the holy grail of christmas treats

A week ago, Kristina and a friend were sitting at the kitchen island while I worked.

“Wow,” said the friend, “Are you baking again?”

“I am.”

“Every time I see you these days, you’re making something.  Do you spend all the time from Thanksgiving to Christmas making stuff?”

Kristina answered for me, “Pretty much.”

Christmas baking is a huge part of the holiday at our house.  As it was in my mother’s house.  And her mother’s.  And so on.

With the short, dark, cold days and long, dark, even colder nights, gathering around the hearth is a traditional way to stay warm.  The buttery cookies do their part too, with their warmth-giving calories – or so I tell myself.

Sometimes I feel like a bear going into hibernation, eating everything in sight.  Of course, that would imply that I won’t eat again until spring, and it just ain’t so.

But there is an added bonus: the scents and warmth draw everyone to the kitchen, where we gather, cheering our hearts with community and stories and Christmas carols as we wait to taste the first batch of cookies.

This is much of what I love about Christmas.

Some of the things we make at Christmas are only made at Christmas – because they are too fussy to make or too fancy to eat for everyday, or because making them for special occasions is what keeps them special.

In our family, that recipe is Nanaimo Bars.  After emigrating with her family from London during WWII, my mother grew up in Victoria, BC, just down-island from Nanaimo, where these are said to originate.

We make Nanaimo Bars for Christmas, weddings, and christenings.   Even in our large extended family, the latter two don’t happen very often.  We are more than grateful that we can count on Nanaimo Bars once a year at Christmas.

As a girl, I watched my mother make each of the three layers, me on my elbows with my chin in my hands, leaning over the counter until I was breathing in the cloud of yummy that rose over the pan, my hair hanging perilously close.  Sure enough, my mother would flick me back with her fingers and a sharp, “Out of that.”

My mother let me help chop the nuts, measure the ingredients, spread the bottom layer, mix up the icing sugar and custard powder, melt the chocolate – another step each year.  I was so proud when she let me spread the chocolate layer on top: this was the icing, the part everyone would see first on a cookie tray.

Finally, the whole task was mine.  I was terrified, but Mum stayed with me, becoming my helper, in an elegant role reversal mothers and daughters have enjoyed for generations.

After that, making Nanaimo Bars at Christmas (or for those occasional sacramental events) became MY THING.

Somehow, over the years of being a young adult, and then a young mother, I stopped making them.  But I knew they were missing.  The year Kristina was 6 or 7, I asked my mother for the recipe.

And I’ve made them again every year since.  They are rich, with chocolate, coconut, and nuts in the base, a sugar-custard layer in the middle, and a chocolate glaze on top.  We cut them in small bites, to better enjoy them – and to make them last longer because I only make one batch.

They are not for everyone (my husband is not a fan of coconut, so he doesn’t enjoy them), but if you like such things, Nanaimo Bars are hard to resist – and very satisfying.

(recipe after the jump)

Nanaimo Bars (GF)

I make these in a 9″ x 13″ pan, giving us enough to enjoy when folks stop by AND to put into the gift tins of baking for family.  In the recipe, I’ve included amounts for the larger pan before the ingredient name and for a 8″ x 8″ version (in parends after). 

I use organic ingredients wherever I can, and always unsalted butter in baking – I can and do add salt, but I want to be in charge of how much, and I like sea salt with chocolate.


3/4 cup butter (1/2 cup)
6 tbsp sugar (5 tbsp)
7 tbsp cocoa (5 tbsp)
1 egg (1)
1 tsp vanilla (1/2 tsp)
2 cups wafer crumbs** (scant 1-1/2 cups)
1/2 cup almond meal (scant 1/2 cup)
1-1/2 cup fine shred coconut (1 cup)
3/4 cup pecan pieces (1/2 cup)
pinch sea salt (smaller pinch?)

Melt butter, sugar, and cocoa in top of double boiler.  Add egg and cook, stirring constantly with a whisk, until mixture thickens.  Remove from heat.  Stir in vanilla and sea salt, then add crumbs, coconut, and pecans.  Press firmly into an ungreased glass baking pan.  Make as smooth a surface as you can, so you can spread the next layer easily.  Chill thoroughly.


6 tbsp butter (4 tbsp)
2 tbsp whipping cream (2 tbsp)
2 tbsp corn starch (2 tbsp)
2 tsp vanilla (2 tsp)
3 cups icing sugar (2 cups)

Mix butter, cream, starch, and vanilla togther to make a sloppy paste.  Add sifted icing sugar and beat to make a smooth mixture.  Spread over base.  This will be stickier, but again, make as smooth as you can.  Chill thoroughly.


4 ounces semi-sweet chocolate (3 oz.)
2 tbsp butter (1 tbsp)

Melt chocolate with butter in double boiler over low heat.  Remove from heat, but leave over the hot water below – this will keep the chocolate a good consistency while you work.  Spread over the filling.  It will look as if you can’t possibly have enough chocolate, but it is.  Just work in small areas, and cover thinly to start.  If the chocolate is too hot, the filling will melt into it.  Chill overnight.

Before you slice the bars, remove from the fridge for 30 mins or so to let the chocolate soften a bit.  If it is too cold, the glaze will chip away from the filling when you cut the bars.  These taste best when allowed to warm up a bit from the fridge, but do store them in the fridge until you are ready to serve.

** I use Rice Bran cookies from Health Valley.  One package ground up in the food processor equals most of 2 cups of crumbs.  I top it off with almond meal (from Trader Joe’s) and then add another 1/2 cup of almond meal.  If gluten is fine for you, you could sub 2-1/2 cups graham wafer crumbs for the rice bran cookie+almond meal combination.


    • I forgot that I brought those last year! I have many more gluten-free treats in my cookie arsenal now (hmmm… what would an aresenal of cookies look like? chocolate bombs? peppermint bullets? grenades of icing? fudge missiles? maybe I’d best come up with a new term).

      I had planned to post them one-a-week but being present for the season (and a lot of REAL writing) have taken priority. Still, I plan to get an awesome gingerbread (GF – yes, you heard it here) recipe up there shortly. Merry Christmas to you and your lovely family!

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