Canadian bakers hold the butter tart in the same esteem as their American counterparts hold the apple pie. Both are icons of their respective nations. Although, admittedly, some may disagree with the belief that the butter tart is a Canadian classic, no less an authority than the Oxford English Dictionary defines it thus: “noun – Canadian: a tart with a filling of butter, eggs, brown sugar, and, typically, raisins.”
Of course, we in the Colonies long ago dispensed with the need to have Mother England’s approval, but a vote of confidence from the Oxford is never a bad thing.
Neither is a butter tart.
Butter tarts a distinctly Canadian treat
It’s an English Canadian relative of the French Canadian sugar pie (tarte au sucre). For both, butter is a vital ingredient, although the tarte au sucre uses maple syrup instead of brown sugar.
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One of the first recipes for butter tarts appeared in “The Women’s Auxiliary of the Royal Victoria Hospital Cookbook.” This fundraising cookbook was published in 1900 in Barrie, Ontario. It included a recipe for a “filling for tarts,” which was submitted by Mrs. Malcolm (Mary) MacLeod, according to Bruce Beacock, the archivist of the Simcoe County Archives, which houses a copy of the cookbook.
Later, in 1908, the “Vogue Cook Book,” published by the Toronto Daily News, included a butter tart recipe from Mrs. G.M.B. of Toronto, and three years after that, the “Canadian Farm Cook Book” included six recipes for butter tarts.
Today, serious Canadian bakers are bound to have their own butter tart recipe, handed down from their great-aunt or their mother or clipped from a magazine and tweaked to the baker’s own taste.
My butter tart recipe came from my father and needed no tweaking. Everyone who tried his butter tarts agreed they were the best they’d ever eaten.
Dad had been a baker since he was 10 years old, when he took over kitchen duties because his mother was confined to bed for a year. Since he was too easygoing to object, his siblings consigned him to the kitchen so they wouldn’t get stuck there themselves. Although at first he wasn’t any more enthusiastic about cooking and baking than they were, he quickly surprised himself by growing to love his new job, particularly baking, which became his passion.
The cakes and pies of his youth were eventually joined by French pastries rich with cream and fruit, chocolate tarts that looked (almost) too beautiful to slice and macarons (a Saturday afternoon adventure long before they became a food trend) that shone like jewels and tasted like ambrosia.
The truth is, a blasphemous thing to admit, for sure, I didn’t much care for butter tarts until my father started making his. There were so many other delights to choose from, and the butter tarts my aunts and grandmothers made, while nice, were nothing special; but with the first batch of Dad’s butter tarts, I changed my mind.
He hadn’t been interested in making them until a package of store-bought butter tarts, with pastry like cardboard and filling like glue, so embarrassed him — they had been eaten by friends who dropped over for coffee — that he headed into the kitchen, got out his yellow ware bowl and began measuring the ingredients for pastry: flour, salt, lard, vinegar and water.
After the pastry had rested for a while, he took the wooden rolling pin with its faded red handles (a shower gift my mother happily passed on to him), and gently rolled out the pastry, cut circles with a juice glass, and after fitting them into the tart pan, crimped the edges with his finger and thumb.
While the pastry chilled in the refrigerator, he turned to the filling — which any butter-tart baker or butter-tart eater will tell you is the most vital part of the whole thing — and assembled the requisite butter, corn syrup, brown sugar, eggs, vanilla, raisins and pinch of salt.
The aroma of the baking tarts made me swoon. We crouched in front of the oven door and watched the liquid bubble while the crust turned golden.
After allowing the butter tarts to cool for as long as I could stand, I bit into my first perfect dessert. The filling was still a bit too warm; it slipped down my chin and onto my fingers. When I’d finished the tart — leaning over the counter and devouring it in four gooey bites — I licked the filling from my fingers. This is still the proper way to eat a butter tart (although it’s important to let it cool enough that you don’t burn your tongue, your chin or your fingers).
I smiled, he nodded, the French pastries were delegated to second choice and my love affair with a Canadian classic began.
Dad’s Butter Tarts
Makes 12 tarts
For the pastry:
2½ cups all-purpose flour
¼ teaspoon salt
1 cup cold lard
¼ cup cold water
1 tablespoon white vinegar
For the filling:
⅓ cup melted unsalted butter
½ cup light corn syrup
¾ cup packed brown sugar
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
Pinch of salt
2 large eggs, beaten
¾ cup raisins
For the pastry:
1. Sift the flour and salt into a large bowl. Using a pastry cutter or your fingertips, cut the lard into the flour until it is in pea-sized pieces.
2. In a measuring cup, stir together the water and vinegar. Using a fork, stir only enough liquid into the mixture to bind the ingredients. (Note: You might need more water, depending upon how the dough comes together and the time of year.) Form the dough into a ball, wrap in plastic wrap and chill in the refrigerator for 30 minutes. Have ready a 12-cup tart pan.
3. On a lightly floured surface, roll out the pastry to a thickness of about ⅛ inch. Using a 4-inch diameter round cutter (or a juice glass), cut out 12 circles. Fit each circle into a cup in the pan. Place the pan into the refrigerator.
4. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
For the filling:
In a medium bowl, whisk together the melted butter, corn syrup, brown sugar, vanilla and salt. Add the eggs and whisk until smooth.
To assemble the tarts:
1. Divide the raisins among the 12 tart shells. Spoon the filling evenly into the shells.
2. Bake until the filling is browned on top and the pastry is golden, about 20 to 25 minutes. Let cool completely before removing from the pan and eating.
Top photo: Butter tarts. Credit: Sharon Hunt