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!

Peanut Butter and Jelly Linzer Cookies

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Ah, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I prefer them more in my adult life than I ever did as a kid. I have distinct memories of peanut butter in jelly sandwiches in a brown paper bags for lunch. Then, when lunch came, I usually wouldn’t eat, because by that time, the jelly had seeped through the soft white bread. As a child, I found this unacceptable, assuming something was wrong with it. I was an awful child, is what I’m saying.

But every now and again, since becoming an adult, I will need a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. If I can’t think of anything to eat, and I’m not craving anything (a real rarity), I’ll just make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and everything is right with the world again.

Some might argue that a peanut butter and jelly sandwich is more American than apple pie. (And they would basically be right, since apple pie has been around since at least the 1300’s, and probably originated in England.) Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are a truly American, born and bred.

The peanut butter and jelly sandwich came about with the proliferation of its three ingredients, at approximately the same time: peanut butter, jelly, and sliced bread.

Let’s begin with peanut butter. Peanut butter was developed in the late 1800’s as a health food, by John Harvey Kellogg, a name you might recognize from your breakfast cereals as a kid. Kellogg ran the Western Heath Reform Institute, a sanitarium in Battle Creek, Michigan, which was more a health spa for the middle and upper classes, rather than a hospital. Kellogg began using a peanut paste in the sanitarium as a way of administering vitamins for patients who had trouble chewing or swallowing. Before Kellogg, it was Dr. Ambrose Straub who patented the first peanut butter making machine. Kellogg, however, patented the first process to produce peanut butter. At this time, the peanut paste that Kellogg was feeding his patients was unlike the butter as we know it today. It would be years before peanut butter was available to the masses, as it did not transport well, and was generally only considered a health food for the rich.

By 1901, the very first peanut butter and jelly sandwich recipe was printed in The Boston Cooking School Magazine of Culinary Science & Domestic Economics, by Julia Davis Chandler. Chandler suggested that her readers serve the bread, crab apple jelly, and peanut paste bite, to guests at parties, or high tea. Though Chandler combined peanut butter with jelly, at the time, peanut butter was most often served with savory accompaniments, such as watercress, at upscale restaurants or tea rooms.

As for jelly, it has been around, in some form, for more than a thousand years. The first known recipe for a jam dates back to the 4th or 5th century in one of the earliest known cookbooks in existence, De re coquinaria (called the Art of Cooking in English), otherwise known as Apicius (after its presumptive author). However, until pasteurization, jelly would have been made in smaller batches, for the home. It was Nicholas Appert, a Frenchman, who answered Napoleon Bonaparte’s offer of a reward for anyone who could find a way to preserve foods in large quantities for soldiers in 1785. Appert discovered that, by boiling the fruit at high temperatures, and storing them in jars that had been tightly sealed, food would remain safe to eat for long periods of time. Since that time, home cooks would use this method to make jams and jellies as a way of preserving seasonal fruit for the winter. In 1918, however, the brand Welch’s, which was, at the time, exclusively making grape juice, invented “Grapelade,” a food similar to marmalade, but using grapes. The initial stock was bought by the U.S. Army for troop rations during World War I. After the War, the troops brought home their love of grapelade, and in 1923, Welch’s created their Concord grape jelly, the cornerstone of the original PB&J.

The third and final component of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich is the bread. Of course, bread has been around for thousands of years. But, like jam, making bread was something that was often done in the home, and required time. In the late 1920’s, Otto Frederick Rodhwedder of Iowa invented a bread slicing machine, which revolutionized the way people ate bread. With the arrival of sliced bread, people were eating more bread than ever before. And the timing of the invention, just a few years after Welch’s released their grape jelly, meant that people were using more jams to go along with their bread. By this time, too, peanut butter was no longer considered only a food for the rich. The price point had dropped, allowing all classes to enjoy it. By the time the Great Depression hit in 1929, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches had become an easy, fairly nutritious, and cost-effective meal that was easy for children and adults alike to assemble and carry with them. By the time WWII began, peanut butter and jelly sandwich ingredients were included in the soldiers rations, which cemented their status as a icon in American history.

