Canada Day + Butter Tarts

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Today is Canada Day! Similar to our 4th of July in the US, Canada Day is a national holiday that celebrates the anniversary of the Constitution Act of 1867, which united the three provinces of Canada–Canada, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia–into the unified country of Canada. It’s often referred to as “Canada’s birthday.”

So I decided to celebrate our neighbors from the Great White North by making what must be one of their greatest culinary contributions to the world: Butter tarts. Think of a more buttery and less sweet pecan pie, baked into individual tarts. This fine little dessert is one of the few pastries considered truly Canadian.

Having existed for hundreds of years, there is no proof of the exact origin of the butter tart, but there are several theories on when and how the butter tarts were created.

The butter tart is perhaps most closely associated with the filles à marier (marriageable girls), also known as the filles du roi (King’s daughters), a group of nearly 800 young women who were sent to Canada between of the years of 1663 and 1673 as part of a program sponsored by Louis XIV. The program’s intentions were to increase the number of French citizens in “New France” by sending women to marry and have children with the French men who had already settled in Canada, and also to entice more men to immigrate to Canada, whose population at the time would have consisted of many more men than women. The program worked: Over the ten-year period in which the women were sent, New France’s population more than doubled.

It is said that the influx of the King’s daughters caused the invention of the butter tart, since the newly arrived women took on the duties of the home, including cooking, and used local ingredients, such as maple syrup. The butter tart was likely predated by the sugar pie, or tarte au sucre, and eventually raisins and pecans–critical but divisive ingredients in the butter tart–were added later. While today butter tarts are closely associated with the Ontario (English-speaking) area of Canada, and are somewhat similar to the British treacle tart, it might be that the tarts got their start in the French-speaking areas of Canada, such as Quebec, the first of the three ports that the King’s daughters would have been able to disembark.

As with many recipes, butter tarts became especially popular in Canada in the 1920’s and 30’s, after recipes were published in newspapers that reached a much wider group of home bakers. Today they are widely available throughout Canada and an annual Butter Tart festival is held every year in Midland, Ontario.

Even among the most polite Canadians, there are arguments about what makes a true butter tart. Some Canadians are vehemently against the addition of raisins, while others say that it isn’t a true butter tart without them. (To complicate the current raisin-or-no-raisin-argument, recipes printed in the early 20th-century include not raisins, but currants.) Additionally, some think that the filling should be gooey and runny when you bite into it, while others think the filling should be firm.

For the texture of the butter tarts shown here, I split the difference: This filling doesn’t ooze when you bite into it, but it’s not firm either. Also, I went with a pecan topping, and dropped the raisins–maybe I’m just an American with a partiality to pecan pie.

Butter Tart

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Canadian Butter Tarts 
Makes 12 small tarts.

Ingredients: 
Your favorite pie dough, enough to make one bottom crust of a pie. I like this one.
3/4 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup maple syrup
6 tbsp unsalted butter, melted
1/8 tsp salt
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 tsp vanilla
1/2 cup pecans, toasted and chopped, or 1/2 cup raisin, chopped.

Instructions:

Lightly grease one 12-cup cupcake tin and allow to chill in refrigerator as you prepare your butter tart crusts.

Roll out pie pastry to 1/4-inch thick. Cut into 12 circles, 4 1/2-inches in diameter (you want them to be approximately the size of a cupcake liner.)

Press each circle of dough into the cupcake cups, pressing as needed to fit the cup. Return to the refrigerator as you prepare your filling.

If you are using pecans, finely chop and measure after chopping. If using raisins, soak them in hot water for at least fifteen minutes. Drain, pat dry, and chop finely.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

In a medium bowl, mix together brown sugar, maple syrup, and melted butter until thoroughly combined. Add in egg and vanilla and mix to combine.

Remove the cupcake tin from refrigerator, and fill the bottom of each tart with finely chopped pecans or raisins.

Fill each tart about halfway with brown sugar mixture. (It will bake up further in the oven.)

Bake tarts for five minutes at 400 degrees. Then, lower the oven to 375 degrees and continue baking for 12-15 minutes, until the top is bubbly and no longer jiggles if you shake the cupcake tin.

Allow the tarts to cool completely in the tin before enjoying.

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The chopped pecans rise to the top of the tart, and become slightly crisp, while there is a gooey, buttery (but not too sweet!) layer underneath. It’s like a less-sweet, individual version of the pecan pie. I am certainly not claiming that this version is as good as anyone in Canada can make. However, if this is any indication of what the Canadian version is like, count me in.

Happy Canada Day!

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L.M. Montgomery & Mock Cherry Pie

Lucy_Maud_MontgomeryLike many girls, I was a big fan of the Anne of Green Gables books growing up. My grandma had the movies starring Megan Follows. And I think those old VHS tapes are still in a box at my mom’s house. However, I realized in the last few years that the author of the Anne of Green Gables books was a woman, though she often used the shortened and more gender-ambiguous L.M. Montgomery.

