Queen of tarts
Canada's sweetest contribution to the dessert canon is the decadent butter tart, writes Nathalie Atkinson. And to the horror of pecan-abstaining purists, its sugary recipe makes it a prime candidate for reinvention
Photography by Angus Fergusson
Recipes by Michael Elliott
A dessert by any other name might be just as sweet, but no other high-calorie bomb is quite the same Proustian madeleine as a butter tart. Whether the filling is firm or runny, the three-bite Canadian delight is canon at truck stops, county fairs and bake-offs from the local farmers' market to the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair.
The sugary, butter-filled pastry has kissing cousins around the world – Southern pecan pie; the custardy Portuguese pasteis de nata; Quebec tarte au sucre; even Harry Potter's favourite treacle tart – but the butter tart itself is one of the few pastries genuinely Canadian in origin. Culinary historians trace its creation back to les filles du roi, the hundreds of young women sent from France to populate Quebec in the late 17th century. The first known published "filling for tarts" recipe is brief, made up of a few common pantry ingredients and outlined on page 88 of the fundraising cookbook compiled by Barrie's Royal Victoria Hospital Woman's Auxiliary in 1900, attributed to a Mrs. Margaret MacLeod.
The Lake Simcoe area's long history with the sweet treat has generated a self-guided butter tart tour of the Kawarthas and Midland's sprawling annual Ontario's Best Butter Tart Festival (at its 2017 edition in June, 50,000 visitors consumed more than 160,000 butter tarts). The pecan butter tarts by sisters Pam Lewis and Debbie Hill of the Maid's Cottage took best in show for the second year in a row.
At their Newmarket, Ont., bakery, Lewis and Hill produce about 120 dozen tarts a day to meet the demand of their restaurant and more than 50 wholesale accounts, and all are made according to their late mother Jackie's secret family recipe. "We're not big freestyle people," Lewis says, although they have played with variations by adding raspberries, coconut or chocolate chips. But sometimes they think reinvention goes too far. "Bacon and cheddar? That's not a butter tart," says Lewis. As far as they're concerned, the classic butter tart's time-honoured taste is not negotiable.
West Coast baker Rosie Daykin is a similar advocate of nostalgic classics, and her mother's quintessential recipe is included in her 2013 cookbook, Butter Baked Goods, with miniature versions offered as part of high tea at her Vancouver café of the same name. On the subject of filling, she's adamant: "A butter tart without raisins is not a butter tart!" Though, by way of compromise, Butter Bakery & Cafe also offers a butter tart bar that includes both raisins and walnuts.
Nowadays, no confection reaches iconic status until it's been crossed with another treat. In recent years, the butter tart's signature flaky pastry and its caramel-butter flavour profile have been translated to muffins, cupcake frostings, cheesecake, a President's Choice ice cream, even craft beer. After brewmaster Sam Corbeil won the Session Muskoka Craft beer festival contest in 2015, a collaboration between Toronto's Sweetgrass Brewing Co. and Midland township put Corbeil's winning maple-butter-tart-flavoured beer into production. "It sells exceptionally well in the fall and over the winter," Sweetgrass founder Nicole Hynes says of the altbier-style brew. "We deconstructed the butter tart, if you will: caramel, raisin notes and even some coconut notes. Those rich flavours work well with a beautiful brown ale." Hynes is especially proud that the beer is not sweet. "It's not cake in a can," she says, before suggesting what customers can do to turn it into dessert: "It's really fun to make an ice cream float, using straight-up proper vanilla ice cream from Kawartha Dairy, for example."
As for the ongoing debate about whether to raisin or not to raisin, purists, take note. Mrs. MacLeod's original recipe called for neither raisin nor nut – she used currants.
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