Sunday the 13th of December will be remembered as the day 6 baking women took to the stage of the Royal Ontario Museum and debated which sweet treat deserved to be the icon of Canadian baking. While the event was not Christmas oriented, the timing of the debate did affect the choice of subjects. And they were: Butter Tarts: Carrot Pudding: Fruitcake: Lemon Squares: Cocoa Oat Bars with Barley Flakes: Red Fife Apple Tart with Maple Sugar. The participants in order of sweet treats: Elizabeth Baird: Elizabeth Driver: Rose Murray: Alison Fryer: Nettie Cronish: Dawn Woodward.
Consider the butter tart. Only in Canada. Back in 1975, after the publication of my first cookbook, Classic Canadian Cooking
, I wrote an opinion piece for the Globe and Mail in which I had the audacity to claim there was such a thing as Canadian cooking. With the speed of Canada Post's fastest, a reader responded. "Why", I was chastened, "could there be such a thing as Canadian cuisine when there was only one authentic Canadian dish, the butter tart."
And I was momentarily taken aback, but in the intervening 34 years, such a thing as cooking a la canadienne has flourished to the point that sceptics can no longer deny its authenticity or deliciousness. Meanwhile, the butter tart has taken on star status, a veritable icon of our northern bounty.
There's a lot to say about butter tarts, and if you input "butter tarts", Google will reward you with page after page of references. A dessert cookbook without a recipe for butter tarts is somehow lacking. Canadians, it seems, care about butter tarts, and in much the same way as hockey, winter driving and curling, we identify with butter tarts. They're ours. So how did it come to pass that the simple little pastry, flaky and golden, cupping a sweet filling, more sugar than butter, become so important to Canadians? My theory about the significance of butter tarts has to do with its lack of definition. Or, said a different way, the perfect butter tart depends on your idea of the perfect butter tart, and let me tell you, there are differences in perfection.
Let's start with the filling. Runny or set? Well that depends. One of the earliest written recipes for butter tarts appeared in Selected Recipes
by the Ladies of Young Street Methodist Church in 1909. The recipe was called Currant Tarts and its simple list of ingredients laid the foundation for one camp in the butter tart debate. The filling of 1 cup brown sugar, 2 eggs, butter the size of an egg, 1 cup currants and lemon to flavour, sets like a custard. It wasn't until the 1930s when corn syrup became a popular baking ingredient and an addition to the filling that butter tarts took on what some aficionados consider the finest characteristic of this delicacy - a runny filling. According to Caitlin Coleman who has presented an academic paper on the history of butter tarts at a conference in honour of Elizabeth Driver, it was corn syrup that raised the profile of butter tarts. And raised the possibility of having a butter tart break in mid bite and run down your chin, and if you don't lick fast enough, tie and shirt.
In spite of a growing preference for drippy fillings, there are dissenters. One comment found on the Chowhound site in an ongoing discussion about where to buy the perfect butter tart I discovered this piece of pure culinary poetry, "I am of the non-runny camp, preferring the chewy caramel that results where the sugary filling meets the pastry edges, especially as it boils over and escapes down the side of the pastry before it stiffens into sticky candy caramel bliss".
Then there's what's in the filling. Currants, as in that 1909 recipe, were first off the mark. But how about raisins? Dates? All affordable ingredients a century ago. Walnuts? pecans? (the latter a travesty according to culinary historian Mary Williamson), coconut? Your favourite may have more to do with what your granny or mom put in the tarts of your childhood than the actual addition. When Emily Richards and I were presenting holiday recipes at the 2009 Christmas in November at The Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge, we did a totally unscientific poll among guests attending our cooking sessions. And what did the largely Alberta crowd put into the butter tarts. Almost to the woman it was raisins. But raisins can be controversial. I know from experience of growing up with mixed raisin parents - my mother hated raisins, my father loved them passionately. Good job they loved each other. Going back to the Chowhound site, a writer who is trying to convince the reader that Hannah's Kitchen's tarts in the Yonge/Eglinton area of Toronto beat anything else in town writes, "Still not sold? Two words might help convince you. NO RAISINS". (emphasis is mine).
