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!

Bake Club: Grandma’s Squares

Last week I told you about the recipe my aunty gave me. The date square that my grandma used to make. I made it Saturday and it tastes EXACTLY like I remember it. which is a giant relief. It is so disappointing when things from your childhood aren’t like you remember. I tried the square at room temperature and honestly, I prefer them frozen, so I cut them into small pieces and stuffed them into my full and nearly bursting freezer.

The first thing I did was preheat my oven to 350F and chop a pound of dates.

I pulled out the vintage Pyrex bowls from my parent’s wedding gift stash and I creamed together 1 cup of granulated white sugar and 3 tbsp of salted butter. I did this by hand because I remember my grandma doing it that way. I added 3 egg yolks one at a time, beating in between the addition of each yolk.

I added the pound of chopped dates and 1 cup of chopped pecans. Stirring this was hard. I remember Grandma’s hands shaking and thinking she was weak. Sorry Gran, I take that back. It was hard.

I sifted together 1 cup of unbleached AP flour, 1 tsp of baking powder, and 1/4 tsp of salt. I then added it to the mix and stirred it up.

Then I whipped up the egg whites and vanilla until it reached ‘stiff peak’ stage.

I tried to be gentle when folding them in, but honestly, it was hard, so they were forced into the mix. Do what you can, I won’t judge.

It said to pour into a shallow greased pan. It didn’t say what size, but I found a 9 x 13 was the perfect size. I used the back of a measuring cup to smash it down, it wasn’t pourable or spreadable.

I baked it for 25 minutes and it turned out perfectly. The instructions say and I quote “DO NOT OVER BAKE” So I didn’t.

At this point you could cut it up, sprinkling icing sugar over it or leave as is because of the dates, it is very sweet. But not my grandma…. she would make pink buttercream frosting. I think it was intended to be red for Christmas and it would end up being hot pink. I am not okay with food dye but I made an exception this time. Only I made a soft pink frosting by creaming together 1/2 cup of salted butter, 2 cups of icing sugar and 3 tsp of cream.

I am surprised I loved these as a kid with all the dates and nuts. But the hook for me was the frosting. I love the stuff. In hindsight, it kind of tasted like butter tarts, Canada’s favourite sweet. I followed the recipe the way I remember helping Grandma do it. Right down to the beater. I didn’t offer it up to anyone because it was my job to lick it clean.

I did it right Grandma! It tasted they way it was supposed to – better frozen and I did my job. Love you and miss you. Thanks for the squares.

Vintage Recipes

June 1917 Good Housekeeping Magazine Cover

I am OBSESSED with vintage cookbooks and recipes. YouTube has a great selection of cooks trying out these recipes. My favourite part is the lack of direction. There is an assumption of the recipe that you know your way around the kitchen so you don’t need to be insulted by overly complicated directions. I find it hilarious when the host is making something and says ‘huh…I guess we are making the cheese!’ Then they proceed to make cheese from scratch because the recipe called for it.

My favourite recipes are from an era that I think my grandmothers may have tried. Somewhere around 1940 – 1949 because it predates Crisco salads or soup casseroles and the focus is on baking. There is a great selection of cookbooks from communities and flour companies in Canada, more specifically, Five Roses Flour and Robin Hood Flour. I remember my grandma looking at the Robin Hood cookbook, pulling a chair to the counter for me to stand on so I could ‘help’. My job consisted of dumping pre-measured ingredients into the mixing bowl and being the official taster. I am sure this is how I became a baker with my mom, grandmas and aunties letting me help. I did the same with my kids, nieces and nephews. Even now, my son needs to be the official batter taster and beater licker, he is 24.

Last night while I was watching the Eco Challenge, I was reminded of a square my grandmother used to make. <the name of this recipe is inherently racist, so I don’t want to use it, and I am changing the name to Grandma’s squares for my family’s reference but will footnote the history> I messaged my aunties and one looked in her Watkins 1943 cookbook – nope. My other aunty had it in her recipe collection because she still makes it. SCORE! I used to sneak into the freezer and steal a square. I thought they were best frozen. Grandma always frosted them with a bright pink buttercream.

I did a little research and discovered the recipe origin is from 1917 Good Housekeeping. < CT warning: If you click on the link to get the recipe, you will see the racial slur.> My Grandmother wasn’t born yet but her mother would have been 28. Conceivably, that is how my grandmother came by the recipe or it could have been reprinted in a later version of Good Housekeeping or in a Catholic Women’s League cookbook. I am very happy to have this in my family recipe collection.

I started a recipe book this summer. It is a collection of family favourite recipes that I make. The intent is to not lose recipes the our family loves and a reference for my kids for when they have their own families or even just want to make comfort food for themselves. When I began this project, my son loved the idea and gave me a list of recipes that are his favourite. Honestly, I didn’t even consider adding some of the food he wanted. His list included pizza crust, Yorkshire pudding, chocolate chip cookies and the rolls I make at Christmas. These are recipes that I make without thinking and it didn’t occur to me I needed to add them. The hubs sourced his mom’s infamous pickled onion recipe we both thought needed to be written down. My mom makes the best scrambled eggs that my daughter can recreate, her brother wanted that recipe. We need to get her oatmeal cookie, magic bar and leftover turkey casserole recipes too. I am also collecting recipes from my grandmothers that I loved like Lassie Coos – the family name for soft sparkly ginger cookies or GP’s turkey soup. Thinking about future generations trying these recipes and reading them in my handwriting is an important part of this. As I think of a recipe to include, I add it to the index with page number. I find myself flipping through this book because everything is in one place rather that the copious amount of cook books or random slips of paper I have.

I am sure as time moves forward I will remember other recipes I need to add, like mom’s turkey gravy, her baked ham and her sister’s scalloped potatoes. I like to think of this as the never completed family recipe book. I have to say, this has been one of the more meaningful projects I have worked on during the pandemic. What are some of you family favourites? Maybe you should send them to me so I can try them out here and share them with this community. I think this weekend I am giving Grandma’s Squares a bake – I will report back to see if they are as good as I remember.