Growing up in London, England, I had never heard of a butter tart. Treacle tart, yes. An acquaintance at our local Annex coffee shop in Toronto lives in Paris. He was bemoaning the fact that butter tarts were unobtainable there. As we chatted over a companionable coffee, we both enjoyed our delicious and truly Canadian butter tarts.
I first discovered butter tarts many years ago when landed in Canada. A distant relative lived in the village of Rosseau on the Muskoka Lakes, and after a hard afternoon snowmobiling on the frozen lake, we stopped by the local pastry shop and I was introduced to butter tarts. I never went snowmobiling again, but I have been a butter tart fan ever since.
Now, Port Carling, just down the road, celebrates this quintessentially Eastern Ontario treat with the annual Butter Tart Festival in July. What is it that makes this wonderfully sweet, sticky, small pastry tart so good? The ingredients are simple, basically butter, egg, syrup and sugar, with a few other ingredients such as raisins, walnuts or pecans as options. The trick is in the flaky pastry and the baking, which leaves a crusty top and a runny filling.
When we were making the TV series Escapes with Nigel, we filmed in Barrie, Ontario, and I was shown an original turn of the century (1900, that is) cookbook, that was supposed to be the oldest publication to record a recipe for butter tarts. Attributed to Mrs. Mary Ethel MacLeod, writing in The Women’s Auxiliary of the Royal Victoria Hospital Cookbook, the recipe is typical of pioneer food and is considered a genuinely Canadian creation. Sadly, our butter tart segment got left on the cutting room floor.
The area still abounds with other evidence of its local popularity. Eastwards, since 2013, there has been a Butter Tart Tour with over 50 Kawartha-Northumberland area bakeries participating. On Georgian Bay to the west, there is a butter tart sold at Grandma’s Beach Treats in Wasaga Beach that is so good it was remarked upon by National Geographic. A few miles further north, the town of Midland hosts the self-proclaimed Best Butter Tart Festival in June.
It is likely that the original butter tart slipped into Eastern Ontario from neighbouring Quebec, derived from tarte au sucre. This in turn possibly came with immigrants from France during the 1600s. Today, the closest the French can get is tarte à la frangipane, where a paste of sugar, cream and ground almonds is the filling. Not even close, my acquaintance confides. Or it might have come north from the United States, where pecan pie is ubiquitous in Georgia. Or it might have come from Scotland, another source explains, as treacle tart. However, Lancashire’s butter pie, which has a potato and onion filling, has nothing to do with it, my resident expert on the North assures.
Having enjoyed a butter tart at Haute Coffee almost daily for the past year, I am keen to emulate the excellence of their offering. In the interests of self-sufficiency, I have decided make my own. If you are checking recipes of others and they start with the suggestion you use store bought pastry cases, cast these frauds aside. The pastry must be fresh and wonderfully flaky to give one the authentic butter tart experience.
AUTHENTIC CANADIAN BUTTER TART
Makes six. This recipe comes from an old Ontario family archive and seems fully authentic, but you can add nuts or fruit for a less authentic but utterly delicious option.
- 3 cups (375 g) cake and pastry flour (all-purpose flour in the US)
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1/2 cup (114 g) lard
- 1/2 cup (114 g) unsalted butter
- 1 extra large egg
- 1 tsp white vinegar
- about 3/4 cup (210 mL) cold water
- vegetable spray
- ½ cup (165 g) dark brown sugar (packed)
- ¼ cup genuine maple syrup
- 1/3 cup (75 g) unsalted butter
- 1 TBSP whipping cream
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- 1 extra large egg
- 1/2 cup chopped pecans, walnuts or raisins
- Vegetable spray
Preparation and cooking
- In a large bowl, blend the flour and salt. Cut in the lard and butter until the mixture resembles coarse oatmeal. TIP: Use a pastry blender tool.
- In a measuring cup, beat the egg and vinegar. Add enough cold water to make 3/4 cup. Gradually stir the liquid into the flour mixture, adding just enough to make the dough cling together, but not sticky.
- Gather into a ball wrap in cling film. Chill in the fridge and for 1 hour.
- Roll out the dough on a lightly floured surface to about 1/8 in thick, thin being better than thick. Cut out pastry circles using a cookie cutter or any round object such as a lid or jar 2 in greater than the diameter of your muffin cups. Save any left over pastry for your next baking, by wrapping in cling film and keeping in the fridge, or freezing.
- Spray a small amount of vegetable spray, such as PAM, into each cup if you are using a tin tray. Don’t worry if you are using individual aluminium cups. Press the pastry into the muffin cups, leaving the edges somewhat rough for a home-made look. Cover and refrigerate until ready to fill.
- Preheat oven to 195°C / 375°F and position rack in lower third of the oven.
- In a small saucepan, melt the butter and brown sugar over low heat, so it doesn’t burn or caramelize. Remove from heat and stir in the maple syrup, cream and vanilla. Let cool to touch (about 5 minutes) before whisking in the egg.
- Optionally, divide the nuts or fruit among the pastry shells. TIP: Make half the pan plain and the other half with a nut or fruit filling.
- Pour in the filling until 1/2 full. Do not overfill as the filling will expand. Bake for 17 to 20 minutes or until the crust is lightly golden around the edges and filling is bubbling.
- Let cool completely in the muffin cups, then decant onto a cooling rack for at least 1 hr. If using individual aluminium cups, leave them as is until serving. Serve as a treat with tea or coffee, or as a dessert with vanilla ice cream on the side or a whipped cream topping.
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