Then there's the matter of the chocolatification of the butter tart. It started innocently enough with a few slivers of dark chocolate slipped into the filling. There is no doubt that bittersweet chocolate contrasts beautifully with the carmel-like filling. But then, the chocolate in the filling spread to drizzles over the filling, even butter tarts dipped in dark chocolate. In fact, the Canadian Living Butter Tart Cooking Lesson transgresses in the matter of chocolate drizzles. But, I say in defense, the chocolate version was not the main recipe, simply a variation. This chocolatification raised the ire of another commentator on the Chowhound site. "The Canadian butter tart is a specifically defined creation and would never come with anything drizzled on top including pecans or high grade chocolate. What you had (in reference to a previous positive comment about chocolate drizzled on butter tarts) was a mutation on the original old-fashioned sweet." And now for the zinger. "Drizzles of any sort are post modern butter tarts - like earrings on an elephant."
There's no denying the passion we feel for butter tarts. And there's no denying that butter tarts have moved beyond being simply dessert. They are now a tourist attraction. Remember when you needed a Niagara Falls, the Olympics or a Stampede to get people to come for a visit. Well, when the residents of the Township of Wellington North came together to figure out how to attract visitors to the gently rolling lush farmland north of Guelph, Ontario, one thing the community agreed upon was the number of great bakeries in the area, and that the bakeries sold terrific butter tarts. From this hatched the Butter Tart Trail, now trademarked. According to a December 2008 Toronto Star article, this is a"serious, not flaky tour", and a destination year round where antique stores, greenhouses, nature walks, for example, supplement the half dozen or so bakeries with over a dozen different varieties of butter tarts. These include goat butter tarts, referring to goat butter, and, if can be a cheeky, not an alternative to raisins. Google "Butter Tart Trail" for a downloadable map of this gastronomically Canadian destination and plan a drive to do a thorough sample of the tarts. Call it citizenship research.
The pastry? Another point of dissention, but not one that tears families and communities apart the way runny or set, or adding raisins to the filling does. Should the pastry be thick and homey? Thin and crisp? Buttery - well the original butter tart was probably made with a lard pastry, a crisp and flaky foundation. The butter of the title was not referring to the pastry. Nowadays you can find butter tarts made with an all butter pastry, a blend as in the recipe below, or in the case of my friend Rose Murray in her Taste of Canada
, phyllo pastry, a real boon for the pastry challenged. And very pretty. So far no evidence I've seen of wonton skins as butter tart pastry.
I hope I've persuaded you that one of the reasons butter tarts are so important to our identity is that we weigh in with our opinions. Butter tarts are a subject of ongoing debate. We spend time looking for the perfect recipe, the shop with the finest example of the sweet treat. Of course, butter tarts are pretty delicious with all that sugar and butter, and have their own claim to fame. But, significant also to firming up the tart's reputation is the way it invites variations. Bakers and food writers have all taken a stab at tweaking, updating, dressing up the butter tart. That's where the chocolate came into action, and that whole range of additions to the filling, going so far as maple sugar, maple syrup, macadamia nuts, candied peel, hazelnuts and dried cherries. Size matters too. Butter tarts got big and morphed into butter tarts squares, and shrank into mini tarts, one-bite size amuse bouche as are served at C5, the excellent restaurant at the ROM. It wasn't long before creative types chopped up some butter tarts, mixed the mess into ice cream and called their concoction, butter tart ice cream. Even the base of a butter tart sundae,warmed and topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.
The butter tarts ability to adjust to new ingredients like corn syrup, developed out of technology, or ingredients like chocolate added for trendiness and glamour, has kept, and I suspect will keep butter tarts on the lips and hips of Canadians for decades to come.
In an era when healthy eating is a priority, butter tarts are an anomaly. They're high in fat, over the moon in calories, don't provide fibre or anything like the vitamins and minerals we need to flourish. In other words, should not be allowed on Canadian soil. But before we dismiss butter tarts from our diets, keep in mind that once a year, and only once a year on Canada Day, our culinary icon the butter tart is calorie- and fat-free. (just joking)
This particular recipe came to me from Jessie Murphy, when I published the recipe in the Toronto Star in the mid 1980s, a resident of Midland Ontario. What makes these butter tarts so delectable is their candy-like filling created by cooking the sugar and corn syrup together before mixing with the butter and eggs. In the early days of butter tarts, the flavouring was usually a little splash of lemon juice or vinegar , but as befits a more recent recipe, vanilla is the baker's choice. Decide for yourself what you like to add to the filling - raisins and walnuts are Jessie Murphy's preference.
