Butter Tarts: A Sweet Bite of Canadian History

Last week was Canada Day, and as a foodie with a sweet tooth, I celebrated by making butter tarts. But I’m also a history geek, so a recipe wasn’t enough for me. I needed to know where these little morsels of sugary delight came from. And so, down the rabbit hole went I, and this is what I found.

The front page of
The Women’s Auxiliary of the Royal Victoria Hospital Cookbook

Butter tarts, for the uninitiated, are a quintessentially Canadian pastry, similar to pecan pie without the pecans. They are small pastries with a single short crust and a slightly runny sugary filling that is crunchy on top from the baked sugar. Some have raisins, some do not. This seems to be a greater national divide than English/French. However, both sides seem willing to talk out their differences over coffee.

The first recorded recipe for butter tarts is found in The Women’s Auxiliary of the Royal Victoria Hospital Cookbook from Barrie, Ontario, published in 1900. This recipe, like so many from its day, is more description than direction.

“One cup sugar, ½ cup butter, 2 eggs, one cup currants; mix. Fill the tarts and bake.”

From page 88 of The Women’s Auxiliary of the Royal Victoria Hospital Cookbook (Barrie, 1900)

The woman who provided this recipe, Mrs. Malcolm MacLeod, presumed the baker knew how to make the tart shells and how long to bake them, a reasonable enough assumption for the times. The Medieval recipes I have don’t give anything close to precise directions. “Cook till done” seems to be about as exact as they get.

From p.240 of the Canadian Farm Cook Book (Toronto, 1911)

Versions of butter tarts were printed in newspapers over the next decade and the recipe was included in the Canadian Farm Cook Book from 1911. In this volume, these treats are actually called butter tarts (unlike the generic “filling for tarts” from 1900) and there are 6 versions of the recipe, contributed by women from across Ontario. Either this dessert had become very popular over the preceding decade, or else the recipe was out there in world, just waiting for Mrs. MacLeod to submit her version for the Royal Victoria Hospital’s book. My guess is the former, and this is why.

Although we don’t see a published recipe until 1900, the story of these treats goes back a lot further. It is thought that butter tarts saw their origin in the mid 1600s with the filles du roi. These “daughters of the king” were a group of about 800 young unmarried French women who were actively recruited and whose immigration to the New World was sponsored by Louis XIV between 1663 and 1673. This program was designed to strengthen the colony of New France by encouraging marriage, family formation, and the birth of lots of French children on North American soil.

These women, as one might imagine, were resourceful people. They brought with them their traditional French recipes, but had to adapt them to whatever was available in their new home. Sugar pie (tarte au sucre) might have been one of these recipes, with a filling including sugar (often including maple syrup), flour, butter, salt, vanilla, and cream. If you want to try these, here’s a recipe that looks nice and simple: https://www.recettes.qc.ca/recettes/recette/tarte-au-sucre-193810 Time and experience, and a possible lack of some of these rich ingredients, transformed this French and Quebecois dessert into the butter tarts I’ve been playing with.

Arrivée des filles du Roy à Québec, reçues par Jean Talon et Mgr Laval, vue par Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale (1872-1845).

I have a work-in-progress, a completed draft in need of a good edit or five, that takes place in Upper Canada (present-day Ontario) in 1815. At one point in the story, my main character brings some treats to a friend. Perhaps I’ll let her bring some butter tarts. It certainly seems like the right pastry at the right time.

For my own experiments, I tried a few recipes. Butter tarts are supposed to be a bit runny, but I like mine of the firmer side. I ended up liking a recipe from the New York Times, but I tweaked it a bit to my tastes, because that’s what I do! I found the ratio of pastry to filling too high, and rather than cutting down the amount of pastry, I doubled the filling. I also played with some of the proportions of ingredients.

My creation

Here’s what I ended up with. This recipe has a lower proportion of butter and egg to the sugar, and far fewer raisins or currants. See if you prefer this or Mrs. MacLeod’s version from 1900.

RECIPE
Butter Tarts

Makes 12 tarts

Ingredients

For the pastry

  • 1 ½ cups flour (191g)
  • Pinch of salt
  • ½ cup cold butter
  • ¼ cup ice water
  • 1 egg yolk
  • 1 tsp white vinegar

For the Filling (this is doubled from the original recipe to make a deeper tart)

  • ¼ cup raisins (optional)
  • 2 cups packed brown sugar
  • ½ tsp fine sea salt
  • ½ cup soft butter
  • 2 tsp vanilla extract
  • 2 large eggs

Instructions

  1. Make the pastry in the normal manner, adding water till the consistency is right. Chill in the fridge. Roll out and cut into 12 disks. Press into muffin tins. Chill till ready to use.
  2. If including raisins: Cover the raisins in hot water to plump until ready to use. Then drain.
  3. In a bowl, combine the sugar and salt, then beat in the butter by hand. Add the vanilla and egg and mix well till combined. Don’t use an electric mixer or you’ll get too much air in the mixture.
  4. Add a few raisins to each pie shell. Spoon equal amounts of the filling over the raisins, so each shell is about half full.
  5. Preheat oven to 425F and bake for 15-20 minutes, depending on how firm you want the filling. Longer baking time yields a firmer filling. Loosen the tarts from the muffin tin. Let cool a bit. 

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