Butter Tarts are a classic in Canadian cuisine. This quintessential pastry is known to be one of the few recipes that are truly Canadian in origin and they are certainly a part of our national identity. I’ve heard it said that Butter Tarts are to Canada as Pecan Pie is to the United States. Whatever side of the border you are on, butter tarts are the ultimate treat.
Walking by the tiny bakery in our little southern Manitoba town was a mouth-watering experience, with the aroma of freshly baked bread and chocolate chip cookies wafting onto the surrounding street. You just had to go in…
And Mr. Christoff made the best butter tarts ever! With some money in hand, and a note of permission to leave the school grounds in my school bag, my best friend and I could hardly contain our excitement as we walked downtown for lunch … a burger, a coke, and then to the bakery for a butter tart.
Since that time, I have tested and tasted so many recipes …trying to replicate that experience …and I have been disappointed time and time again. Nothing seemed to compare with the perfection of a crust that would be just thick enough to hold together (along with a hint of a sweet crunch), but not so thick that it would over-shadow the filling …the thick, sweet and gooey filling that would run out of the crust just a little as you took the first bite. This recipe is the result of much experimentation (and testing!) and seems to bring back the most accurate reminiscence.
In my research and experimentation (tough job…), I came across a few controversies. Runny versus firm filling; raisins, currants, or nuts …or nothing; thick crust versus thin crust; blind-bake shells, or use unbaked shells. Everyone, it seems, has their own favourite way … And this is mine…
As in Pecan Pie, demerara brown sugar and Lyle’s Golden Syrup are recommended. I believe these two products, along with some vinegar, and ample amounts of vanilla, are the secret ingredients.
The pastry is also unique in that it is not the typical pie pastry. The crust includes some sugar (responsible for the sweet crunch), and it requires a little different process. You may find yourself uttering a few choice words as you roll out the dough for the pastry shells as it is a bit fussy (needs a very well-floured surface, and quick handling). Well, truth be told, the dough is more than a ‘bit’ fussy …it is quite challenging to manage. In fact, you may even find your mind wandering down the frozen food aisle in search of some pre-made pastry shells ….but, please come back … when you take your first bite, you will be rewarded for sticking to the task …
To bake the tarts, you can use a specialized tart pan, a muffin/cupcake pan, or individual foil cups. All will work. The yield, however, will vary depending upon your choice. In my kitchen, my tart pan and the foil cups will use 3 ½ inch diameter shells (I use a large mason jar lid as my cutter); if I use my standard muffin/cupcake pan, I will need 4 ½ inch diameter shells (I put my martini glass to work!). The number of tarts that you end up with, of course, will depend on all of this. And, it goes without saying that the baking times will need to be adjusted given the choice of pan.
Depending upon the size of your pastry shells, you may find yourself with a bit of leftover filling. Hmmm…what to do?? Lightly butter a small ramekin, fill it with the leftover filling, toss in some extra raisins, and bake …a special treat for the baker!
Prep Time: Crust: 10 minutes plus resting time; Filling: 10 minutes
Baking Time: 20 minutes
Yield: 12-18 tarts (depending on pan size)
230 g (1 cup / 2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
½ cup (125 mL) granulated sugar
1 large egg, slightly beaten
225 g (1 ½ cups) all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon (2.5 mL) salt
1/2 cup (125 mL) Thompson raisins, soaked for several hours in a liquid such as a half-and-half mixture of water and vanilla extract, rum, or apple juice
210 g (1 cup) dark brown sugar
250 mL (1 cup) golden cane syrup (Lyle’s Golden Syrup)
115 g (½ cup) unsalted butter
2 large eggs, at room temperature
½ teaspoon (2.5 mL) salt
1 tablespoon (15 mL) pure vanilla extract
1 teaspoon (5 mL) apple cider vinegar
1. Prepare the raisins by placing them in a small bowl with your choice of soaking liquid. Let soak for at least ½ hour while the other ingredients are being prepared.
Make the Dough:
1. In a food processor or mixing bowl, or with a pastry blender, cream together butter and sugar just until mixed.
2. Add egg and pulse to mix.
3. Combine the flour and salt and gradually add to the butter-sugar mixture. Process or mix just until it comes together. Turn out on a large sheet of wax paper or parchment paper. Form into a ball, and then gently flatten into a disk (8 or 9 inches in diameter). This will assist with rolling out the dough later on. Refrigerate several hours or overnight. This dough also freezes really well.
4. At baking time, pre-heat oven to 3500F (1800C). Roll out dough on a well-floured surface to about an 1/8 inch thickness. This dough is somewhat difficult to manage as it gets soft quite quickly. Keep the surface well floured. Cut into 12-18 rounds – approximately 3 ½ – 4 1/2 inches in diameter (depending upon the size of your tart pan). You can a large cookie cutter, or a drinking glass.
5. Press each round into the tart pan; Use a fork to gently flute each shell and to prick each shell. Put pan in the freezer for a few minutes while you prepare the filling.
Prepare the Filling:
1. Put the dark brown sugar and the cane syrup in a small saucepan. Over low-medium heat, slowly heat up mixture in order to dissolve the sugar. Stir constantly. Do not boil – just heat it gently to dissolve the sugar.
2. Remove from heat and add butter to the sugar-syrup mixture. Stir to melt. Use a whisk to fully incorporate the melted butter in the sugar-syrup mixture.
3. In a medium bowl, whisk the eggs with the vanilla, salt, and vinegar.
4. Pour a little (a tablespoon or two) of the warm sugar-syrup-butter mixture over the eggs in order to temper the eggs. Stir to combine. Proceed to pour the remaining mixture over the eggs. Stir to combine, and to fully incorporate all of the ingredients.
5. Remove tart shells from freezer.
6. Drain raisins and divide the raisins evenly among the tart shells.
7. Fill tart shells with the prepared filling. Do not over-fill – ensure that there is a visible band of pastry in each cup.
8. Bake at 3500F (1800C) for 10-12 minutes; reduce oven temperature to 325 F (165 C) for 10-12 minutes. Baking times depends upon the size of the tarts. Watch the tarts as they bake and adjust the temperature accordingly.
9. Let tarts cool in the pan before gently removing from the pan.
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