Low carb, grain-free Nanaimo Bars. They really do exist! The famed Canadian dessert gets a healthy makeover just in time for Canada Day.
For some of you, many of whom are probably above the 49th Parallel, this recipe will have you dancing for joy. For others, most of whom are probably south of the longest undefended border in the world, you will be scratching your heads a bit, wondering what the heck a “Nanaimo” is. You probably aren’t even sure how to pronounce it, what it’s made of or if it’s any good. Don’t worry, it’s good (very very good!) and I will give you the full explanation in a moment. Some of you who have followed me for a long time might even know that I already have a low carb Nanaimo Bar recipe on All Day I Dream About Food, but it’s one that includes an ingredient I no longer wish to use, namely sugar-free Jello Pudding. So this was a great Canadian treat in much need of a healthy update.
So for my confused peeps, let’s start with a pronunciation lesson, a geography lesson and a wee bit of a history lesson. First of all, it’s pronounced Na-Nigh-Mo. Nanaimo. It’s a small city on Vancouver Island, in the western-most province of British Columbia. The word itself is the anglicized version of a First Nations word meaning “big, strong tribe”. And it is where what might be the most loved Canadian dessert was supposedly invented, although that is somewhat contentious. Similar recipes for this confection all appear around 1953/1954 in Nanaimo, Vancouver, and all the way across the country in New Brunswick.
Okay, blah blah blah, Carolyn, hurry up and tell us what it actually IS! Very well, it’s a lovely no-bake treat with a chocolate crust usually made with graham crackers, a vanilla buttercream distinguished by the addition of custard powder, and melted chocolate poured over the lot. And it’s truly delicious. No matter where they were invented, they became very popular all over the country. There is nothing quite like a Nanaimo Bar to make you look back fondly on your Canadian childhood. They were my favourite dessert growing up, competing mightily with the other beloved Canuck dessert, the butter tart. (and yes, I have a low carb version of those too…).
I was so, SO delighted with myself when I created my first low carb Nanaimo Bar. That was almost 6 years ago now and it was probably the moment where I thought…okay, I can really do this low carb thing for life. Figuring out the crust was the easy part, since graham cracker crumbs and almond flour are quite similar in texture. But custard powder was a whole ‘nother issue and it doesn’t come in unsweetened form. Not being quite as adept at low carb dessert as I am now, I relied on artificially sweetened sugar-free pudding mix. There was so much in there that I really didn’t like but it was worth it to recreate Nanaimo Bars. But I always had it in the back of my brain to go back and figure out a way to make it truly healthy, with no aspartame or other unmentionables. And this past weekend, I tackled it to great success. Since I can’t use custard powder, why not actually create a vanilla custard and turn THAT into a buttercream for the filling?
I also got quite a kick out of bringing them out for friends on Saturday night and saying “who wants a Nanaimo Bar?”. The blank looks and choruses of “a WHAT bar?”, followed quickly by “oh man, these are good, can I have some more?” were priceless. Don’t be daunted by the long ingredient list and instructions. These are actually quite easy to make, require no baking and are undoubtably worth it. And you get a little taste of Canada into the mix.