Bake Club: Gram’s Butter Tarts

There is nothing more polarizing to Canadians – hockey withstanding – than butter tarts. The debate is endless. Do you prefer runny or firm? Nuts or raisins? Frozen or room temperature? I could go on. I think the defining recipe is dependent on the one you grew up with. I made the mistake of not asking for my grandma’s recipes while she was alive. Thankfully my Aunty had the good sense to not only ask, but write them down. She has been my baking angel this fall with family favourite baking dishes. Her recipes come with “Mom Tip” sections and “Memory” sections. I need to do this. I talked before about hand writing recipes and writing the origin, but the mom tip and memory sections add another layer to the specialness of the recipe.

My dad will reminisce about his mom’s butter tarts and the importance of drippy raisin filled tarts. Every recipe I have tried all tasted fine, but they never were the same from childhood. I heard my Aunty and her family reserve November 11th as official Butter Tart Day. They all get together and make eight dozen tarts. Then divvy them up. I love this idea. So I wrote to her and asked for the recipe. I think the reason I have never found a recipe similar is because there are secret ingredients and methods no professional chef has ever written down. This recipe has honey instead of cornsyrup. It cooks the filling before baking AND it has a pastry recipe I have never experienced before. My grandma always made great pie crust but this recipe goes against everything all pie experts ever taught me. It was the most flavourful and flakiest crust ever.

This recipe needed common knowledge by baking it with someone in the know. The pie dough said it made 8 dozen, I got four dozen. Clearly I didn’t roll the dough thin enough, and honestly, I don’t think I will next time either. I loved the thick flaky crust. I also recommend a circle cutter. I don’t own one. I used a flower cutter and it makes pretty fluted edges but the tart overflows into the divots and the results aren’t pretty. I am sharing this because my grandmas made the best butter tarts ever. Every November 11 my grandma and her mom would bake these with my two aunties. I suspect this recipe was originally my great gram’s, but who knows? I think it is important to share vintage recipes and origin stories.

Pastry

Do NOT substitute any ingredients and be sure to measure carefully!! (These are the instructions – first of all I never heard of baking powder in pie dough and I never have used lard, nor have I added brown sugar. I assure you, this makes the easiest, most flaky and delicious piecrust ever. Suck it Erin McDowell, my gran knew what she was doing!)

5 cups flour

1 tsp salt

1 tsp baking powder

3 tbsp brown sugar

1 lb. (2 1/3 cups) lard (Mom uses Tenderflake)

2 tbsp white vinegar

2/3 cup water

1 egg

Mix flour, baking powder, salt, and sugar in a large bowl.  Blend the flour mixture and the lard with a pastry blade until it is equally fine and feels silky.  Make a well in the centre.  In a separate bowl or large measuring cup add the vinegar to the water and beat in the egg with the hand mixer.  Pour this mixture into the well in the dry ingredients.  Mix well and form into a large ball.  This will keep for a week or two in the fridge.

Roll on a lightly floured counter from centre out.  Do not roll back and forth or turn over the dough – this will make your pastry tough.

Will make 6 double pie crusts. Double recipe makes 8 – 81/2 doz. tarts. (Edmonton Tourist Tips: ummm I only made 4 dozen. I ran to the store to buy another pound of lard. I have a quart of filling left so I wanted to use it up. Roll thin to get 8 dozen – or don’t. I am not mad at the thick pie crust. Cut with a sharp circle cutter (Aunty uses 3 7/8 or 98 mm diameter cutter). Flute the shells into the tart pans. Also – this is good snacking dough for those who are inclined to snack on raw dough. I chilled the dough for 30 minutes – I recommend this to give structure and hydrate the flour. This is the easiest and most forgiving dough I have ever made!)

Butter Tart Filling

1 cup raisins (I use Sultanas)

1 kg and 1 cup brown sugar ( I nearly died when I saw this amount but it makes 96 tarts – that made sense while I filling endless tart shells.)

