This much is clear. The iconic butter tart is everything a dessert should be.
It is more proof that nothing succeeds like excess. It commits unabashedly to over-the-top, tooth-aching, sugary sweetness. Julia Child would heartily endorse its endorsement of butter. It pays no heed to the currently popular culinary buzzword “healthful.” In a nutshell, it lives up to all the prerequisites of its much-loved confectionery genre.
Another rare virtue: This proudly Canadian, downright delicious sweet is shamelessly politically incorrect.
In these days of low-fat, low-cal, gluten-free, sugar-free, wheat-free foods, the butter tart qualifies for none of the aforementioned. In this, it joins the ranks of other “backlash” creations currently in vogue: poutine, pork belly, the cronut and chocolate-covered bacon, to name a few.
All of which reminds me of a schtick by my favourite comedian, Jackie Mason, who likes to poke fun at what he calls “status foods” – in this case the cheese called Brie. It stinks, it tastes terrible, he insists, but people who follow fads eat it for its over-blown reputation. He notes the advice of some when it comes to appreciating Brie: “You have to develop a taste for it.” In contrast, he continues, “You don’t need to develop a taste for a smoked meat sandwich.” “Why is this?” he asks. The answer is plain and simple: “It tastes good.”
Thus it is with the butter tart. It tastes good – and I’ve yet to meet a person who doesn’t agree.
Although it’s generally considered one of the few Canadian foods, things aren’t as straightforward when it comes to the tart’s origin. A few theories I’ve gleaned from various sources:
* It has a lot in common with pecan pie and may have come to this country from the southern United States via black slaves who escaped northward.
* The tart may have evolved in Quebec from sugar pie as the two desserts have a lot in common. In that region, the butter tart is often made with maple sugar or maple syrup.
* A Western Canadian or Maritime dessert called backwoods pie calls for a filling made of brown sugar, eggs and corn syrup – key ingredients in most butter tart recipes.
* The Mennonite shoofly pie, made with breadcrumbs for thickening and molasses as sweetener in its filling, is probably a cousin. Likewise for molasses pie, known as lassy pie in Newfoundland and as tarte aux molasses in Quebec. Vinegar pie is also in this family; its filling contains vinegar, eggs, sugar and lemon extract.
Much research has been done, with several different results, on the first recipe for butter tarts.
It was long thought that this claim to fame went to the first edition of the Five Roses Cookbook published in 1915. That recipe’s filling calls for an egg, a cup of brown sugar, a cup of currants and a piece of butter the size of a walnut. There is also a recipe that appeared in a magazine called Canadian Farm in 1911. We do know that the tart really became popular in the 1920s and ’30s.
But there was a break-through in butter tart recipe research in the spring of 2008 when Mary MacLeod’s version was discovered in the 1900 Women’s Auxiliary Cookbook published by volunteers to raise money for the Royal Victoria Hospital in Barrie, Ontario.
In fact, the butter tart has always been big in Ontario. Cynthia Wine, former restaurant critic for the Toronto Star, devotes several pages to it in her book Across The Table, including these words: “Ontario claims as its own the tart that has been called Canada’s only indigenous dish – the butter tart.”
So we’ve established that the butter tart’s history and origin are debatable, that it’s politically incorrect and that its popularity is based on this sweet and simple attribute: downright deliciousness.
Deliciousness, it seems, that raises burning questions. Questions that divide butter tart aficionados across the nation.
Should the filling be runny, gooey or firm? Should the tart be shallow or deep? Should it be large or small? Should it contain raisins or currants – or neither? Nuts or no nuts? Pecans or walnuts? Should the crust contain lard or is butter the only way to go?
Toronto painter and butter tart expert par excellence Charlie Pachter once told me he discovered the lovable confection in his “relentless search for things Canadian.” His ideal rendition is “runny in the middle, has a soupcon of raisins (two to three per tart) and a crispy edge on the pastry.” The mandatory beverage, he adds, is a glass of cold milk.
