Nanaimo Balls decorated with crushed candy canes.


Nanaimo Balls? You heard it right. I turned that favourite Canadian treat, Nanaimo Bars, into balls for the holiday season.

Nanaimo Bars are a decadent, no-bake recipe made in three layers. It starts with a sweet chocolate-coconut-crumb base that is covered with a rich buttery filling then topped with a thin layer of chocolate. When I was a kid this was a special homemade treat. My aunt Marlene called hers New York Special.

For me the holiday season includes time in the kitchen baking. It’s the time of year I pull out those special recipes, bake way too much and give generously.

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Bird’s Custard Powder vs Vanilla Pudding Mix

The center of these Nanaimo Balls is a sweet buttery mixture that includes custard powder. Bird’s Custard Powder is gluten free and is an egg free substitute for custard invented more than 100 years ago. It is available in the baking section and is most commonly listed as an ingredient in Nanaimo Bars. However, the long past expiry date on my tin (I’m talking years, possibly even the wrong century)  made me look for another option.

Many modern recipes call for packaged vanilla pudding mix instead of custard powder. This is also gluten free, is easy to find and comes in a fairly small package. I used it in the regular and mocha versions of this recipe.

My third option was to not use any powder. In my very old Grand Marnier Nanaimo Bar recipe the filling uses egg yolks rather than custard powder. I hadn’t made that recipe for years but I was reminded how delicious it was when I made them again while planning this post.

Chocolate Topping for Nanaimo Balls

When making Nanaimo Bars you simply pour melted chocolate on top. For Nanaimo Balls I needed more chocolate to cover all those balls and I admit, it wasn’t easy.

But even spreading the single layer of chocolate perfectly over the custard can be intimidating. But don’t let that stop you from making Nanaimo Bars. Working fairly quickly just drizzle the chocolate back and forth over the whole pan. Doing it in two directions gives a nice lattice topping. That is what I did on these Mochaccino Cheesecake Brownies.

A pedestal tray with gluten free Mochaccino Cheesecake Brownies decorated with pansies.
Mochaccino Cheesecake Brownies -photo credit Jim Little

Turning Nanaimo Bars into Balls

To make Nanaimo Balls I mixed up the order of the layers. I started with a tiny ball of buttery filling, wrapped it with a small amount of the chocolate-coconut-crumb mixture and dipped it in chocolate. Voila! Nanaimo Balls.

To make a gluten free version I substituted Kinnikinick brand Graham style crumbs for the crumb layer. For me they’re easy to find with other gluten free baking supplies at most well stocked grocery stores.

This was a fun kitchen project but and I’d call it a culinary challenge. Making Nanaimo Bars is straight forward. But no matter what you make remember why you are making them. Kids and adults alike enjoy messing around with melted chocolate and creating in the kitchen. This just might become a holiday tradition in your house. Making Nanaimo Bars would be an equally fun tradition.

Thanks to my friends over at Gluten Free Calgary who put out the challenge of making a gluten free version after seeing Nanaimo Balls over at the Bewitchin’ Kitchen.

Let me know in the comments below if you have a Nanaimo bar (or ball) story. Do you think of them as a Christmas treat?

Another Version of Nanaimo Bars – Nanaimo Ice Cream Bars

I heard of an ice cream variation and was intrigued so here’s my version of Nanaimo Ice Cream Bars.

A tray of Nanaimo Ice Cream Bars
Nanaimo Ice Cream Bars

Nanaimo Balls

You heard it right, that favourite Canadian treat, Nanaimo Bars, transformed into balls for the holiday season. It's a project and I suggest you make these with a friend and a bottle of wine.
Author: Cinde Little
Course: Dessert
Cuisine: Canadian
Keyword: Nanaimo Balls


CRUMB COATING (base layer from a traditional recipe for Nanaimo Bars)

  • ½ cup butter
  • ¼ cup sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 2 Tbsp cocoa powder
  • 2 cups gluten free graham-style crumbs
  • 1 cup shredded coconut
  • ½ cup chopped pecans


  • ¼ cup butter, room temperature
  • 2 cups icing sugar
  • 2 Tbsp milk
  • 2 Tbsp vanilla instant pudding or Bird’s custard powder

CHOCOLATE COATING (the balls need double the amount used in a Nanaimo Bar recipe)

  • ¾ cup semi-sweet chocolate chips or 5 oz semi-sweet chocolate
  • 2 Tbsp butter



  • In a medium pot over low heat combine butter, sugar, egg, vanilla and cocoa powder. Stir until it is an even mixture and slightly thickened, about 5 minutes.
  • Add the Graham style crumbs, coconut and pecans. Stir to combine. Set aside.


  • In an electric mixer combine butter, icing sugar and milk until smooth.
  • With a 1 Tbsp size scoop make balls smooth buttery filling. Make 24-26 balls.
  • Scoop out 1 Tbsp of filling and roll into balls. Place onto a wax paper lined baking pan. Set in freezer for 15 minutes.
  • Remove from the freezer 6 at a time to coat with the crumb mixture. Using your hands put 1 ball into the crumb mixture bowl and press a small amount of the mixture into the ball completely covering it. Put the completed balls back in the freezer while you finish this process.


  • Break chocolate into a bowl just large enough to hold it. Microwave on high for 1 minute. Stir then add butter. Microwave on high for 30 seconds. Stir vigorously to see if it is all melted. Repeat until chocolate mixture is smooth being careful not to burn the chocolate. Do not heat for more than 30 seconds at a time.
  • Using wooden skewers or chocolate dipping tools carefully dip balls into the chocolate one at a time. Lift the ball out and let the excess chocolate drip back into the bowl. Place the ball onto a wax paper lined tray or baking pan.
  • Immediately sprinkle with crushed candy canes or any decoration you want. When all the balls are coated, refrigerate until firm.


Canadians love to make variations of Nanaimo Bars so here are 2 of mine.
MOCHA VARIATION: dissolve 3 tsp instant coffee in 1 Tbsp boiling water.
ORANGE VARIATION: add 1 Tbsp Grand Marnier and 1 tsp finely chopped orange zest.
Tried this recipe?Let us know how it was!

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