Essay and photograph by Aaron Gilbreath
It seems an exaggeration to call butter tarts the dessert for which Canada is known, since no American I know has ever heard of a butter tart, yet butter tarts are one of the few foods to which Canada can lay full claim.
No offense to Canadians, but their country isn’t known for its cuisine. They admit it themselves. People don’t go around saying “I’m really craving some Canadian.” As a nation of immigrants, Canada holds within its 3,854,085 square miles a staggering diversity of cooking traditions, from Haitian to Ethiopian, French to Korean, and it is full of incredible food. As Salman Rushdie once told me at a literary event: the best Punjabi food outside of the subcontinent is in Vancouver, BC. Compared to countries like India, France or Vietnam, though, Canada just has few culinary inventions to its name. Yes, Canada invented the Persian, an oval-shaped bun topped with a sweet, pink frosting made from strawberries or raspberries, which is available almost exclusively in Thunder Bay, Ontario. Vancouver Island’s small port town of Nanaimo has its namesake Nanaimo Bar, a bar cookie composed of rich butter icing sandwiched between layers of chocolate and wafer crumbs. (The bars are so delicious, many Starbucks even sell them.) Canada arguably invented the donut hole, which their nationwide donut chain Tim Hortons branded the “Timbit” (‘bit’ being an acronym for “big in taste”). Canada also created the Yukon gold potato, peameal bacon (back bacon, brined and coated in fine cornmeal, named for the old habit of rolling it in a meal of dried, ground peas), pemmican (you’ve seen it in westerns), poutine (arg, chest pains), and the tourtière (Quebec’s savory tart). Despite the name and my desire to say otherwise, Canadian bacon isn’t Canadian. It’s simply the moniker used in the US for a type of brined back bacon and smoked ham. Butter tarts are the most widely known of Canada’s culinary creations, a quintessential dessert so popular that it might warrant the title of “truly national confection.” Which is the point: even Canada’s most popular dessert remains relatively unknown outside of their country.
This isn’t meant to disparage Canada, the world’s second largest country by square mile, and one of its friendliest. It’s only to say that butter tarts are a domestic staple rather than an export. You won’t find them in bakery cases in San Francisco, say, or for sale on American convenience store shelves. If industrial mass production is one easy if depressing sign of an item’s popularity, then the absence of a Hostess brand butter tart is proof of their relative obscurity. Culturally relative, that is. Despite their obscurity in the States, the tarts are widely available north of the 49th parallel.
Like most things, this confection has an interesting history. As a 2006 Ottawa Citizen article reports, “The butter tart was a staple of pioneer cooking. According to Toronto food writer Marion Kane, one of the earliest recipes dates back to 1915. There are a few theories on the origin of the butter tart. Some believe the butter tart is related to the pecan pie brought to Canada by American slaves. It’s also similar to Quebec’s sugar pie.” A 2010 Toronto Sun article goes further: “Toronto culinary historian Mary Williamson, serious collector of historic cookbooks and butter tart sleuth thinks not, and has revealed a very plausible link to Border Tarts from southern Scotland, origin of many 19th century immigrants. The Border Tart filling often contains dried fruit, sugar, eggs and butter – all ingredients our largely rural population would have handy, most from their own farms. She has also sourced the first written reference in a 1900 cookbook compiled by The Women’s Auxiliary of the Royal Victoria Hospital in Barrie. The recipe was labelled (sic) simply, ‘A filling for tarts’.”
Although its name sounds like a euphemism for a young, sassy, creamy-skinned vixen, a butter tart is precisely what it suggests. Take a pie. Shrink it to tart-size. Make it of butter, sugar, salt, vanilla and eggs. Beyond this there is great debate: should it contain corn syrup or maple syrup? Raisins or no raisins? Be runny or firm? How firm should the crust be? Like so many beloved staples and entrenched traditions, controversy surrounds the tart issue like some sort of rigid, overcooked crust, causing a culinary rift and me to mix metaphors. Then there’s the issue of flair. Some people drizzle tarts with caramel. Some add walnuts, pecans or currants, even chocolate chips and dates. Others who we might call “purists” like their tarts unadulterated – simple, not plain – so that the natural flavors stand out. This, they say, is the only truly Canadian tart.
Contrary to what some might consider “traditional,” history suggests that the original version included raisons. “The tart’s history has been traced back to the arrival of the filles de marier in the mid-1600s,” writes Toronto Star Food Editor Susan Sampson. “To fill their tarts, these imported brides from France had to make do with what they found in their new larders: maple syrup or sugar, farm-fresh butter and dried fruit (read raisins).”
But that was then and this is now. Our larders overflow with options, and no one uses the term larder anymore. People can toss in whatever they want – bacon bits or squid tentacles, even. This wealth of options has only fueled the debate about proper tarts. “Butter tarts have two critical components,” says The Ottawa Citizen. “The pastry must be flaky and perfect, while the filling should be brimming with flavour without being overly sweet.” Ah, not so fast! This isn’t rock identification. There’s no easy classification of the definitive tart. As fun as it is to debate, you can’t, as they say, argue taste. And by that I don’t mean, “I have taste, and you do not.” I mean that good flavor, like music and scent, is too subjective to define.
