PASS THE TORCH. There’s a new Daring Baker in town, and she’s on her way to British Columbia, Canada. Well, not really. Armchair (or kitchen) travel is the only kind I’m doing at the moment. I’d say “unfortunately,” except that there’s nothing unfortunate about today’s culinary excursion—a gooey, creamy, chocolatey, crunchy foray into bliss—no, nothing unfortunate at all.
This month, for my debut with the Daring Bakers group, the challenge was hosted by Lauren, a Canadian teen who blogs about food, about the obstacles and opportunities of a gluten-free diet, and also about bigger-picture life issues: growing up, finding yourself, looking beyond yourself for ways to help others. You can read her posts at CeliacTeen. She has a great initiative in the works to help the humanitarian efforts in Haiti, and I’m sure you’ll hear more about that in time. Today, though, national pride is her theme. With good reason. As if universal, national health care were not enough . . . now this! (Hmm, maybe there’s a correlation between these decadent treats and the need for health care.)
The first part of the challenge was not Canadian; it was to make gluten-free graham crackers. You can read about my experience with that here. For the second, Canadian part of the challenge . . . Can you say “Nanaimo”? You can’t? Don’t worry, neither could I. I had to navigate to Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary, where they have an audio file to help. Here’s my version of the phonetics: nuh-NYE-mo. You’re welcome.
For those who don’t know, Nanaimo is “The Harbour City” of British Columbia. It’s located on Vancouver Island, across the Strait of Georgia from Vancouver (the city). Vancouver, as I’m sure everyone knows, is hosting the 2010 Winter Olympics next month. Hence the torch reference. Should you want to get into proper (if geeky) Olympic spirit, you can follow the progress of the Olympic Torch between now and the opening ceremonies, on February 12, with this interactive map. The torch passed through Nanaimo back in October, on days two and three of the relay.
But back to baking. Or rather, no-baking, since these decadent bars do not require use of an oven. In addition to its long coastline and proximity to the Olympics, Nanaimo boasts this asset: the Nanaimo Bar, which apparently is found almost everywhere in Canada. I had never heard of this quirky Canadian dessert before, and it was probably just as well that I didn’t know what I was missing. Classic Nanaimo Bars consist of three layers: a bottom layer of graham crackers, cocoa, coconut, and nuts (usually almonds); a middle custard-like layer; and finally a topping of chocolate ganache. They are extremely rich, but that doesn’t mean you’ll be ready to stop at just one.
To put my own touch of patriotism to the bar, I decided to create a Hawaiian flavor variation. I know Hawaii might seem incongruous, mixed in with allusions to the winter games and the logical associations of snow and ice: blame it on the coconut in the original recipe. In a classic Nanaimo Bar, the coconut is confined to shredded coconut in the bottom layer. I thought it would be nice to carry that flavor through to the cream layer as well, which is usually made with custard powder or a substitute of vanilla pudding mix. Finally, to complete my “Aloha Canada” theme, I added a hint of Kona coffee to the ganache and topped the whole thing with crushed, chocolate-coated espresso beans. This brought a dark edge—bitter and sophisticated—to balance out the kid-on-a-sugar-buzz level of sweet in the rest of the bar.
And now, “with a glowing heart” (tag line for the Vancouver games), I pass along my own salute to Lauren, to Canada, to Team U.S.A. and all the Olympic athletes, to the Daring Bakers, and especially to you, dear readers. Total indulgence, eh?
Kona Coffee Nanaimo Bars
The original Nanaimo Bars recipe on which this version is based can be found at the Web site for the City of Nanaimo.
Yield: 16 small bars (or what the heck, cut ‘em bigger)
For Bottom Layer
1/2 cup unsalted butter
1/4 cup granulated sugar
5 Tablespoons unsweetened cocoa
1 large egg, beaten
1 1/4 cups graham cracker crumbs (for gluten-free, substitute these wafers)
1/2 cup macadamia nuts, finely chopped and lightly toasted in a 350-degree oven
1/2 cup shredded coconut (I used sweetened, but unsweetened is also fine)
For Middle Layer
1/2 cup unsalted butter
2 Tablespoons and 2 teaspoons heavy cream
2 Tablespoons cornstarch
1 pinch salt
1/8 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups confectioner’s sugar
3 teaspoons all-natural coconut flavoring (not oil)
For Top Layer
4 ounces bittersweet chocolate
2 Tablespoons unsalted butter
2 Tablespoons Hawaiian Kona coffee, brewed to double-strength
1/4 cup chocolate-covered espresso beans, coarsely chopped
For the bottom layer: Melt butter, sugar, and cocoa in the top of a double boiler. Add egg and cook until thick, stirring constantly. Remove from heat. Stir in graham cracker crumbs, macadamia nuts, and coconut. Press firmly into an ungreased 8- by 8-inch pan and chill in the refrigerator before proceeding to the next step.
For the middle layer: Beat together the butter, cream, cornstarch, salt, vanilla, and confectioner’s sugar until well combined, light, and fluffy. Add coconut flavoring and mix thoroughly. Spread over bottom layer and chill again.
For the top layer: Melt chocolate and butter, together with the coffee, over low heat. Cool to room temperature. Once cool, pour over the middle layer. Top with the crushed espresso beans and chill once more. When the top layer has set, cut into squares and serve.
Notes on Preventing a Nanaimo Binge:
These bars freeze well. In fact, if you’re not making them to share with a large group or give away immediately, I highly recommend that you freeze most of these. Otherwise, you’ll discover like I did how easily they go down when they’re too accessible. These bars are dangerous. Indulge within reason, then tuck them in an airtight container in the freezer: if your freezer’s as full as mine is, the bars will quickly be out of sight and out of mind.
The January 2010 Daring Bakers’ challenge was hosted by Lauren of Celiac Teen. Lauren chose Gluten-Free Graham Wafers and Nanaimo Bars as the challenge for the month. The sources she based her recipe on are 101 Cookbooks and www.nanaimo.ca.