Canada’s favorite daughter, L.M. Montgomery preferred to go by her middle name, Maud (without an “e”), and was born and raised on Prince Edward Island. Her mother died when she was very young, and she was sent by her father to live with her grandmother. She spent much of her time by herself, and she would often describe her upbringing as lonely.

Montgomery got the idea for Anne of Green Gables when she was looking through an old newspaper and found a story of a couple who had sent a request to an orphanage for a boy, but received a girl instead. And she used a fictional version of Green Gables, an actual farm that was once owned by Montgomery’s cousins. In 1908, the book was published and was almost immediately a hit. (A story for those of you out there dealing with rejection: The first time Montgomery sent the manuscript for Anne of Green Gables out to publishers, it was rejected by all of them. She put the manuscript at the bottom of a trunk for three years before she sent it out again in 1908.)

However, Montgomery’s success did not translate to her personal life. In 1911, after her grandmother died, Montgomery married her husband Ewan McDonald, a Presbyterian Minister. The marriage was not a happy one, and they shared few interests. Even so, she and her husband had two sons, and one son who was stillborn. And, even though she had a successful writing career, as a woman of her time and of her strong religious conviction, Montgomery believed that it was her duty to be a good wife and mother. Part of this, of course, meant providing meals for her family, and Montgomery was an excellent cook. Years ago, one of her nieces even compiled a cookbook of her aunt’s recipes.

One of her younger son’s favorite recipes of his mother’s was mock cherry pie, which is composed of raisins and cranberries instead of cherries. I originally thought that “mock cherry pie” was probably one of those awesome depression-era recipes, where home cooks somehow fashioned a roast beef dinner out of an old shoe. Not so. Mock cherry pie was popular around the turn of the century, and the first mentions of the recipe seem to come from the Chicago Record Cook Book, published in 1896. Then the recipe was picked up by New Englanders and Canadians, probably because of their ready access to fresh cranberries during the colder months.

So, in honor of Lucy Maud Montgomery, born on this day 143 years ago, I’ve made a mock cherry pie. I looked through several recipes in old newspapers and all are very simple and almost exactly the same: cranberries, raisins, sugar, flour, vanilla. I used the same here, except I increased the portions slightly (most recipes call for about 1 1/2 cups of filling total. The recipe below more than doubles that and it’s still a rather small pie).

Mock Cherry Pie

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Mock Cherry Pie
Makes one 8-inch pie.

Ingredients:
1 two-crust pie crust (I prefer this one)
2 1/2 cups cranberries
1 1/4 cups dark raisins
3/4 cup water
1 cup sugar
2 tbsp all-purpose flour
1/4 tsp lemon zest
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp vanilla
For egg wash:
1 egg
1 tbsp milk or cream
2 tsp sugar

Instructions:

Slightly chop the cranberries by hand or in a food processor, just enough so they are no longer whole. To a saucepan, add the cranberries, raisins, sugar, flour, lemon zest, and salt. Mix together and then bring to a boil over medium heat, for about 15 minutes total. Remove from heat and add vanilla. Allow to cool to room temperature.

Prepare the bottom half of your pie shell. Fill with cranberry raisin mixture. Place in refrigerator while you prepare the top of the crust.

Prepare the top of the shell. You can make this into a traditional lattice-top, or just a solid layer over the top. Either way, be sure there are holes in the top crust to allow steam to escape. Place top crust over the mixture and crimp the edges. Place in freezer for about 15 minutes.

Preheat your oven to 400 degrees.

Beat together the egg and milk or cream. After the pie has been in the freezer for 15 minutes, brush the top crust of the pie with the mixture. Sprinkle with 2 teaspoons of sugar. Place on a cookie sheet and bake pie for about 25 minutes, turn 180 degrees and continue baking for another 25 minutes. If the edges of the crust begin to get too dark, cover them with foil and continue to bake.

Remove from oven and serve warm, or at room temperature.

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How about that? Very simple, and in the winter months this recipe will provide you with the sweet-sour, cherry-like flavor you’ve been craving. Would a cherry-pie-loving person be fooled? No, probably not. But the fact is, this pie is absolutely stands on its own two feet. It’s delicious. And, if you are a fan of cherry pie, I think you’d be hard pressed to find something as satisfying during the winter months.

Two quick tips: 1) The bigger the raisins, the better. They plump up and provide you with the bite you would get from a cherry, as well as the sweetness. 2) I always have trouble getting my foil to stay on my pie crusts while baking. This time I used one of those throwaway foil pie pans, but I cut the bottom out and just placed it over my crust. It worked awesome! Maybe everyone already knows this trick, but I really impressed myself.

Happy 143rd birthday, Lucy Maud Montgomery!