What is clear is this: the filling must contain butter and sugar, but not so much that it becomes cloyingly sweet. You can add a little cream if you like, but just a little. Many people like adding some maple syrup, not only for the taste, but because it adds a distinctly Canadian touch, the idea being that if you want to have some national pride, pouring in a little sap from the national tree is the least you can do. Anyway, white sugar is so pedestrian.
No matter which side of divide you fall on, nuts are a divisive issue. Reporting from a 2007 tart contest, Susan Sampson of the Toronto Star says, “Peering at one entry with pecans poking through the filling, a judge peevishly complains: ‘But that’s a pecan tart! It’s not a butter tart!’”
“The best butter tart I ever made,” says Sampson, “from a recipe by Canadian cooking icon Kate Aitken, was modest and pristine. She didn’t even believe in adding raisins. I’ll argue that the ideal tart has a fairly thick, shortbread-like shell. It tastes rich, but not greasy. It’s crumbly, but doesn’t fall apart at first bite. The filling has a buttery essence and a hint of maple for Canadian flair. It’s soft but not sloppy, sweet but not cloying. It’s covered by a slight crust that gives way as your teeth invade.”
The gist is that people love these things. They were the favorite treat of Canada’s first Prime Minister, Sir John A. MacDonald, in the late 1800s. In 1999, the Canadian band Len released a catchy pop confection called “Steal My Sunshine.” Over a sample at the beginning of the song, bandmates Matt and Tim discuss lead singer Marc’s glum mood and the need to cheer him up. Tim says, “What do you, uh, suppose we should do?” Matt: “Well, does he like butter tarts?” The line endeared many Canadians to the song. There’s even a Facebook page dedicated to the passage. Its motto: “The best quotation from anything in the history of ever.”
Like most dorks, all this information got me hungry for food and more information, so I went seeking tarts. I couldn’t find a single one. I live in Portland, Oregon, a foodie town of legendary proportions. People sell ceviche out of old school buses here. Numerous food carts sell vegan phō. Even though my city sits some three hundred miles south of the
international border, I couldn’t find Canada’s national dessert at any local bakery. In the absence of the real thing, I emailed my longtime friend Dayna in Toronto. She’s a flight attendant for Air Canada and has traveled all over her country. What did she think of these beloved tarts? Did she have a favorite place that I could get them in Vancouver? “They are indeed a staple in every Canadian’s house, especially over the holidays,” she said. “I don’t think there is a special spot for them, they are just everywhere.” She buys them for her boyfriend at the Supermarche but doesn’t like them herself. They’re too sweet. “My Mom used to make them for the holidays and I’d convince her to make me a special batch. Scrap the butter filling for jam instead. I was spoiled with special treatment which is why I didn’t really love them like I’m supposed to maybe.” Since I couldn’t just pop up to Canada to find some tarts. I had to make some myself.
I am not a skilled baker. Worse, I’m a bachelor. Unsupervised, better equipped at reheating leftovers than creating something as fragile and sophisticated as a tart, I failed to replicate the flavors of the butter tarts I’d read about in the Toronto Star’s article “The art of the tart.” The recipe I used was from a group of sixth-graders. It won first place in a contest. The paper described it as having “a full-flavoured, buttery filling that is neither firm nor runny, in pie bald plain and chocolate pastry shells that are difficult to reproduce.” It’ll say.
My plan to mold a pre-made pie crust into smaller pieces to fit into muffin tins failed. Naturally, the dough tore when I tried to shape it. Why did I think that would work? Left with pie crust shreds, I abandoned that idea and baked the entire thing as a pie – a butter pie – which required a longer baking time since the contents’ dimensions changed. I’d already screwed up the filling. The recipe specified using table syrup that contained 15% maple syrup. When I ran out of the corn syrup I bought bulk at a natural grocer, I substituted half a cup more maple, which threw everything else out of whack and left maple syrup pooled at the bottom of the pan, encasing the pastry in an amber-colored gel. Then I ran out of brown sugar, so I added more granulated white in its place. After an hour in the oven at 375 degrees, my pie was cloyingly sweet. I ate half of a slice and nodded off while reading forty minutes later, from the sugar buzz.
Despite its effect on my pancreas and blood sugar levels, I loved the taste. I didn’t want to. It was so unhealthy, just sugar and fat, but I kept coming back to it throughout the day. I’d open the fridge, peel back the foil I’d draped over the pan, and fork a few bites. Three days later, it was gone, my state’s sole supply, evaporated like so much water in a drought.
Aaron Gilbreath lives in Portland and online here. He’s written essays for Tin House, The Threepenny Review, Yeti and Paris Review, and occasionally writes about books for the Portland Mercury.