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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German Chocolate Cupcakes

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Today is National German Chocolate Cake Day! And we’re here to talk about it. First, right off the bat, let’s get one thing straight: German chocolate cake has absolutely nothing to do with the country of Germany. Shocked? I know.

So why is German chocolate cake called such? In the early 1850’s, an English-American chocolate mill worker named Samuel German invented a sweet chocolate baking bar for The Baker Chocolate Company in Dorchester, Massachusetts. Walter Baker, owner of Baker’s, bought the recipe from German for $1000, and the chocolate bar was named in honor of him: Baker’s German’s Sweet Chocolate.

At the time, Baker’s (which is also a misleading name, as “Baker” was the last name of the family, and was not chosen to mean that the chocolate was only for bakers) chocolate was exclusively used for baking. It was more bitter, whereas the German chocolate bar had a higher sugar content, and was marketed as “palatable” and “a great favorite with children,” implying that it was meant to be eaten on its own, much the way you would eat a Hershey’s bar now, instead of to be used in baked goods.

The Baker Chocolate Company continued to thrive over the next hundred years, which allowed for what we now know as German chocolate cake to be created. German chocolate cake, a multi-layered chocolate cake separated by a caramel-pecan-coconut filling, and sometimes topped with chocolate frosting, is often attributed to Mrs. George Clay, a homemaker in Dallas, and was first shared by The Dallas Morning News food editor Julie Benell in 1957. While this is the most-referenced origin of the recipe,  I’ve seen a reference to almost the exact same recipe over a year earlier in a May 1956 edition of The Irving News Record, printed in Irving, Texas. Curiously, the 1956 article states that “Daisy,” the food editor for The Irving News Record, actually got the recipe from her daughter, who was living in Oklahoma, and brought it back to Texas.

Whether we thank “Daisy” or Julie Benell for the recipe, we know that once it hit papers, it spread like wildfire across the United States. By 1958, General Foods, which now owned Baker’s chocolate, had decided to print the recipe in a recipe booklet. After this, the public’s interest was fully piqued, and Baker’s German chocolate sales increased by a whopping 73%.

It should also be noted that, by the earliest printings of this recipe in newspapers, the cake was already being called “German chocolate cake” instead of “German’s chocolate cake.” I’ve seen a lot of references to the fact that the name changed over the years, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. I have guesses as to why this is, the most probable being that home cooks, 100 years after Samuel German invented his chocolate bar, had no idea that the possessive German’s chocolate bar was created by a man named Samuel German. I would suppose that they assumed it was a German form of chocolate.

Hopefully this post will give Samuel German a bit of his due. To celebrate the day of his influence, I’ve made cupcakes, instead of the traditional 3-layered cake.

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German Chocolate Cupcakes
Makes 20-24 cupcakes.

Ingredients: 
For cupcakes:
1 1/2 cups flour
1 1/4 cups sugar
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup cocoa powder
1 tsp salt
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp baking powder
2 large eggs
1 egg white
1 tsp vanilla
1 cup buttermilk
1/3 cup vegetable oil
2 oz. Baker’s German chocolate, chopped
1/2 cup boiling hot coffee

For filling: I used 3/4 of the filling from Sally’s Baking Addiction.
6 tbsp unsalted butter
3/4 cup brown sugar, packed
2 large egg yolks
6 oz evaporated milk
3/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups sweetened shredded coconut
3/4 cup pecans, chopped

Optional:
Chocolate frosting (store-bought works fine, but you can also make your own)
Maraschino cherries

Ingredients: 

For cupcakes: In a large bowl, whisk together flour, sugar, brown sugar, cocoa powder, salt, baking soda, and baking powder.

In a medium bowl, mix well the eggs and egg white, vanilla, buttermilk, and vegetable oil.

Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients. Mix together until fully combined.

Chop chocolate and add to a bowl. Pour boiling coffee over the top. Quickly whisk until the chocolate has melted, then quickly whisk into the other ingredients.

