by Veronica Wilson

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“Step 1: Cream the butter until light and fluffy.”

The first hiccup in today’s baking endeavor begins. I’ve been baking for years—the child of a professional chef, the grandchild of an inexhaustible baker—and yet, that butter is never at room temperature, never ready for step one. Behind before I’ve even started.

I sigh, trudge over to the fridge, and take out twice as many sticks as I need. It’ll only be one batch but should disaster strike, I won’t be making this mistake again. It’s too cold out to get an assist in butter softening from the sun, but I always accidentally melt it in the microwave. Who gave me permission to even try this?

And so, I wait.

I wait and I think. No one gave me permission to bake in my own disorganized way, but I’m trying to get a taste of home… of butter and all the beautiful treats and memories butter has given me.

I think of Nanaimo bars, the no-bake, refrigerated Canadian holiday treat. By far superior to the cookies I’m about to make. The flavors are divine. How could they not be? For every unique ingredient, there’s almost an equal amount of butter mixed in.

As soon as Halloween was out of the way, holiday treat preparation would start. Shortbread (main ingredient: butter), Nanaimo bars (main ingredient: butter), and butter tarts (do I even need to say it?) would slowly begin to stack up around the house. Mom would spend weeks baking to prepare for family gatherings and cookie exchanges, where she’d exchange her buttery works of art for sub-par thumbprint cookies that we’d usually avoid. 

I think back to my childhood, when my obsession with these bars knew no limit. Too tempting to exist upstairs, the Nanaimo bars’ buttery glory was relegated to sit next to beer and who knows what else in the basement workshop fridge. 

I think back to my childhood, when my obsession with these bars knew no limit. Too tempting to exist upstairs, the Nanaimo bars’ buttery glory was relegated to sit next to beer and who knows what else in the basement workshop fridge. 

I think about one particular episode of creeping downstairs to sneak a taste, since the two I’d have later at dinner weren’t enough. 

Creeping toward the fridge, I notice my dad, sitting at his desk in the basement office. If I’m stealthy, he won’t hear me over his X-Wing Fighter game. I open the fridge and quietly slide out the tray.

Alas! Refrigerated butter strikes again. The bars are like slabs of granite if you don’t have a sharp knife or allow them to thaw a little. Perhaps my tendency toward under-preparation started earlier than I realize. Looking around the workshop, I search for some way to liberate the chocolate-y, buttery goodness from its tray. A rusty saw… a paint-covered chisel… tetanus for Christmas has a nice ring to it lyrically but probably wouldn’t be ideal.

I look back at the tray, longing for the moment I can lift the top layer of chocolate and slowly scrape tastes of the custard buttercream into my mouth to reveal the fudgy bottom layer. It never occurred to me to eat all three layers at once until I saw my husband bite right into one like a wild animal 20 years later. I have a system and I’m sticking to it.

As I daydream about the treat I can’t have, I suddenly feel someone behind me. Dad. I guess he’d already defeated the Empire and has now come to end my mission.

“No knife?” he asks, and I shake my head.

He grabs the tray out of my hands and sits it on the big freezer behind us. I brace myself for a lecture on the amount of sugar (and butter) I’ve consumed this holiday season thanks to Mom’s tireless work. If the treats aren’t to be consumed, why do we have so many?

But no! These are the movements of a man with a plan, a man who has been here before — maybe even earlier today. He works swiftly, pulling out the entire slab. With a quick crack, he breaks off a piece and hands it to me. Butter! The cold brick that has long plagued my baking plans breaks perfectly when mixed with chocolate and spread to be a couple inches thick. 

The bar barely fits in my little hands. It’s easily two, maybe three times bigger than the dainty squares typically cut by Mom or Grandma after dinner.

He repeats the motion, breaking off a piece for himself before returning the tray to the fridge. “It’s harder to be precise this way,” he says, taking a bite. With that, he wanders off, likely ready to take down a fleet of TIE fighters. 