1 cup (250 mL) packed light brown sugar
1 cup (250 mL) corn syrup
1/3 cup (75 mL) butter, cubed
2 large eggs at room temperature
3/4 cup (175 mL) chopped walnut halves
1/2 cup (250 mL) raisins
1/2 tsp (2 mL) vanilla
1/4 tsp (1 mL) salt
3 cups (750 mL) all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp. (2 mL) salt
1/2 cup (125 mL) cold butter, cubed
1/2 cup (125 mL) cold lard, cubed (or replace with additional butter)
1 large egg
2 tsp (10 mL) vinegar
. Pastry: In a large bowl, whisk flour with salt. With a pastry blender, cut in butter and lard until mixture looks crumbly sprinkled with some larger pieces.
. In a liquid measuring cup, whisk the egg with the vinegar. Add enough ice water to make 2/3 cup (150 mL).
. Gradually sprinkle egg mixture over the flour mixture, all the while stirring briskly with a fork until the pastry clumps and holds together. If there are floury bits lurking in the bottom of the bowl, add a splash more ice water to incorporate them into the ragged dough. With a floured hand, firmly press the dough together; divide in half. Press each half into a disc about 1-inch (2.5 cm) thick. Wrap each half and chill for 1 hour or up to 3 days. Let stand at room temperature until easy to roll out.
. Filling: Meanwhile, in a saucepan, bring the sugar and syrup to a gentle simmer, stirring just to blend. Simmer for 3 minutes; let cool for 5 minutes. Stir in the butter; let cool to room temperature.
. In a medium bowl beat the eggs with the vanilla and salt; pour the butter mixture slowly over the egg mixture, stirring continuously. Set aside for the moment.
. On a floured pastry cloth or surface, roll out one half of the dough at a time to 1/8-inch (3 mm) thickness. Using a 4-inch (10 cm) round cookie cutter (or bottom of empty 28 oz/796 mL) can), cut out about 20 rounds. (Save any leftover dough for another purpose.)
. Fit rounds of pastry into regular muffin cups. Divide the walnuts and raisins among the pastry shells. Spoon the filling in until shells are about three-quarters full.
. Bake in the bottom third of 400°F (200°C) oven for 10 minutes. Reduce heat to 350°F (180°C) and bake until pastry is golden and filling bubbling, about 10 minutes.
. Let firm up for 3 minutes in the muffin pans. With a rounded blade of a table knife or small off-set spatula, run around each tart to loosen. Lift out onto a rack to cool. If tarts feel too fragile to move, let them set in the cups a few minutes longer. But, be careful of tarts with any filling bubbled out over the edges. Loosen them before the filling hardens.
. Makes about 20 tarts.
Where did Butter Tarts Come From?
Good Question. There are a number of tarts and pies that play on a similar sweet filling. Think Quebec's sugar pie, lassie tarts from Newfoundland, the pecan pie of the US south, the treacle tart of England. Mary Williamson, a serious collector of historic cookbooks and an expert on butter tarts has revealed a link that sounds plausible. The tarts in question are called Border Tarts and come from the border area of Scotland, source of many Canadian immigrants in the 19th century. The Border Tart filling often contains dried fruit, sugar, eggs and butter - all ingredients our largely rural population would have handy, often from their own farms. Mary Williamson has sourced the first written reference to what are now butter tarts. It is in a cookbook compiled, like so many cookbooks have been by women in churches, synagogues, clubs and community groups, by The Women's Auxiliary of the Royal Victoria Hospital in Barrie in 1900. Like a baby just being born, its name "butter tarts" was yet to come. The recipe was labeled simply, "A filling for tarts". By the teens, butter tarts went by their own name and the recipes abounded. In the 1915 edition of the Five Roses Cook Book the recipe for butter tarts reads: 1 egg, 1 cup brown sugar, 1 cup currants, Butter size of a walnut, Flavor to taste. Beat all until full of bubbles. Drop from teaspoon into lined patty tin, and bake in quick oven. One cup of dates may be added if desired." 650,000 copies of that cookbook were sold to Canadians, putting 1 copy in every second home. No wonder Canadians are such good bakers. We've had our hands in flour for a long time.