For today’s recipe, I thought, why not take the beloved sandwich, and dessert-ize it by turning into a beloved sandwich cookie. I give you: Peanut Butter and Jelly Linzer Cookies.

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Peanut Butter and Jelly Linzer Cookies
Makes about 15 sandwich cookies. Adapted from this recipe from Southern Living.

Ingredients: 
1 cup unsalted butter
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup packed light brown sugar
1/2 cup creamy peanut butter
1 large egg
1 1/2 tsp vanilla
3 cups flour
3/4 tsp salt
1/3 cup grape jelly
powdered sugar, optional

Instructions:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line two large cookie sheets with parchment paper.

In a large bowl, beat together the butter, both sugars, and the peanut butter until well combined. Add in the egg and vanilla and beat in until just combined. Add in the flour and salt, all at once, and beat in until just combined with no white streaks remaining.

Dump out the dough onto a well-floured surface, gathering up any loose pieces that fall away, and form into a disk. Separate the disk into two equal pieces.

Working with one half of the dough, roll out to 1/4-inch thickness. Cut out 15 (or as many as you can fit) 2 3/4 to 3-inch circles with a cookie or biscuit cutter. Place the cut outs onto the parchment-lined cookie sheet, about 1 centimeter apart.

Bake for about 9-10 minutes, or until lightly golden brown. Allow to cool on the cookie sheet for five minutes, and then remove to a cooling rack.

Repeat the above process with the second half of the dough, this time cutting out a smaller hole in the center of the circle cutouts. Place the cutouts on the second lined cookie sheet and bake for 9-10 minutes.

When the cookies have completely cooled, put a one teaspoon dollop of grape jelly in the center of each of the whole cookies. For the cookies with the center cutout, sprinkle with powdered sugar (optional), and sandwich with the cookies topped with grape jelly.

*Cookies can be served immediately, but I think they actually get better after a day in an airtight container.

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These cookies are quite delicious, almost impossible to stop eating (especially if served with milk!), and really do taste like a PB&J. Bonus: They look like they have little jewels in the middle! Happy National Peanut Butter and Jelly Day! P.S. If you’re craving more peanut butter history, you can check out my previous post here.

Baked Pumpkin Doughnuts with Spiced Chocolate Glaze

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Clearly, I’m a little late with my first October recipe. We were out of town for three weeks in September and the early part of October, which is a crazy time to be away from your bed (and your kitchen). We’re back now, though, just in time for the chilly weather, which means more incentive for staying in and baking! Also, even though the cold weather is hitting a little early this year, October is still my absolute favorite month for a lot of reasons: 1) It’s family history month 2) Our anniversary is this month! 3) Halloween!!! and 4) Pumpkin everything!!!

Obviously, we have PSLs now, but pumpkins themselves have been an important part of the North American diet for much longer. Pumpkins are a fruit native to the Americas. Seeds of the pumpkin family dating back to between 7000 and 5500 BC have been found in Mexico. In the beginning they were probably used to store items, due to their hearty exterior, but the pumpkin’s high nutritional value and the edibleness of the entire fruit (even the stem) meant it became an important food source. It is thought that about 10,000 years ago, pumpkins, as well as other varieties of squash, were on the verge of extinction. Luckily, the people of the time valued pumpkins enough to domesticate them, which likely led to their survival. Pumpkin, calabeza in Spanish, is still important ingredient in Mexican cuisine too, with dishes from mole to calabeza en tacha, or candied pumpkin, being created using every part of the pumpkin from the flower, to the pepitas, to the flesh.

The name pumpkin is derived from the Greek word for “large melon,” pepon. This changed to “pompon” in French (France became early importers of pumpkins from North America), then into “pumpion” in England, which eventually became the modern word “pumpkin”.