6 tbsp honey (liquid)

2 cups butter (maybe a bit more)

6 eggs (room temperature)

3 tsp vanilla

Put cleaned (check for and remove any stems) raisins into mixing bowl and cover with HOT water. Let soak for a half an hour. In a heavy saucepan , over LOW melt butter and add honey and vanilla. Beat the eggs with hand mixer and add slowly while stirring constantly (you don’t want the egg to cook into little pieces!) – I use my hand blender in the mixture while adding the eggs. Stir regularly until mixture becomes like syrup. Add raisins. (Edmonton Tourist Tip: Don’t add raisins to the liquid – add to unfilled tart shells. They become evenly distributed that way – Or nuts. I made three different tarts, raisin, pecan and plain. I like them all but my kids and definite preferences. The beaters were the secret tip – use them if you have them!)

The mixture should have a butterscotch syrup consistency. Keep warm at on medium low stirring regularly. Half fill with raisin mixture (it will boil up and over the edges if you fill them too full – then they will stick to the pans and you won’t be able to get them out). Edmonton Tourist Tip: Fact! I have non-stick tins that are the best I have ever had. Mine all boiled over so I was fussing with my offset spatula to scrape the syrup away to free the tarts. It also makes them ugleeeeeeey)

These are my Aunty’s – her’s are prettier.

Edmonton Tourist Tip: Do not have holes in your tarts and be carful when cooling. If these suckers spring a leak you will have syrup all over the place. When that happened, sprinkle with pastry crumbs or flour to absorb the stickiness and the use your bench scrapper to remove from the counter.

Verdict? Dad said they were the best. I could give him a shoe to eat and he would tell me it was the best. My dad is the best. But…. It did conjure up childhood memories for him and honestly that was the purpose. That is the number one reason to make these…. and also because they are the best.

Thanks Aunty! I love you to pieces!

Stay healthy friends!

Frozen

Apparently, I am not the only person in the world who loved to eat their Christmas baking directly from the freezer.  I wrote about eating my shortbread that way and I received so many emails and messages telling me I wasn’t alone. I guess its a thing, here in Canada anyway. 

One gal told me how her mom kept all their Christmas baking in a box on the porch. That’s the thing about Canada, you don’t have a shortage of freezer space at Christmas time. My family has stored food in the trunk of the car, in a cooler on the deck, in the unheated garage and believe it or not, an actual freezer. 

When my dad and his four siblings lived on Evergreen Street, there was a bedroom in the basement. My dad shared it with his brother and when they moved out, my two aunts moved into that room. I remember that room because I had sleep-overs in there. Outside that room was a 1960’s style rec room complete with bar stools and a pool table. Behind the bar area by the stairs was a storage room with a freezer. This was easily accessible to the bedroom. Midnight trips to the freezer we common because that is where grandma stored her baking.

Fast forward to my childhood.

My brother and I lived in our basement on Georgian Way. We had a 1970’s style ‘rumpus room’. It was aptly named because a lot of rumpusing occurred in that room. We watched cable tv, played intelevision and atari, build forts and goofed around on the piano. We didn’t have a bar but we did have a  fireplace. I never remember sitting on the sofa to watch tv, we would stack cushions on the floor so we could recline and snuggle under blankets as we watched Six Million Dollar Man and the Bionic Women, or Charlies Angels and sneak in a little Soap after everyone went to bed. It was as if we had our own apartment with mom, dad and our sister living upstairs. 

At Christmas time our freezer would be stocked with Christmas baking for parties. Dad would often have his fellow teachers over for a Christmas party, we would invite Santa over for a family party and we always had Christmas brunch where everyone we knew would come for breakfast. After all the savoury food was consumed the baking would come ut on three-tiered cake plates for dessert service.  Provided my brother and I had left any in the freezer.

Here’s the thing. Imagine a gripping game of Frogger, Donkey Kong or Galactica late on a Friday night when suddenly you are hungry. The ‘hangry’ kind of hunger that needs to be satisfied so you can beat your little weasel of a brother who will cheat as soon as the opportunity arises. Anger bubbles up with such intensity that food is the only thing that will sooth that beast. Its a thing, the Snicker’s commercial proves it. 