Preheat oven to 350. While the oven is preheating, fill two cupcake tins with cupcake liners.

Fill each liner up halfway. Bake, and begin checking for doneness at 18 minutes.

Remove and allow to cool completely.

For topping and filling:

Add the butter, sugar, yolks, and evaporated milk in a saucepan.

Heat over medium heat, stirring occasionally.

Allow the mixture to come to a steady boil, then begin whisking constantly until the mixture thickens (about 4-5 minutes).

Remove from heat and stir in the vanilla, shredded coconut and chopped pecans. Allow to cool completely before filling cupcakes.

Scoop out the center of each cupcake, but not the entirety of the top.

Pipe a ring of chocolate frosting around the top of each cupcake, optional.

Fill each cupcake with the coconut/pecan mixture. Top each cupcake with a maraschino cherry, optional.

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Look, there are people who can do amazing things with cake. I’m not one of them. I kind of hate decorating cakes. Cupcakes, though, I can do! Plus, you get your own little maraschino cherry on top that you don’t have to share with anyone!

Thanks, Samuel German, for giving the world the essential ingredient for your namesake cake!

Orange Ginger Pecan Sticky Buns

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I don’t want to alarm anyone, but TOMORROW IS THANKSGIVING! Is it just an aging thing, where every year when another holiday season rolls around, you ask, “Where is time going?!” Must be.

Anyway, I absolutely love the holiday season. Our parents are dispersed, so we sort of occasionally pop in here and there, sometimes for the holidays, sometimes not, depending on our travel budgets and work commitments. We’d like to see them all more, but that’s how it is. (My God, we are getting older.) Anyway, that means that we generally do holidays here at home, or with friends in the city. This year, we’ll be here at home, which is great for extreme homebodies, such as ourselves. When we were putting our meal list together, we realized that all we really wanted was side dishes and pie. And what’s the other benefit to cooking a Thanksgiving meal just for ourselves? We get to serve only side dishes and pie.

This is also just a busier work time for both of us. I have a few projects to finish before Christmas and Alex is diligently working on the final stages of his dissertation, which has us both ripping our hair out. Anyway, while he’s working on that, I’ll be in the kitchen practicing my own form of Thanksgiving meditation, which is cooking while listening to Christmas records, then watching the Thanksgiving episodes of Bob’s Burgers. I’m hoping for a little snow, maybe. I missed Chicago’s first snow of the season because I was in Indiana–but I celebrated with the traditional first-snow meal of the Dakotas, ICYMI.

But, onto the reason we’re all here: The buns! Back when my family actually used to get together for holiday family dinners, everyone would bring a dish, or several, and we would feast and laugh. There was probably football on. One year, my mom decided to do a completely innocent thing and made some pecan sticky buns for dessert. Then they were so good that the world collapsed, and everyone lost their mind and demanded that she make them again for every single family dinner after that. True story.

Our family doesn’t really do holiday dinners anymore, at least not the giant ones that we used to, so it’s been actual years since I’ve had my mom’s pecan rolls. But when I was visiting her last week, we got to talking about them.

I had some wild ideas about doing the recipe a little differently. I’m always trying to change things up a bit on here. I’ve found that updating classics is a great way to learn about and honor the past, but also evolve with times. However, I would feel awful doing a twist on such a fantastic original, if my mom wasn’t all for it. I mean, I know we’re just talking pecan buns here, but they are my mom’s pecan buns. Instead, she gave me her blessing. “You should do it,” she said when I told her my idea. “It sounds delicious.” (Moms have such a wonderful, unique way of making you feel like every idea you have, big or small, is great and completely in the realm of possibility. I’m pretty sure if I said, “Hey mom, I think I’m also going to run for president,” she’d say something like, “You’d be so good at that! We should go get an outfit for your first press conference.”) Luckily for me, this updated version turned turned out just the way I imagined they would.

You start with a pretty basic sweet dough recipe, then you punch it up with some bright orange and spicy ginger. It will fill your house with all the right smells.