Ever the food sleuth, I have gone to considerable lengths over the years in search of the ultimate butter tart.
While living in Stratford, Ontario, a few years ago – my unsuccessful and short stab at the country lifestyle – I came upon a stellar version at that city’s Saturday farmers’ market baked by Dianna Weirmier of Dianna’s Bakery. It had a deliciously crunchy crust and a just-right filling that was suitably gooey but not too runny.
A day trip along the Butter Tart Trail in nearby Wellington County yielded a couple of tasty tarts. A foray north of Toronto to Wilkie’s located in Orillia – Pachter’s favourite source – was worth it to taste that family-owned, long-established bakery’s rendition once listed among Canada’s 100 best foods by the Toronto Star. Also in cottage country, Marty Curtis of Marty’s in Bracebridge has been dubbed “the Michelangelo of butter tarts” by famous Canadian chef Michael Smith.
But I struck a butter tart bonanza last year by attending the first annual Buttertart Festival held in the lovely rural small town of Midland, Ontario.
I was among the crowd of happy festers and feasters on that warm, sunny day in June drawn by their sweet teeth to a fabulous mash-up of music, tasting, sauntering, savouring and laughing.
That joyous day, the brainchild of its dynamic and charming event manager Barbara Rowlandson, introduced me to Midland: a picturesque town of 17,000 nestled on the shore of Georgian Bay about an hour and half drive north of Toronto. The highlight was a meticulously planned contest to name the best butter tart. The winner: a luscious creation baked by Nancy Dillen of Barrie.
Rowlandson, who used to bake and sell butter tarts in her main street shop, noticed “the depth of feeling people have towards this pastry.” For many “their grandmother’s tart set the bar and their whole life was a search for the butter tart of their youth.”
In a nutshell, she concludes, the dessert is “a part of our collective experience as Ontarians.”
I’ll be a judge at this year’s fest. So save the date: June 14, 2014. Meanwhile, check the website: www.buttertartfestival.ca.
See you there! And here’s a recipe to get you in the mood:
Best Butter Tarts
Adapted from The Complete Canadian Living Cookbook (Random House), this produces the best home-made butter tart I’ve tried: flaky, melt-in-the mouth pastry with a gooey but not too runny filling. And they’re a cinch to make.
Use proper baking method for dry ingredients: measuring scoops or spoons and a knife to slice off the top, not a measuring cup.
You can make dough in a food processor instead of by hand. I found a 28-oz/796-mL can works perfectly for cutting it into rounds.
I like maple syrup in the filling; it tastes great and fits the all-Canadian theme. Substitute coarsely chopped nuts, e.g. pecans, for raisins, if desired.
1½ cups all-purpose flour
Pinch of salt
¼ cup cold butter, cubed
¼ cup cold lard or vegetable shortening, cubed
I large egg yolk
I tsp white vinegar
¼ cup ice-cold water
½ cup packed dark brown sugar
½ cup maple or golden corn syrup
1 large egg
1 tsp vanilla
1 tsp white vinegar or lemon juice
2 tbsp softened butter
Pinch of salt
¼ to ½ cup raisins
Preheat oven to 375F.
For pastry, combine flour and salt in large bowl. Using old-fashioned wire pastry cutter or two knives, cut in butter and lard until mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Using fork, stir in egg yolk, vinegar and water until dough holds together. Wrap; refrigerate at least 1 hour.
For filling, vigorously whisk together all ingredients except raisins in medium bowl until combined. (This can be done in food processor.)
Roll out dough on lightly floured surface until fairly but not too thin. Using 4-inch/10 cm round cookie cutter or empty 28-oz/796-mL can, cut into 12 rounds to fit 3-inch/8 cm cups of muffin tin. Divide raisins between each pastry shell; spoon on filling.
Bake in oven 20 to 25 minutes or until pastry is golden brown. Cool in pan about 2 minutes. Run knife or small metal spatula around edge of each tart; transfer to wire rack to cool completely.
Makes 12 butter tarts.