Butter tarts are a uniquely Canadian dessert. Like other iconic Canadian foods such as maple syrup and poutine, they originated in 17th Century Quebec, where the wives of early French settlers made use of the available ingredients of maple syrup and dried fruit to whip up a treat to make life in the wilderness a little more bearable. Their experimentation led to the evolution of the modern butter tart, although most recipes today do not call for maple syrup.
This decadently sweet tart consists of a filling of butter, sugar, syrup and egg, baked until the filling is semi-solid, ie nice and gooey. Raisins or nuts are added, with the raisin debate being a whole other topic, along with the degree of consistency, runny or firm. Butter tarts tend differ from other sugar-based pies such as pecan pie in that they have a runnier filling – no cornstarch or flour required.
Other than those basic ingredients, there are as many variations as there are family recipes, many dating back to the pioneer days. Butter tarts were all the rage in the early 1900’s, appearing in many cookbooks and have since become an ingrained part of Canadian cuisine. There are several butter tart festivals held every year, including one in Midland which sells over 50,000 tarts, with the contest portion attracting bakers from all over to vie for the Best Butter Tart title. Like a rib-fest for dessert lovers you can walk around and sample to your heart’s content.
My inspiration for this post came from a trip to the bakery which used to sell my favorite version (past tense intended). Their pastry is good, but I had noticed the filling kept getting skimpier and skimpier, and the last batch, which was pre-ordered and boxed before being paid for, were basically just pastry shells with a thin scraping of filling , and at $10 for 6 tarts they were certainly no bargain. My second favorite source, a local coffee shop, sells tarts with plenty of filling but their pastry is thick and hard as a rock. Maybe those two could marry and produce the ideal butter tart progeny, or….maybe I could make my own, for a lot less money too!
My mother made butter tarts when I was growing up but they were usually reserved for the fall of the year when she was deep into pie-baking and made use of the left-over pastry. A batch or two often graced our Thanksgiving table along with the apple and pumpkin pies. So I got out her old recipe, which was vague in the way that my mothers recipes often are, (she was never one of those cooks who measured) and we proceeded to experiment.
They turned out as we remembered them, not overly sweet, with the multiple eggs making for a firmer consistency, but I thought they needed more sugar. I didn’t have my glasses on, but if I had read my own notation, it very clearly stated that! As for the bake 10-15-20 minutes, her oven is temperamental so I left them in longer in an attempt to get the crust brown and the filling got too firm….but the end result was a perfectly good butter tart.
The recipe made twenty tarts, and try pawning off tarts during a pandemic when we’re now back in our smaller social bubbles and they are encouraging people not to congregate for Thanksgiving (which is next weekend here in Canada).
Moving on in my search for the Great Canadian Butter Tart, I wasted much time googling and then referenced back to my old farmhouse cooking bible, the Purity Cookbook, first published 1911, and there was the recipe for the best butter tarts ever!
Unlike the previous recipe this one called for corn syrup. I used the dark corn syrup for color. It had been so long since I bought corn syrup I didn’t even know it also came in a colorless format. I omitted the salt and lemon juice as I like a sweeter tart.
I added a bit more sugar to taste, and a bit more butter as there was some left in the bottom of the dish. (I am my mother’s daughter after all.) I pre-baked the store pastry shells for 5-10min, as I was using her oven and then added the raisins. (no need to presoak the raisins).
Those of you who might die if you ate a raisin (which is but a wrinkled grape) can use nuts or nothing if you prefer. The pioneer women used currants.
I baked them for exactly twenty minutes and they came out with the perfect degree of runniness. The pastry was a bit browner than I would have liked, but flaky and good for a no-name store brand. If using my oven, I may not have pre-baked the shells and would just have left them in for 20-25 minutes. Live and learn is the lesson for an inexperienced cook like me, with a perfectionist streak.
All in all, both my mother and I gave them a ten – and thought they were the best butter tarts we’d ever eaten – simply perfect in taste and texture. They were even good after a few days, although I stored them in the fridge and heated them for ten seconds in the microwave. The recipe made twelve, enough for a sweet treat with a mug of hot tea every night while watching the evening news. Most days you need that to carry on.
Keep calm and Butter Tart On – maybe a slogan for next years festival?