Orange Ginger Pecan Sticky Buns

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Orange Ginger Pecan Sticky Buns
Makes 8-12 buns

Ingredients:
Sweet rolls:
1 1/8 tsp active dry yeast
1/4 cup warm water
1/4 lukewarm milk
1 egg
2 tbsp butter, extremely soft
6 tbsp sugar
1/2 tsp salt
1 1/4 – 2 cups all-purpose flour

Orange caramel pecan sauce:
5 tbsp unsalted butter
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup pecan halves
1 tsp vanilla extract
4 tsp orange juice

Filling:
2 tbsp unsalted butter, melted
1/4 cup sugar
1 1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground ginger
1 tbsp orange zest
1 1/2 tsp grated fresh ginger

Instructions:

Whisk together the warm water and yeast in a large bowl. Allow to sit for about five minutes.

Oil a large bowl.

Add the milk, egg, butter, sugar, salt, and 1 cup of the flour. Mix well. Continue adding enough flour to make the mixture easy to handle, up to 2 cups total.

Place the mixture onto a well-floured surface and knead until the dough is smooth and no longer sticks, adding flour as needed, about five minutes.

Once the dough is elastic, place in the oiled bowl, and turn over to cover the entire surface of the dough with oil. Cover the bowl with a dishtowel and allow to rise in a warm place for about 1 1/2 hours.

While the dough is rising, create the orange caramel pecan sauce. In a saucepan, add the butter and heat until just melted (or continue to heat until browned). Remove from heat and mix in the brown sugar until dissolved. Add the pecans, vanilla extract, and orange juice. Pour the sauce into the bottom of an 8- or 9-inch pie or cake pan that is at least two inches tall.

For the filling, melt the two tablespoons of butter in a small bowl; set aside. In another small bowl, thoroughly combine the sugar, cinnamon, orange zest, and the grated ginger.

After it’s risen, punch the dough down and pour out onto a lightly floured surface. Roll the dough out into a 13″ x 9″ rectangle.

Brush the two tablespoons of melted butter over the entire surface of the dough. Then coat the top of the dough with the orange-ginger mixture.

Roll the long side of the dough up tightly into a roll. Use a knife or unflavored floss to cut the uneven ends off. Then continue cutting 8-12 rolls, about 1 1/2 inches thick, out of the dough.

Place the rolls swirl side down into the orange caramel pecan sauce in the pan.

Cover and allow to rise for about 45 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

Bake for about 20-25 minutes, until golden brown.

Remove from oven. Immediately place a dish over the top of the pan and quickly invert, allowing the orange caramel pecan sauce to drizzle over the top.

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Gosh, they’re good. Something about the orange and ginger cuts right through all the sweetness and balances everything out. Don’t like pecans? Don’t add them. (Although they do toast up a bit at the bottom of the pan, essentially becoming sweet, crispy bites of heaven.) These are a great dessert for your Thanksgiving dinner and, honestly, a really solid day-after Thanksgiving breakfast option. Even reheated these babies are top-notch.

This Thanksgiving day, and every day, I’m thankful for my family (especially you, mom!), my friends, and the fact that you all show up and I get to share these recipes with you all. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

Hummingbird Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting

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It’s summer now. As often as I can, I’m refusing to turn on my oven, which means we’re over here surviving entirely on pasta salad, BLTs, and whatever we can grill. So it’s not all bad. But we had a bit of a chilly spell (you know, low 60s), so I took the opportunity to make a cake that’s been on my mind: Hummingbird Cake.

On a personal note, this should not be a cake that’s been on my mind. I’m not a big fan of fruits and nuts in my cakes. But when I started doing the research for this post, I couldn’t get it out of my head. I became obsessed. I think I even had a dream about it! Plus, I love its name–even though, it turns out, Hummingbird Cake was not always its name.