For us in the U.S., pumpkins are associated with autumn, and particularly Thanksgiving. They were likely part of the first Thanksgiving dinner, but probably as a savory dish, instead of the pumpkin pie we are used to today.  Pumpkins, already a staple in the diets of the Wampanoag at the time, were vital to the colonists, who likely wouldn’t have survived winter without them (and many didn’t–by the time of the first Thanksgiving dinner in 1621, more than half of the original colonists had died of starvation or disease).

Sweet pumpkin pies were likely first made in England with pumpkins imported from the States, then adopted by the colonists. France was an early importer of the fruit and recipes for sweet pies date to as early as the 1650’s in France. The earliest recipe for “pumpion pye” in England dates to Hannah Woolley’s The Gentlewoman’s Companion, from 1675.

In the United States, more than 50 million pumpkin pies are consumed during the Thanksgiving holiday, and there is a good chance that the pumpkin you’re eating is from Illinois. Illinois is the top grower of pumpkins in the United States. My friend Jennifer wrote a fascinating piece for Slow Food last year about the Dickinson squash, the heirloom variety of squash that is used by Libby’s, located in Morton, Illinois, for their canned pumpkin puree.

For my recipe today, I decided not to go with a traditional pumpkin pie, but to make pumpkin doughnuts instead. I love doughnuts. LOVE them. But I have noticed, in my early thirties, that I can no longer chow down on fried foods the way that I once did because I get heartburn. (Hi, I’m 100 years old.) With that in mind, these doughnuts are baked, which does mean you have to buy a doughnut pan, but also means you don’t have to deal with doughnut frying clean-up so… win?

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Baked Spiced Pumpkin Donuts with Cinnamon Chocolate Glaze
Makes 12 doughnuts.

Ingredients:
1 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1 1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp ginger
1/2 tsp nutmeg
1/2 tsp ground coriander
1/4 tsp ground clove
3/4 cup buttermilk
1 egg
1/2 cup pumpkin puree
1/2 tsp vanilla
3 tbsp unsalted butter, browned

For chocolate glaze:
1/2 cup heavy whipping cream
8 oz. chopped semi-sweet chocolate
1 tsp cinnamon
1/8 tsp cayenne powder, optional

Instructions:

Move a rack to the top 2/3 of the oven. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

In a medium bowl, mix the flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, coriander, and clove. Set aside.

In a small skillet or saucepan, heat 3 tablespoons of unsalted butter until browned. You’ll know it’s done when it’s changed in color, it smells nutty, and it has stopped “popping”. Allow to cool.

In a large bowl, beat the buttermilk and egg together thoroughly. Stir in the pumpkin puree. Stir in only 2 tablespoons of the browned butter.

Add the dry ingredients to the wet mixture and stir until everything is just combined. Don’t overmix, or your doughnuts could come out chewy.

Lightly grease two 6-doughnut pan, fill each indentation 3/4 of the way full. Bake for 4 minutes, turn pan 180 degrees, and continue to bake for 4 more minutes.

Allow the doughnuts to rest in the pan for about 5 minutes, before removing to a cooling rack. Repeat with additional batter.

To make glaze, heat the whipping cream until it’s just starting to steam, but not yet boil.

Put the chocolate in a heat-proof bowl, and pour the hot cream over the chocolate. Allow to sit for 5 minutes, then mix the chocolate into the cream until full combined.

Add the cinnamon, and cayenne if you don’t mind a little spice.

Dip the bottom half of each doughnut into the bowl, twisting until it is covered by chocolate.

Enjoy!

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Warning: You will be tempted to eat all of these doughnuts straight from the oven, before they’ve properly cooled, and before you glaze them. While you won’t be disappointed because the doughnuts are pretty great on their own, I highly suggest you try them with the glaze. Pumpkin-chocolate is a genius combination, maybe because both ingredients originated from the same area? On top of that, these doughnuts are not only scrumptious, they are essentially Halloween-colored. And I’m a big proponent of delicious foods, color-coordinated with my favorite holidays. I hope you are too. Happy October, and happy baking!