In true American fashion, (those who want to have their cake and eat it) I’ve skipped ahead to dessert in my research for the American-Canadian Cooking Project with Jill in Ottawa.
My sweet assignment is the classic Canadian butter tart. “The Pioneer Cook: An Historic View of Canadian Prairie Food” by B. Barss says the recipe reflects the simple ingredients found in the pantry of the prairie cook. I locate a number of references saying the butter tart was invented in Northern Ontario around 1915. There is even a dictionary that lists the butter tart as a “Canadian invention.” There is a certain fervor about the butter tart. There are stories of dairy-deprived Canadians searching high and low outside their country for butter tarts in vain.
A typical list of ingredients includes butter, corn syrup, brown sugar and eggs. Many recipes call for lining 12 or 24 muffin cups or tart molds with pastry and adding the filling, so this is a one or two bite confection. The amber-colored filling bears some similarity to a pecan pie, minus the nuts, and some theorize it descended from the style of pecan pie that was brought to Canada by American slaves. Others speculate that the Canadian butter tart is similar to British treacle tart or the Ecclefechan butter tart made in Scotland.
Now here’s where opinions start to differ. I quickly learn that butter tart may, in fact, be more controversial than religion, sports or politics. Do you add currants, nuts or raisins? The purists say no, while some pastry iconoclasts claim a handful of currants add a special touch. In one recipe it is suggested that the nuts or fruit be spooned into the bottom of each tart shell and then covered with the buttery filling before baking. It seems you can’t be on the fence on this one. You are either for, or against raisins in your butter tart.
The topic prompts significant debate. I even discover a spirited discussion on CBC Radio between a food writer, an artist and a “butter tart expert” from 1991, lasting almost 15 minutes that thrashes out everything from the proper consistency of filling (runny, chewy or firm?) to the best physical position to take when eating a butter tart.
I experience a strange sense of relief and nervousness. No matter what configuration of the butter tart I choose, someone will agree with my choice, and someone won’t. It’s good to know where you stand in life and culinary pursuits. I’ll probably stick with the traditionalists and eschew the fruit or nuts for the Canadian feast on March 18th.
Clearly, the butter tart is part of the Canadian psyche, and even a part of the Canadian topography. For the true aficionado, there is even a Butter Tart Trail in the township of Wellington North, where you can visit more than a dozen Mennonite kitchens and bakeries and sample the confection along the way. In late 2006, those who completed the trail and had their map punched at each of the 13 sites were eligible to win a one-night stay at a B&B and, you guessed it, one dozen butter tarts!
©2007 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved