I'm not really here.
I'm not really here because I'm busy on another project, and so told myself right up until two minutes ago that I'd stop by next week instead. Also, I have a head cold the size of South Dakota. I'm not wallowing. I'm actually feeling pretty smart about the fact that for all the colds that have gone through this house, this is the first one that's touched down on me. I'm just saying, I've been to South Dakota. Three times, actually. It's a big state. Any state that can accomodate 400 miles of billboards trumpeting one drug store is a big state. Turns out head colds come South Dakota-size. Thankfully, so does Kleenex.
But sometimes, a little distraction is just what the doctor ordered, so let's say we have a quick chit-chat then poof!, like it never happened, run right back to what we were doing. Alright then.
The reason I'm not really here is last Friday. Or rather, the fact that last Friday found me baking up a batch of Nanaimo bars, when the world paused briefly. It was really quick-like, ein augenblick. Maybe you didn't even notice. But I did, as I tend to, when some sweet nothing stops me cold. Because what crossed my mind in that fleeting, still moment was that I'd never seen a Nanaimo bar in Ohio.
Now, on the one hand, this makes perfect sense. I'd never seen a buckeye in Washington state. Nanaimo bars are a regional speciality, hailing from Vancouver Island, just off Canada's Western Coast. I grew up with my fair share of these gems, hailing as I did from Seattle, just south of Canada's Western Coast.
Logical, then. But unacceptable, all the same.
Because to think that Ohio might not know Nanaimos, simply due to some sad accident of geography, well. Not on my watch.
About these bars. Here's what they are: These bars are a triple-decker event, three distinct layers, eminently complementary. The base is a gussied-up graham cracker crust, pebbled with small shards of pecan and coconut. What makes it magnificent—beyond the cube of butter—is the sheer scale of the thing, a half-inch, easy. I adore graham cracker crust, so much I'm always serving up stingy, thin-bottomed pies, having sabotaged the edges shamelessly. I've spent more hours this past year than I care to admit, puzzling over a way to make a graham cracker crust cookie. The obstacle, ordinarily, is in the holding together, since it's fantastically crumbly manner is its solitary downfall. This bar comes pretty close to solving that puzzle. This crust is stacked. But wait. There's more.
Strata two, unconventionally (more on that in a minute), is a tender stripe of just-set cheesecake, cream to the crumb. And then, because everything is better by threes, there's a cap of ganache. A thick cap. Worthy of an Ohio winter, even. There's your localization.
Now, as you purists will well know by now, what these bars aren't: the real Nanaimo deal. True Nanaimo bars (yes, there's an official recipe) have as their center a custard-flavored buttercream, with none of this new-fangled cream cheese business. These are also good, by which I mean marvelous, lofty and swish and ever so slightly sandpapery, on account of the custard powder. I count myself among you, traditionalists. I also throw my hat in with the new order.
Because around this time last year, I spotted Tara's version, which is really Alice's version, which is really Maya's version, and when it came time to bake up a batch Friday, well, you can tell which way my thoughts turned. And then, because I'd already fiddled with authenticity, I just went whole hog and fiddled some more. Halfway has never really been my way.
Authentic Nanaimos have chocolate graham crusts, arrived at either through cocoa or chocolate-flavored grahams. I ommitted both, and was inordinately pleased. (See graham-cracker-crust cookie dreams, above. See also a mere mega-size threshhold for indulgence). I used salted butter, because I love salted butter, and added another good crystalline pinch, besides. Because sugar needs salt like Abbott, Costello. (And like modern kids do, typewriters. "This is like the computer ... only better!", Zoë crowed.)
Oh, one more thing. I also left out the added sugar in the topping, going instead with a straight-up ganache. The result was ever so slightly bitter, which I adore against all that sweet. They remained plenty sweet for my kids, anyway, who didn't argue when I broke my own no-cookies-for-breakfast rule and served them up, Saturday morning. Because they go down fine with a pot of hot coffee, and I've never been good with double standards. Beyond a few conspiratorial glances, no one cited the violation. We dug in and moved on, like it never happened.
adapted from Tara, excerpted from Alice Medrich, Chewy Gooey Crispy Crunchy Melt-in-Your-Mouth Cookies
I've included the option of cocoa powder below, if you'd like to give the chocolate graham crust a go.
Lacking the 9x9" square pan called for, I baked my bars in an 8x8" square pan. This worked brilliantly, with the footnote that my filling took nearly twice as long to bake. If using the smaller size, bake by signs of doneness rather than stated times; see recipe notes for cues.
5 tablespoons cocoa powder, optional
1/2 cup unsweetened, dried shredded coconut (macaroon coconut)
1/2 cup finely chopped pecans
1 stick (1/2 cup) salted butter, melted
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup granulated sugar, divided
8 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
2 tablespoons (0.875 ounce) packed brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 large egg
1/2 cup heavy cream
7 ounces bittersweet chocolate (55-60% cacao), coarsely chopped
Line a 9- or 8-inch square baking pan with foil, criss-cross style, to cover all four sides. Preheat the oven to 350°F.
Place butter and salt in a medium saucepan, and melt over low-medium. When the butter has melted, add the graham crumbs, coconut, pecans, cocoa powder (if using), and 1/4 cup of the granulated sugar, and stir well to combine. Tip into the lined pan, and pat very firmly to form an even layer. I fold down the foil flaps over the crust, and roll gently and firmly with a can, to help secure the crust. Bake 10-12 minutes, or until edges darken slightly and the kitchen smells fantastic.
While crust bakes, mix the filling: In a large bowl, by hand or with a mixer, beat the softened cream cheese, brown sugar and remaining granulated sugar until smooth. Add the vanilla, then the egg, and beat well to combine. When the crust is baked, spoon the filling onto the hot crust, spreading gently to distribute evenly over the hot crust. Bake until edges are slightly puffed, center barely jiggles, and a knife inserted into the center comes out with very moist cheesecake "crumbs". This may take anywhere from 10-20 minutes, depending on pan size. Start with the lesser time, and check every few minutes, until done. Cool on a rack for 30 minutes, then chill for at least 2 hours, or overnight.
Make ganache and finish bars: In a medium pan, warm cream to steaming over a low burner. (Alternatively, heat in the microwave). Tip the chopped chocolate into the hot cream, let sit five minutes, then whisk gently until smooth. Pour the warm ganache over the chilled cheesecake, spread to cover, and chill at least 60 minutes. To remove bars for cutting, lift out by their foil "ears", then place the entire slab on a board and cut into squares, wiping the knife between cuts. These are insanely rich, so I cut them incredibly small, generally between 1 and 1.5". The original recipe suggests 16-25 squares. I yield closer 40-50. Then eat 3. Your choice.