Oh, Canada: Nanaimo Bars! January 2010 Daring Baker Challenge

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 http://www.nanaimo.ca/.

I had never heard of Nanaimo bars, or even of Nanaimo, BC Canada. I also was unaware that some people actually detest these bars and even chose to sit this month out. Being from the Midwest, where bar-making is somehow an inherent gene, I was more than excited to make them. I pretended to not be so excited to eat them, since there was well over a half pound of butter in one 9x9 baking dish... but they were delicious, and completely worth the splurge. (It also helps that I was able to give half the pan to Maeckel, and that they freeze like a miracle!)

I actually
did this challenge on the 8th of the month, instead of waiting until the last second - which has sadly become my usual habit. Though Lauren chose to use gluten-free ingredients (her recipe is here), I opted to use my pantry staples. As I grow in experimentation of the gluten-free universe, I may try these graham crackers again using rice flour and the like. But for this challenge, I used the 101 Cookbooks recipe which is actually Nancy Silverton's.

I adore Nancy Silverton, and credit her for my original love of baking bread. Though, I don't follow her rather labor intensive approach, reading all about her method a few years ago was fascinating, and obviously the stuff of passion that is absolutely infectious. You can tell that dough runs in her veins. Ordinarily, I wouldn't even consider altering a proportional baking recipe of hers, such as this one for graham crackers, but I did - since I wanted to use whole wheat flour instead of all-purpose.

I did use the food pro to mix everything up, and since I used the wheat flours, I knew I would need more liquid. Fortunately, there were verbal clues as to how this dough should feel: very soft and sticky. I simply added a splash of half and half and pulsed until the dough looked appropriate enough to me. Then I dutifully stashed it in plastic and placed it under cold storage for 2 hours as recommended. When it came to the rolling, however, I did not refrigerate the cut crackers for 30 minutes prior to baking as recommended. I simply don't have space in my fridge for half-sheet pans unless it is completely empty. Happily, it worked just fine!

Whole Wheat Graham Crackers (by way of 101 Cookbooks, Nancy Silverton and Rebecca Gagnon)
  • 1 c. whole wheat flour (I use King Arthur Flour)
  • 1 1/2 c. white whole wheat flour (KAF)
  • 1 c. dark brown sugar
  • 1 t. baking soda
  • 3/4 t. kosher salt
  • 7 T. butter, cut into 1 inch slices and frozen
  • 1/3 c. honey
  • 5 T. milk (I used the 1% I had on hand)
  • 2 T. vanilla extract (this is the main flavor component, so try not to skimp!)

Combine flour, sugar, soda and salt in a food pro - or a stand mixer with paddle attachment. (If using the stand mixer, I'd probably cut my pieces of butter a bit smaller before freezing them.) Pulse (or mix, if using the stand mixer) to blend, and then add frozen butter. Pulse or mix until the mixture resembles coarse meal.

Mix honey, milk and vanilla and add at once to the dry mixture. Pulse or mix until a dough comes together, using a couple of T.'s more of milk or half and half to make the dough feel soft and somewhat sticky.

Form into a disk about an inch thick and wrap in plastic. Refrigerate for 2 hours or overnight.

Preheat oven to 350. Divide dough in two halves, and roll out to about 1/8 of an inch, and cut into squares using a pizza roller or fluted pastry wheel. Gather scraps and set aside. Transfer to baking sheet lined with parchment and bake 12-15 minutes until browned. They will continue to harden as they cool. (I actually re-baked some of my first batch when they were not crisp enough after cooling, and it worked fine.) Re-roll any scraps and cut into squares or use cutters to make shapes. If you prefer crackers with a cinnamon sugar topping, sprinkle the mixture on the crackers prior to baking... you may use the proportion 1 t. cinnamon to 3 T. granulated sugar.

I omitted the cinnamon sugar topping, since I knew there would be plenty of sugar in my finished product. The square crackers above were the first rolling, using plenty of AP flour to prevent sticking. Don't be shy with the flour either, since it is extremely sticky, especially since I did the additional liquid by feel. I made a second batch of crackers later in the month, complete with cinnamon sugar dusting, and didn't add quite as much additional milk. Still sticky! Fortunately, the texture is the only thing that changes with additional rollings and additional flour on the board. I like them both ways equally.

The stars were the very last rolling, scraps really, and were probably my favorites since they were nice and crisp. Graham crackers have officially made the list of things I'll never buy again.

No complaints from my taste tester, either. We now have a graham cracker spread with peanut butter nearly every day for a snack. One day, I had some leftover MonkeyShake (bananas, milk, honey and cocoa powder), and happened to eat a graham cracker spread with peanut butter while I was drinking it... I don't even need to tell you how good that was!

The second batch later in the month. I need to invest in a fluted pastry wheel, since I used a fluted french fry cutter, and it wasn't working so well.

So, now on to the actual bars! As if the graham crackers alone aren't worth their weight in gold for this month's challenge, I now knew that bars made with them had to be wonderful. You can, of course, make them using regular store-bought graham cracker crumbs, but what fun would that be? The Nainaimo link above has the recipe.

When I began my melting of a whole stick of butter together with sugar and cocoa powder, I knew that I was going to be in for something special. Everything is heated in the top of a double boiler, and when hot and melted, an egg is added. It's startling to see how thick the hot mixture becomes. It is then added to a mixture of unsweetened coconut, ground almonds and a cup and a half of fresh graham cracker crumbs and pressed into a baking dish.

I chilled it well at this point, before adding my other two layers. After an hour or so, I mixed up the mostly butter "frosting" layer for the middle.

After sitting another hour or so, I melted the now small amount of butter - 2 T. - with 1 oz. of bittersweet chocolate for the ganache top. I had to spread quickly since I had such a firm and cold base, and the chocolate was cooling very fast.

My only mistake was trying to cut the bars too soon out of the fridge. I was eager, after all, to taste these. They were ragged and tasty, though not nearly as professional and texturally pleasing as the ones I cut after sitting at room temperature for 30 minutes. All of the butter in the middle layer became infinitely more palatable, and the whole bar tasted like the most amazing and luxurious candy bar you've ever had. These are rich, and one bar certainly will hold you for a while.

I was secretly glad my Husband knew there was coconut in them and wouldn't even take a bite... he dislikes it except for, strangely enough, in curry. I served them when Maeckel came for dinner, and then sent some along with him. The rest popped into the deep freeze. I have only 2 left, that I'm still saving for some dessertless occasion. One bar on the counter at room temperature thaws in about 3o minutes - not a bad wait for bar perfection!

Thank you to Lauren for this month's challenge! I'm glad to know of Nainamo, BC Canada, and of these bars of legend. This challenge did make me stop and think a bit more about food allergy. I am becoming increasingly perplexed with the amount of food allergy in the world, and secretly wonder if all this genetic modification and chemical application in our agriculture is partially to blame. I am thankful that should food allergy arise, there are inspired people working on ways to make an "eggless" egg so to speak, and the creative abilities of trial and error home cooks out there are astounding. Whatever your allergy or food preference, you can rest assured that a baker somewhere is tirelessly at work so that you can enjoy something sweet on occasion. What a comforting thought that is!