Monday, September 20, 2010

Have I Found The Winningest Butter Tart? Why, Yes I Have!

Ask anyone and they will tell you that the quintessential Canadian treat is the butter tart. In fact, it is likely a question on the test for Canadian citizenship.

But this icon is not without controversy. What is definitely up for debate is whether the purest form of the butter tart is allowed to have raisins or nuts. Some even question whether it is allowed to be runny. For me, my only restriction is the inclusion of butter.

From a historical perspective, we are closing in on the 'centennial tart'. One of the earliest known recipes for the Canadian butter tart dates back to 1915 and was from Northern Ontario.

After reading a blog entry called The best butter tart in cottage country from Cottage Life Magazine's food editor's blog The Feast, I was left wondering why one would stop at just looking for the best butter tart in such a limited geographical area. The search for the best butter tart seems to be such a Canadian pass time. I thought consideration should be given to at least cast the net as far as the entire province since some think that the butter tart is really just an Ontario thing. At the very least, that breadth of scope would then include me in the running for best butter tart. On the post that day I left my smug comment, "If there is going to be some sort of butter tart smackdown, I want to be in it. I think I might make the BEST butter tarts. I have a secret ingredient." A lot of bluster I guess but it bothered me that if I was ever called upon, I may not be ready enough to win.

And so it was this pre-occupation to own the title of best butter tart that moved me to the test kitchen these past few days to finally put the quest to rest. I have been hanging on to two Ottawa Citizen articles on butter tarts since 2005. One from November 16, 2005 and the second from a short while later. From these articles I used the filling recipes of Grahame's Bakery in Kemptville, and George Jackson and Kim Stringer, both from Ottawa. I also made a 4th filling following Madame Benoît's classic butter tart recipe. Can you get more Canadian than that?

One thing I am totally comfortable with is my pie crust. I used my own recipe for all 4 batches of tarts. What I did vary was the baking time and temperature. For that I tended to stay true to the filling's recipe. As not to get too overloaded with tarts in the house, I made only 4 of each kind. Judging took place by me and the mister and involved taking a reasonable taste of each tart.


The filling of Grahame's Bakery was baked at 375ºF for 20 minutes. I placed this tart #1 and the mister ranked it #3.


George Jackson's filling was baked at 450ºF for 10 minutes and 350ºF for 6 minutes. I placed this tart #2 and the mister ranked it #1.


Kim Springer's filling was baked at 375ºF for 17 minutes. I placed this tart #3 and the mister ranked it #4.


Madame Benoît's filling was baked at 450ºF for 10 minutes and 350ºF for 6 minutes. I placed this tart #4 and the mister ranked it #2.


The reality was that all tarts were quite good and it does come down to preference of sweetness and viscosity. What we both agreed on was that the tarts baked at the higher temperature to start, made for a nicer pastry finish.

Still feeling there was room for improvement, I continued on in the test kitchen for a second day. I HAD to. There was so much filling left over from the first 4 recipes. I decided to combine all the fillings into a kind of "mutt" filling, never to be duplicated again. Having learned a few things from the 4 recipes on day one, I came up with my own recipe formulation. A formulation in the end that proved to be the winningest butter tart.


The reformulated filling was baked at 450ºF for 9 minutes and 350ºF for 5 minutes. I placed this tart as the new #1.


The "mutt" filling was baked at 450ºF for 9 minutes and 350ºF for 5 minutes. I placed this tart as the new #2.


We both considered the two butter tart fillings from day 2 to be ahead of the the recipes from day 1. At this point though we were splitting hairs. Any true butter tart aficionado would throw lots of coin down on the the counter unconditionally for any of the 6 tarts baked in the test kitchen. I was lucky to have started with some top recipes, as it made the effort of reformulation a breeze. And maybe the task wasn't really that hard since the ingredient list is so classic and so short.

So here it is, the winningest butter tart. If you give it a try, let me know how it went.