I’m left in the workshop, with chocolate and butter beginning to melt faster than anticipated in my hands. I start to dismantle it in the way only I do, layer by layer, savoring the transformation the butter has undergone at each stage. Crisp, cold chocolate, soft and airy buttercream, dense and slightly crumbly graham cracker. I finish it and giggle at this new secret I can keep.

I giggle again, 20 years later. Foiled again by cold butter but excited about what it might create, not just as something to eat, but as potential. Potential for surprise. Potential for a moment of bonding. Potential maybe for a little giggle from a little person, holding something special in their little hands.

Recipe (Text Only)

Nanaimo Bars

Adapted from Mrs. Raymond Brick’s recipe in the Oak Bluff Women’s Institute Cook Book.

Makes one 9×13 tray of bars

Base Layer:

  • 1 cup of unsalted butter
  • ½ cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar 
  • ½ cup plus 2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • 32 double graham crackers, rolled to crumbs or small pieces (approximately 2 cups of crumbs)
  • 1 cup shredded unsweetened coconut (optional)
  • 1 cup chopped walnuts

Note: A double graham cracker is a square that contains two rectangular crackers. They often come in sheets that include two-double graham crackers, four crackers per sheet.

  1. Pour water into the bottom of a double boiler (or a small pot with a metal bowl placed on top – make sure the bottom of the bowl doesn’t touch any of the water) and bring to a simmer over low heat. Add the butter, sugar, cocoa, and vanilla to the top of the double boiler (or bowl) and mix until the butter is melted.
  1. Add the eggs and stir until thick. Remove from heat and mix in the graham crackers, coconut (if using) and walnuts. 
  2. Place a piece of wax paper in the bottom of a 9×13 pan. The paper should be longer than the pan to allow you to lift the bars out later. Spread the mixture evenly across the pan using a spatula. Put the pan the fridge or freezer as you work on the next layer.

Custard Layer:

  • 8 tablespoons unsalted butter (1/2 cup), room temperature
  • 6 tablespoons milk
  • 4 tablespoons vanilla custard powder 
  • 4 cups confectioner’s sugar

Note: (Bird’s Custard Powder is the most popular, often found in the international section of grocery stores, near British foods. World Market also carries it.)

  1. Cream the butter using an electric mixer until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes.
  2. Add the milk and stir briefly. It will not incorporate fully into the butter.
  3. Add the vanilla custard powder and slowly begin adding confectioner’s sugar. Mix on low at first before increasing to a high speed, once all the sugar has been added.
  4. Spread the buttercream over the chilled base and return to the fridge or freezer. 

Chocolate Layer:

  • 8 oz. bittersweet chocolate
  • 6 tablespoons unsalted butter
  1. Melt the chocolate and butter, either in a double boiler or the microwave (if using the microwave, heat in short increments to avoid burning)
  2. Once liquid, pour over the buttercream layer. It’s important the buttercream is cold so it doesn’t melt and mix into the chocolate. The best way to know is by poking it. If it feels stiff and your finger doesn’t leave much of an indent, it’s ready for chocolate. 30 minutes in the freezer or 60 minutes in the fridge is plenty. Spread the chocolate across the whole pan and return to the refrigerator. 

The bars are ready to serve once the top layer has hardened. To serve, use the wax paper to lift the entire slab out of the pan and cut into squares. 

Substitutes: Vegan eggs, vegan butter, and non-dairy milk all work well in this recipe. Gluten-free graham crackers may also be used. If you can’t find custard powder, an equal amount of vanilla pudding powder can be used. Your center layer just may not be as yellow as when you use the traditional custard powder.


Recipe adapted from Mrs. Raymond Brick’s recipe in the Oak Bluff cookbook.

Illustrations by Rose Lewis.

Veronica Wilson

Veronica Wilson is a writer, baker, and maker of things cute or delicious. Born in Canada, she now lives in Chicago where she cooks and creates for anyone willing to taste her work.