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.
I gotta admit that when I found out what January's DB challenge was, I was a little unenthusiastic. Nanaimo Bars? Really? I mean they've been on nearly every holiday and party sweet tray my entire life. They sell huge trays of them at Costco and there is nary a bakery in Canada that doesn't sell oodles of over sized, over sweet ones every day. And, as Un-Canadian as it may seem, I've never really understood what all the fuss was about. In my house you were more likely to find a mint variation, appropriately called "Creme de Menthe Squares", which was and still is my Christmas treat pick.
In just 2 short weeks the 2010 Winter Olympics will take place in Vancouver, Canada, home of this Lemon Tart. Our host of this challenge, Canadian Daring Baker, Lauren, wanted to choose a challenge that highlighted something uniquely Canadian. The fact that Nanaimo, this treat's namesake, is just a quick ferry ride away from Vancouver makes it an appropriate choice. With a country created by people from other places, sometimes its hard to think of a treat that we can completely claim as our own, but there's no doubt to those of us here that this one is ours! Lastly, Canada really is the land of the square. Cookie that is. From church socials to barbeques and baby showers to weddings, you will find plentiful amounts of homemade squares of an amazing variety across this country. This is just one example.
The key part of this challenge was that we were to make our own graham crackers, an ingredient in Nanaimo Bars. Truth be told I was more excited about that than the recipe they were to be crushed up for. I have a love affair with graham crackers going way back. There's something about that not too sweet, deep honey flavour and just the right amount of crunch that satisfied many a craving. And I could polish off an entire sleeve in one sitting fairly easily. Except for the day when my Mom thought cheese whiz and graham cracker sandwiches would be tasty. They are not! Even when you are 15. Graham Crackers have been on my list for a few years now. Ever since I started making my own marshmallows I've had grand plans of quite the gourmet Smore. These things are so simple to make. Everything gets blitzed, Nigella style, in the food processor, left to rest, then rolled and cut. The ingredients are pantry staples, and taste of plenty of dark brown sugar and flavourful wild flower honey. They are golden and oh so crispy, and, well can you see I really love these graham crackers. It was fairly hard to hold back enough for the challenge recipe as my hand dipped into the container with every entry into the kitchen. I'll be making these again, and again, and again. Hold the cheese whiz.
This simple square can be whipped up from start to finish, provided you already have the graham crackers on hand, in about 30 minutes. It's a great beginner recipe, something easy to do with kids and it's the perfect summer treat since it doesn't require the oven. A base layer of cocoa, butter, sugar, coconut, nuts and graham cracker crumbs (like all good squares should!) all made easily in one bowl and then quickly pressed into a pan. While many of my fellow DB ers came up with all kinds of creative filling variations, some real stunners in the flavour category, I chose to go the traditional route. Why muck it up, adding things that make it into a different square entirely? I hadn't had one in some time either, so it seemed I needed to reacquaint myself with the Nanaimo Bar.
Now the middle layer might have contributed to a bit of my crankiness when I first learned of this challenge. Its a simple icing-like filling made with a specific ingredient - Custard Powder. Just last month in a desire to clean out my cupboards and rid myself of barely used cupboard clutterers, I threw out a canister of said, Bird's custard powder. It had been in there for almost 10 years and it had barely been touched, so off with its head! I was not happy about the prospect of purchasing yet another canister to waste away for several years again, but in the name of recipe authenticity, I dutifully added it back to the pack. Luckily I'm certain Bird's Custard Powder is likely something akin to Twinkies or Tang and will never expire. Perhaps another reason, this one should be tossed too!
The last layer is a simple spreading of dark chocolate. A short time in the fridge, and get the coffee maker going. These sweet treats cry out for a cup of bitter java in this teatotalers opinion. And while I went into this challenge with a little apathy, I came out with a changed mind. For the first time in my life I get the Nanaimo bar thing. Its really one of the most perfect sweets. Crunchy cocoa-y bottom full of chewy coconut, smooth, buttery sweet filling with just the right amount of not quite custard flavour, and a deep chocolate top. That's a pretty good square! For the first time in my life I'll admit I actually enjoyed these Nanaimo Bars and have been sneaking bites ever since. But my real triumph is the graham crackers. Sandwiched with some grape jelly along with a glass of milk, these are the perfect snack.
Next time I would reduce the sugar a bit and do as Lorraine did and add some cinnamon to the dough.
Those of you without a Canuck connection might wonder what is this
Nanaimo Bar, and what's with the name. Head over to Nanaimo's website to learn more about its legendary origins as well as the recipe and anything else you might like to know about Nanaimo, BC.
The recipe I used for the graham crackers, which come from the amazing Nancy Silverton, can be found at Heidi's site. The gluten free version, can be found at our host's site. See top of post for Lauren's link.
those of you Olympic watchers wanting to know anything about my fair
city of Vancouver, host of the 2010 Winter Games, especially with
regards to our stunning food scene, please feel free to email me or
leave a comment with any of your questions.
Graham Cracker Recipe
2 1/2 cups plus 2 tablespoons unbleached pastry flour or unbleached all-purpose flour
1 cup dark brown sugar, lightly packed
1 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
7 tablespoons (3 1/2 ounces) unsalted butter, cut into 1-inch cubes and frozen
1/3 cup mild-flavored honey, such as clover
5 tablespoons whole milk
2 tablespoons pure vanilla extract
For the topping:
3 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
In the bowl of a food processor fitted with the steel blade or in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine the flour, brown sugar, baking soda, and salt. Pulse or mix on low to incorporate. Add the butter and pulse on and off on and off, or mix on low, until the mixture is the consistency of a coarse meal.
In a small bowl, whisk together the honey, milk, and vanilla extract. Add to the flour mixture and pulse on and off a few times or mix on low until the dough barely comes together. It will be very soft and sticky.
Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface and pat the dough into a rectangle about 1 inch thick. Wrap in plastic and chill until firm, about 2 hours or overnight.
To prepare the topping: In a small bowl, combine the sugar and cinnamon, and set aside.
Divide the dough in half and return one half to the refrigerator. Sift an even layer of flour onto the work surface and roll the dough into a long rectangle about 1/8 inch thick. The dough will be sticky, so flour as necessary. Trim the edges of the rectangle to 4 inches wide. Working with the shorter side of the rectangle parallel to the work surface, cut the strip every 4 1/2 inches to make 4 crackers. Gather the scraps together and set aside. Place the crackers on one or two parchment-lined baking sheets and sprinkle with the topping. Chill until firm, about 30 to 45 minutes. Repeat with the second batch of dough.
Adjust the oven rack to the upper and lower positions and preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Gather the scraps together into a ball, chill until firm, and reroll. Dust the surface with more flour and roll out the dough to get about two or three more crackers.
Using a toothpick or skewer, prick the dough to form two dotted rows about 1/2 inch for each side of the dividing line.
Bake for 25 minutes, until browned and slightly firm to the tough, rotating the sheets halfway through to ensure even baking.
Yield: 10 large crackers
From Nancy Silverton's Pastries from the La Brea Bakery (Villard, 2000)