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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Spicy Hermit Cookie Bars

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How is everyone settling into 2018? The beginning of the year is hectic, but every year I forget that because of the lazy dream that is the end of December. For some, the holidays are chaotic, but for me, they’re slow. The end of my year, every year, is just eating, drinking, and going to Christmas parties, where you bring gifts of wine that you bought based solely on how much you like the label. But then January shows up and all the holiday decorations come down, everyone is eating Whole30, it’s freezing, and I’m expected to go outside? Of my house?!

The only good thing about January is that I switch from holiday movies back onto my regularly scheduled program of foreign ghost movies. (We watched a really terrifying Iranian one on Netflix the other day called Under the Shadow. Whoa.) I only recognize two seasons: Christmas and Halloween.

But let’s get to the matter at hand here: Cookies. My favorite cookie (excluding my Christmas go-to, the Chocolate Crinkle) is oatmeal raisin. Some might say I have bad taste in cookies. Some might even say that the humble oatmeal raisin is barely a cookie. But I won’t die on this hill–I’m not even a huge fan of cookies in general. Cake? Pie? Yes. Cookies… eh, sometimes. I know this might be dangerous to admit online, for the whole world to see. I have the same fear when I tell people I don’t really like wine (except for the labels). People stare at me like I’ve never even seen those “Rosé All Day” t-shirts.

I tried a new kind of cookie this week that might seem old-fashioned, too savory, and to have too many raisins. But it’s a winner. The Spicy Hermit cookie.

Very similar to a chewy gingerbread, recipes for the spicy hermit cookie was first printed as far back as the 1870’s, showing up in Midwestern newspapers. The earliest mentions of the cookie in the Northeast show up around 1896 in Buffalo, New York. Even though the recipe made it into Midwestern newspapers first, this particular recipe likely has its origins with the English-Scottish colonists in New England, as it is very similar to English plumb cakes and gingerbread recipes from Medieval times, which use molasses as an ingredient (instead of honey, a traditional ingredient in German gingerbread).

Where the name of the cookie comes from is also a mystery. It may have been chosen to describe the cookie’s lumpy, brown appearance, like a hermit’s robe. Another possibility for the name comes from the idea that these cookies would keep longer than others, because of their high fat and sugar content, and could be stored away, like hermits. In some recipes, the cookies are referred to as Harwich Hermits, which suggests they may have been created, or at least popularized, in Harwich, Massachusetts. In the cookbook, 250 Treasured Country Desserts, it’s said that because of their ability to keep for long periods, sailors on the New England coast would take the cookies out to sea with them.

There are thousands of recipes for hermit cookies. Sometimes they’re soft, sometimes they’re crisp. Sometimes they are made as a drop cookie (in the 50’s and 60’s they seemed to be a popular addition to children’s packed lunches), and sometimes as a bar. For this post, I made them into bars, because why should round cookies get to have all the fun? And also, it was a test to see if I like cookies better if they’re in bar form. Spoiler: I do.

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Spicy Hermit Cookie Bars
Makes approximately 16 bars. This recipe is a variation of Ina Garten’s, changing the ingredients slightly, and using this article about the science of cookies to tweak the recipe for a more cake-like bar.

Ingredients:
1 stick unsalted butter, melted and browned
1/4 cup dark molasses
2/3 cup golden raisins, minced
1/2 tsp orange zest
1 tsp vanilla
1 large egg, plus 1 large egg white
1 cup dark brown sugar, packed
2 cups, plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
2 teaspoons ground ginger
1 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoons ground cloves
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
For glaze:
1/2 cup confectioner’s sugar
3-4 tbsp heavy cream

Instructions:

In a large bowl, sift together the flour, baking soda, ginger, cinnamon, ground cloves, ground nutmeg, and salt.

In a pan, melt the butter until it begins to brown, about 10 minutes. You will know it’s done when it begins to smell nutty, and stops popping. Allow to cool.

In a bowl, combine the egg and egg white. Beat briefly until scrambled. Add in half of the brown sugar mixture and beat until smooth. Add the remaining brown sugar and beat until smooth and light brown in appearance. Stir in the molasses.

Pour the browned butter into the flour mixture and stir to combine. Next add the egg and molasses mixture, and the raisins and orange zest. Stir until combined. The mixture will be quite craggy and sticky. Cover with plastic wrap and allow to chill in the fridge for at least 1 hour, but overnight is best.

When ready to bake, preheat oven to 375 degrees. Line two small, or one large, cookie sheets with parchment paper.

Pour the dough out onto a floured surface. Shape into a disc, cut it in half, and roll each half into a log about one foot in length.

Place each log on the cookie sheet, at least three inches apart.

Bake at 375 degrees for about 18-20 minutes, turning the pan about halfway through.

Remove from oven and allow to cool while you make the glaze. To make glaze, stir together the confectioner’s sugar and the heavy cream until smooth. Drizzle the mixture back and forth over the still-warm bars.

Allow to cool completely, cut into 1 1/2-inch bars, and enjoy!

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A soft and chewy cookie bar, spiced with ginger, clove and nutmeg, rich with molasses–and of course, studded with raisins–is my kind of cookie. You might like it too, even if you prefer to drink your grapes instead of bake with them.