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.
Canadian Butter Tarts
Makes 12 small tarts.
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.
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.
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!