Butter Tarts – A Quintessential Canadian Dessert

Butter tarts that melt in your mouth, is there anything better?  There are as many recipes for butter tarts as there are bakers and pastry chefs making them.  Essentially, these are the basic, core ingredients that will normally be common to all butter tart recipes:  brown sugar, eggs, butter (absolutely no substitutes), and usually some kind of syrup (e.g., maple, corn, or both).  The ingredients may vary in different amounts from recipe to recipe and this will impact the flavor and texture of the filling.

What will often define a good butter tart is the pastry.  No matter how tasty the filling is, if the pastry is tough or hard, a good butter tart is ruined.  Just as in a pie, tart pastry shells should be light and flaky. When you bite into the tart, the pastry should be very tender and just literally flake apart and you should be able to see its different layers.

Some use very thick pastry for their tarts and they fold and pleat in quite a chunk of pastry to each muffin cup; however, I don’t care for a lot of pastry as I find it detracts from the filling.  I guess you could say that I don’t like a dessert that is more about the pastry and less about the filling (the yummy part!). I make my own pastry and roll it quite thin, just leaving it thick enough to hold the filling and just large enough that it only lines the muffin tins – no extra tucks or folds of pastry for me.  I think it also makes a more refined, neater, and pleasing tart presentation when the shell perfectly and smoothly fits the muffin tin.  I use a 3 7/8″ ruffled edge cookie cutter to cut out the pastry shells but it depends, of course, on the size of muffin tins you are using.  You may need to experiment to find just the right size of pastry circle to fit the tins you are using.     Because pastry will shrink when baking, I fit the pastry shells into the muffin tins and put them in the refrigerator for 30-60 minutes to chill.  This helps to reduce the shrinkage during the baking process and keeps the original size and shape of the pastry shells, or at least close to it.  Then, I immediately fill the shells and pop them right into the pre-heated oven.

The consistency of the filling varies from recipe to recipe.  Some fillings are very runny, so much so that the tarts have to be eaten on a plate and with a fork.  I prefer tart fillings that are not runny but yet have soft texture and are sufficiently thickened that the tarts can be picked up in the hand and eaten without the filling dripping down the chin.

Then there is always the perennial question about whether the tarts are better with, or without, raisins and/or nuts.  I don’t necessarily mind those additions but my preference is to leave them out in favour of a nice smooth, uninterrupted filling.  Some bakers have started being creative with butter tarts by adding ingredients such as chocolate chips, coconut, or dates, for example, to their tarts.  These, however, are not traditional additions to butter tarts on PEI.

One of the tricks I have learned when making tarts is not to beat too much air into the eggs as this causes the filling to rise while baking and, consequently, spill over the top of the pastry shell and stick to the muffin tins in which they are baked.  It then becomes difficult to remove the tarts from the pans without wrecking them.  For this reason, I don’t use my Kitchen Aid or hand mixer to mix the filling.  I beat the eggs very, very little and only with a whisk.

Some desserts are trendy for awhile and will come and go with time.  Not so with butter tarts.  They are a true Canadian classic that are always en vogue.  I grew up with butter tarts regularly being made by both my mother and grandmother.  My mother would often whip up a batch of butter tarts on a Saturday morning and think nothing of it.  In fact, I’d go so far as to say tarts were almost a staple in the household and we always kind of looked upon them as rather commonplace as opposed to a delicacy.   Put a tray of butter tarts on any dessert table and watch them disappear quickly!

The recipe that follows is my own, adapted from the one my mother used.  My mother, for example, never added maple syrup to tarts but I think it enhances the sweet taste of the tarts so I have incorporated it into my version.

Barbara’s Butter Tarts

Ingredients:

3/4 cup brown sugar, packed

2 eggs, lightly beaten (with whisk)

3 tbsp maple syrup

1/4 cup melted butter (no substitutions)

2 tbsp cream, blend, or whole milk

1 1/2 tsp pure vanilla

1 tsp vinegar

dash salt

Method:

Prepare your favorite pastry recipe and cut out round shapes of sufficient size to fit into muffin tins.

Place shells in refrigerator for 30-60 minutes to chill.

Preheat oven to 350C.

Assemble ingredients.

Add all ingredients to large mixing cup or bowl.  Whisk, or stir, just until ingredients are combined.

Pour or spoon filling into prepared shells, filling each about 2/3 full.

Bake for about 25 minutes or just until filling has set.  Let cool 20-25 minutes in muffin tins on rack then remove from pans to rack to finish cooling.

Yield:  Apx. 12-14 tarts

This blog entry is part of the Canadian Food Experience project which began on June 7, 2013.  The September theme is “My Cherished Canadian Recipe”.  Butter tarts are one of the most common desserts often associated with Canada, particularly when the tarts have maple syrup in them, so I have chosen to share my recipe.

As we (project participants) share our collective stories across the vastness of our Canadian landscape through our regional food experiences, we hope to bring global clarity to our Canadian culinary identity through the cadence of our concerted Canadian voice.  Please join us.

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