Luckily, the deep freezer chest was located in the next room beside the laundry. It was deep. When we were small I would hold my brother’s legs so he could reach the bottom. As we grew taller, I could bend at the waist with my feet dangling so I could reach those Tupperware containers that were located on the bottom, hidden under roasts and loaves of bread in an effort to conceal the baking intended for guests. 

Sucka….

I could always find the Butter Tart or Shortbread. 

The secret to not getting in trouble immediately was to leave evidence that made the containers appear full.  For example, the layers of wax paper that separated the cookies were never removed. That way when you opened the container to take a peek, it appeared as if the cookies were still on the bottom. With the butter tarts it was even easier, leave the foil tins in the container and none would be the wiser…until it was party day. 

Mom would ask dad to bring the containers upstairs to the kitchen. He would leave stacks of containers on the counter. Mom had been busy all fall building up the reserves.  Anything with coconut or cherries would still be there because … ew. The butter tarts and cookies were not. just empty packages.  This is when mom would 

lose

her 

mind.

My brother and I were always accused of the crime. He would deny it and she would believe him. I got the blame. To be fair, I was the mastermind behind the cookie caper, and likely did eat the majority of the baking but he often got away with things because he was an expert level liar.  As soon as his back was turned and mom couldn’t see him, he would smile at me and stick his tongue out. A sure sign that he was lying to her and mocking me at the same time. 

Until recently I assumed everyone ate butter tarts and no one ate frozen baking. I had no idea butter tarts were a Canadian thing. I did a little research on the confection and some regions put milk or cream in the recipe. All I can say is you are wrong. That is not the way to make them. My dad says a good butter tart must drip on your chin while eating it. I agree. That is the way to do it. I feel so strongly about this, I will share with you my family recipe. Do not put the following in your recipe and say it came from me. These ingredients are WRONG and belong in some other recipe I do not have to eat.

  1. Coconut – just don’t
  2. Raisins – my daughter says it’s like eating old people, save a senior and keep raisins out.
  3. Currents/cranberries/fruit in general
  4. Nuts – especially walnuts. WRONG

Butter Tarts are syrupy and gooey. The better the pastry the better the tart. Here you go:

Butter Tarts

Pastry

  • 1 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
  •  1/4 teaspoon salt
  •  1/2 cup cold butter cubed
  •  egg yolk
  •  1 teaspoon vinegar
  •  ice water

In a large bowl, whisk flour with salt. With pastry blender or your fingers, cut in butter until mixture resembles coarse crumbs with a few larger pieces. 

In a separate bowl – I use my pyrex measuring cup  – whisk egg yolk with vinegar; add enough ice water to make 1/3 cup (75 mL). Sprinkle over flour mixture, stirring briskly with a fork until pastry holds together. Press into disc; wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate until chilled, about 1 hour.  Remove from fridge and let it come to room temperature. Roll very thin, like 1/8″  – this prevents pastry folds in your in and you can get more filling in the tart – and cut with a 4″ glass, can or cookie cutter. My grandma used an empty tomato tin, I have a cookie cutter. $1.25 and lasts forever. This makes 12, place in a muffin tin or tart tin. 

Filling

  • 1/2 cup packed brown sugar
  •  1/2 cup corn syrup
  •  egg
  •  2 tablespoons butter softened
  •  1 teaspoon vanilla
  •  1 teaspoon vinegar
  •  1 pinch salt
  •  1/4 cup currants
  •  1/4 cup raisin
  •  1/4 cup chopped pecans
  •  1/4 cup shredded coconut

In a bowl, whisk together brown sugar, corn syrup, egg, butter, vanilla, vinegar and salt until blended. Pour the filling into a measuring cup with a spout or scoop with an ice cream scoop into the tart shells. Back at 450F for about 12 minutes. I always place my tarts on a cookie sheet that has been pre-heating in the oven. This ensures the pastry is fully cooked on the bottom because no one wants to eat raw pastry dough, ask Mary Berry or Martha Stewart.  

Send one to my dad and you can eat the rest. I recommend freezing them because they will taste like my childhood. Or eat them they way my kids do, straight from the oven because it tastes like their childhood.