Located on the eastern shore of Vancouver Island, Nanaimo, B.C. is a verdant, broody kind of place; a typical Pacific coast town, washed out in foggy greys and steel ocean blues. But this misty city is also the namesake for what might just be the sunniest dessert square the world has ever produced: the Nanaimo bar, a soft layer of yellow custard sandwiched between rich chocolate ganache and a coconut-graham crust.
In the basement of a Nanaimo church, ladies in lace-fringed aprons are hard at work preparing a meal to dazzle the community. One woman is carefully following a recipe for unbaked chocolate cake, clipped out of the Vancouver Sun, when she decides to try something new. She whips up a custard icing, spreads it over the cake, adds a final layer of chocolate, and chills the creation in the refrigerator. When she pulls it out, she slices off the round edges to make perfect squares and shares the sweet scraps with her fellow members of the Nanaimo Hospital Auxiliary. Delicious. The housewives immediately request the recipe and soon the squares, which became known as Nanaimo bars, were adorning the doilies of dessert trays across town. No one is sure exactly how, when, or by whom the Nanaimo bar was created, but this is the scenario pictured by Lenore Newman, who researched the layered history of the layered dessert that has come to define its namesake Vancouver Island community.
The bar got a big boost during Expo 86 in Vancouver, when Nanaimo held a recipe contest and trotted out a mascot named Nanaimo Barney. A recipe for the confection was also included in a commemorative cookbook curated by The Lazy Gourmet, the Vancouver catering company believed to be the first to commercially produce the bars. As such, the Nanaimo bar was introduced to the world.