and set aside
  2. Add the margarine to the mixing bowl, and slowly add the sugar, mixing with an electric mixer as you go along
  3. You will end up with a very thick, dry buttercream.
  4. Slowly add the soya milk while mixing to create a thick, smooth buttercream
  5. Spread the buttercream over the biscuit base. Chill for 10 minutes.

To make the topping

  1. Gently melt the chocolate and margarine in a pan over a low heat
  2. Pour over the custard cream layer
  3. Chill for three hours- you can’t cut the squares until the chocolate is perfectly set. Cover with foil or baking paper- cling film will just stick to the chocolate

Once completely set, cut into small squares. Keep in the fridge.

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