In the United States, Hummingbird Cake is known as a Southern specialty, but it actually has its origins in Jamaica. The cake, made with both bananas and pineapple, was named after Jamaica’s national bird, the swallow-tail hummingbird. In Jamaica, though, it was known as Doctor Bird Cake, doctor bird being a nickname of the hummingbird.

In the 70’s, in an attempt to boost tourism to the island, media press kits containing Jamaican recipes, including Doctor Bird Cake, were sent to the United States. The earliest recipe for Doctor Bird Cake that I could find in U.S. newspapers was from February 26, 1972, in the Mexico Ledger of Mexico, Missouri, where the recipe is exactly the same as the one I made (but using only white sugar), with the exception of being cooked in a tube pan, apparently served without frosting.

By 1974, the same recipe was published in the The Brazosport Facts, a newspaper printed in Freeport, Texas, under the new name Hummingbird Cake. In 1975, there is another recipe for the cake, this time from Weimar, Texas, which is still cooked in a tube pan, but this time, with the addition of a cream cheese frosting.

In 1978, Southern Living Magazine published the recipe for Hummingbird Cake, attributing the recipe to an L.H. Wiggins of Greensboro, North Carolina. It was an instant hit. In 1990, it was voted Southern Living’s favorite recipe and at that time was their most-requested recipe ever.

This cake seems like a perfect way to kick off summer. Stuffed with banana and pineapple (seriously, there is the same amount of fruit as flour), it seems tropical and sunny. And, though summer in Chicago is nice, we could always still use some tropical and sunny vibes.

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Hummingbird Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting
Very slight variation of Southern Living’s recipe. Makes an 8 x 2-inch, three-layer cake.

Ingredients:
For the cake:
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup sugar
1 cup brown sugar
1 tsp salt
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp cinnamon
3 eggs
1 1/2 cups vegetable oil
2 tsp vanilla extract
2 cups banana, diced (not mashed)
1 cup crushed pineapple, in juice
1 cup pecans, chopped

For the frosting:
16 oz cream cheese, softened
3/4 cup unsalted butter, softened
2 tsp vanilla extract
3 cups powdered sugar
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 cup pecan halves, optional

Instructions:

For the cake:
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

In a large bowl, combine the flour, sugar, brown sugar, salt, baking soda, and cinnamon.

Add the eggs, oil, and vanilla to the dry mixture. Stir with a wooden spoon or spatula just until the wet and dry ingredients have been incorporated. (The mixture will seem quite thick at this point.)

Add the pineapple, banana, and pecans to the mixture and incorporate thoroughly.

Divide the mixture equally between three 8″ x 2″ round pans (you could also use 9″ x 1/2″).

Bake for 23-28 minutes. Begin checking for doneness at the 22-minute mark. Cake is done when a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Do not over-bake. The cake should be quite moist.

Allow to cool for at least an hour and a half.

For the frosting:
Combine the cream cheese, butter, and vanilla in a mixing bowl and beat with a hand mixer until combined.

Add the powdered sugar and salt and continue to mix until combined.

Frost as desired and decorate the top of the frosted cake with pecan halves.

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I’ve never thought of myself as a huge banana fan. Don’t get me wrong, I always thought they were fine, but it wasn’t until a month or two ago, when I made my friend Kaye’s grandma’s banana pudding recipe and then ate, you know, ALL OF IT, that I was like, “Wait, am I a banana-eater now?” I still don’t just want to hang out and eat a banana, but do I want them in my desserts? Hell yes I do! The pineapple seems to brighten up the flavor of the banana, which I usually find a bit heavy. And the banana tones down the pineapple, which can really enter a room and take over the conversation. Plus, there are nuts in it! I believed until this point that I was strictly a no-nuts dessert type of gal, but my sensibilities are being tested all over the place with this recipe. It’s so good.

And, it couldn’t be easier! Everything comes together quickly and no stand or hand mixer is required or even recommended. The most handsome cake, it is not. But if you’re looking for a tasty and impressive dessert for a group (seriously, though, this is a hefty cake that could feed a crowd), this is the cake you’ve been looking for.