Nanaimo bars are the quintessentially Canadian dessert, at least as far as English Canada is concerned. They’re a no-bake, three-layer affair: a biscuit layer on the bottom, a chocolate layer on top, and a soft middle layer that most often tastes custardy, though there are plenty of variations such as mint or peanut butter.
I like Nanaimo bars well enough but to be honest, I don’t love them. They’re a bit too sweet, a bit too rich, and the middle layer tends to be a bit too squooshy for me, too similar to buttercream icing, which is something I only like in small quantities. So I made up a healthier version: gluten-free, high-protein, low-lactose, low-sugar. Honestly, though, you won’t notice that it’s healthier than the standard Nanaimo bar. This version is still plenty rich, sweet and delicious.
Typically Nanaimo bars (Nanaimo is a small city on Vancouver island; purely by coincidence the name could also mean “seven potatoes” in Japanese) are made with cookie crumbs, cocoa and butter as the main ingredients in the bottom layer. The standard middle layer is butter, sugar, and custard powder, and the top layer is chocolate softened just slightly with butter. This is good. But I thought I could make it better.
I didn’t want to go full-on healthy. A lot of “healthy” desserts don’t taste dessert-y enough to be satisfying. Also, the “healthy” Nanaimo bar recipes I saw online tended to involve things like dates and cashews, both of which are high-FODMAP. So the version I came up with does use butter, though significantly less than most recipes do. It’s not really low-fat, since I used quite a lot of peanut butter, but 100% pure peanut butter, especially skin-on peanut butter like Meridian’s (our family lives on the stuff), isn’t bad for you – it’s high in heart-healthy monounsaturated fat and contains a lot of protein and nutrients.
My Nanaimo bars are also low in sugar. I can’t claim they’re totally free of refined sugar, since I used chocolate, which contains sugar. I also added a single teaspoon of icing sugar into my top layer, since I used a very dark 90% chocolate (I wouldn’t have added any sugar if I’d used a less bitter chocolate). However, by far most of the sweetness comes from bananas.
Peanut butter and banana Nanaimo bars (gluten-free, low-FODMAP, low-sugar)
- 1/4 cup (50 g) butter
- 50 g dark chocolate (I used 90% cocoa-solids chocolate)
- 1 cup gluten-free oats
- 1/2 cup shredded unsweetened coconut
- 1/2 cup almond flour
- 1/2 cup chopped walnuts or pecans
- 1/4 cup natural peanut butter (100% peanuts; no added palm oil, salt or sugar)
- 1 ripe banana, well mashed
- 1 tablespoon maple syrup
For the middle layer
- 1/4 cup butter, softened
- 1/2 cup natural peanut butter
- 1 ripe banana, mashed
- 1/2 cup coconut flour
- 2 tablespoons maple syrup
- 1 tablespoon cornstarch/cornflour
For the top layer
- 150 grams dark chocolate (I used Lindt 90%)
- 1 tablespoon almond milk
- 1 teaspoon icing sugar
- Line a 9×9″ square baking pan with parchment paper.
- Mix the dry ingredients for the bottom layer together in a large bowl. Add the peanut butter, mashed banana, and maple syrup.
- Melt the chocolate and butter together in a separate bowl or small saucepan. Pour over the rest of the ingredients and mix until well combined.
- Press into the bottom of the baking pan and refrigerate until good and firm. This will take at least a few hours and can even be left overnight. Alternatively, you could put it in the freezer for 30 minutes or so.
- To make the middle layer, use a hand mixer to blend the butter, peanut butter, mashed banana, and maple syrup. Add the coconut flour and cornstarch and mix some more until you have a mixture that’s soft but not flowing.
- Spread the middle layer on top of the bottom layer. Again, refrigerate (or briefly freeze) until good and firm (but not frozen).
- To make the top layer, just mix together the chocolate, almond milk, and icing sugar (if using – again, unless you’re using a very bitter chocolate you won’t need the icing sugar) in a small saucepan. You could use butter instead of almond milk if you want something a tad richer. Spread this on top of the middle layer.
- Refrigerate until top layer too is firm. Cut into squares. I made 36 squares in large part because I have small children who are a little too fond of sweets. If I were making this for adults only I would probably have made 25 squares out of a 9×9″ pan.
- Eat! Close your eyes and think of Canada with much more enjoyment than the traditional reason for closing your eyes and thinking of England!