Susan Mendelson’s mother was a good baker, but according to the cofounder and owner of the Lazy Gourmet (1605 West 5th Avenue), it was her grandmother who really inspired her to cook.
“I dedicated my first book to my grandmother,” Mendelson told the Georgia Straight during an interview at her Kitsilano-based catering company. “She loved to bake and made phenomenal things. A girlfriend of hers once said to me, ‘You know, when the deep-freeze was invented, your grandmother took it on as a challenge to keep it full to the top.’
She always had things going, and when people came over, she always had something to serve them.”
In many ways, Mendelson is similar to her grandmother—for 35 years she’s been helping Vancouverites fill their tables with food. The Toronto-born self-taught cook has authored over half a dozen cookbooks, including The Official Cookbook of Expo 86, and has made a name for herself as an entrepreneur who believes that good food should be accessible to everyone.
“My whole thought about cooking was taking traditional, classic French recipes and simplifying them so that anybody could make them—hence the term ‘the Lazy Gourmet’,” Mendelson explained. “In business, the concept was that people who liked gourmet food but were too lazy to make it themselves could bring their dishes, we’d fill them with food, and they’d take it back, pretending they did it themselves.”
When Mendelson opened the Lazy Gourmet with Deborah Roitberg in 1979, she’d already been earning money from cooking and baking for years. While studying social work in her mid 20s, Mendelson supplemented her income as a part-time front-of-house manager at the Vancouver East Cultural Centre by selling homemade desserts.
“I would go to school in the morning, work at the Cultch at night, go home, do my homework, and bake cheesecakes in the oven,” she recalled. “I also started selling my carrot cakes and Nanaimo bars. It became this whole big thing. People would call and say, ‘Can I buy two tickets for the theatre and book two pieces of cheesecake for the intermission?’ ”
Eventually, Mendelson gave up on social work and launched her catering business just a few blocks from where it resides today.
Over the years, Nanaimo bars—the chocolate and custard no-bake dessert named after the city on Vancouver Island—have become one of the Lazy Gourmet’s signature dishes. Mendelson said she came across a recipe for them nearly 40 years ago and became the first commercial purveyor of the bars when she started selling them through the Lazy Gourmet.
Her company has since developed cappuccino and nut-free alternatives to classic Nanaimo bars, and Mendelson has shared these recipes in several of her cookbooks. The recipe below, for classic Nanaimo bars, is adapted from Mendelson’s 2006 cookbook Mama Now Cooks Like This (Whitecap Books).
The Lazy Gourmet’s classic Nanaimo bars
½ cup (125 mL) butter, softened
¼ cup (60 mL) sugar
2 tsp (10 mL) vanilla extract
2 Tbsp (30 mL) cocoa powder
2 cups (500 mL) graham wafer crumbs
1 cup (250 mL) long-thread coconut
½ cup (125 mL) walnuts or pecans, chopped
¼ cup (60 mL) butter, softened
3 Tbsp (45 mL) milk
2 cups (500 mL) icing sugar
2 Tbsp (30 mL) custard powder
5 oz (140 g) semi-sweet chocolate
1 Tbsp (15 mL) butter
- Grease a 9-inch square baking pan.
Bring a medium pot of water to a rolling boil. In a heat-safe bowl, use an electric mixer to mix together butter, sugar, egg, vanilla extract, and cocoa powder from Layer 1. Set bowl over boiling water, creating a bain-marie, and stir until mixture thickens slightly.
Remove bowl from stove and add graham wafer crumbs, coconut, and nuts. Pour mixture into the prepared baking pan. Using a spatula, spread mixture evenly to form base layer of the bars. Let stand at room temperature for 15 minutes.
- In a separate bowl, combine ingredients in Layer 2 using a whisk or stand-alone mixer until smooth. Pour into the pan and spread evenly over the base layer.
- In a small heat-safe bowl, melt chocolate in bain-marie or on a low setting in the microwave. Stir in butter until combined. Carefully spread over the custard layer.
- Refrigerate baking pan until chocolate has hardened. Slice into 20 bars.
Yield: 20 Nanaimo bars.
Recipe has not been tested by the Georgia Straight.