World's Best Butter Tarts By One of Ottawa's Real Foodies

2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup water
3/4 cup Tenderflake lard

Measure the flour and salt and mix together. Measure out 1/3 cup of this mixture into a small bowl. Add 1/4 cup of water and stir to make a smooth paste. Cut the lard into the pastry until the lard is pea size. Add the paste to the flour mixture and gently bring the ingredients together. Try not to overwork as the heat from your hands can over mix the lard into the flour. The small peas of lard help to make the dough so flaky. Wrap the dough and put it into the fridge to chill for 30 minutes.

To make tarts, roll out 1/2 the dough and cut circles using a yogurt container. This is a little over 4" wide but works well for a standard 2 3/4" muffin tin. You should be able to get 4 circles from this first dough. Once in the pan, prick the bottom and sides of the shell with a fork. Repeat with the other 1/2 of the dough.

1/3 cup softened butter
1/2 cup brown sugar, packed
1/2 cup pure Canadian maple syrup
2 tablespoons half and half cream
1 egg
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/4 teaspoon salt
10 raisins per tart

Work the butter and brown sugar together. Beat in syrup, then the cream, then the egg, vanilla and salt.

Put the raisins in each tart before adding the filling. Fill 2/3 or 3/4 full.

Bake at 450ºF for 9 minutes. Turn down the temperature to 350ºF and bake for another 5 minutes.

Bake at 450ºF for 9 minutes. Turn down the temperature to 350ºF and bake for another 5 minutes.

UPDATE: Fast forward to May 2011 and I have made a few more changes to the Four Biter World Famous Butter Tart.


  1. Hello fellow Butter Tart Fan: Sadly I missed the Cottage Country article. I wouldn't have enjoyed the read.

    My favourite recipe for butter tarts dates back to my Great-Grandmother which was also used by my Grandmother and Mum.

    Prize Butter Tarts - A Guide to Good Cooking with Five Roses Flour (1938 & 1959).

    1/3 c. butter
    1 cup sifted brown sugar
    2 tbsp. milk or cream
    1/2 cup currants
    1 egg, beaten
    1 tsp vanilla

    Hot oven at 450F for 8-9 minutes. Reduce temperature to 350F and bake until golden brown.

    Not too gooey with a little firmness. I use the Tenderflake Pastry recipe.

    The type of tart pan used is important. I have very old heavy metal tart shell pans from the 1920s and 1930s. They withstand the high temperatures and ensure that the crust is tender and flaky.

    I'm making Butter Tarts for the long-weekend. I will be trying your recipe.

    Many thanks, Kathleen

  2. Thanks for visiting the blog Kathleen! What a great piece of history. I am blown away at how very similar my recipe is to your prized favourite. Clearly my lab work brought me to a similar place. I am curious to hear how you will enjoy the maple syrup in the recipe for part of the 'sweet'. I haven't tried the Tenderflake recipe. Will be looking that one up. I was surprised at the number of recipes I have seen that do not first start at a high temperature. I think it is paramount for the pastry to have a flaky result. Are you wedded to currants personally or would you consider raisins instead? I add walnuts when serving these up to the mister. Loved hearing about your pan. A real keepsake that likely won't be leaving your kitchen any time soon.

  3. Hello Again:

    Tenderflake Recipe

    5-6 cups Cake and Pastry Flour
    1/2 tsp salt
    1 lb. Tenderflake Lard (chilled)
    1 egg yolk
    1 tbsp. vinegar (white)
    1 cup ice cold water

    Mix flour, salt, and lard (cut into small pieces) with pastry fork until the size of peas. Place egg yolk & vinegar in a glass measuring cup and fill to 1 cup with ice cold water. Beat and then add to flour mixture.

    Quickly bring together (with hands) to form a ball. Place in plastic bag or cover with plastic wrap. Chill for about 1 hour. Will keep for 3 days in fridge. You can also freeze the dough (less than one month) well-wrapped.

    Secrets to flaky pastry: Don't play with the dough (will create a tough dough). Work quickly when rolling out the dough (use just a little flour to prevent dough from sticking to work surface). Cut pastry to 3" circles for tart pans. If the kitchen is warm, place tart pans in freezer for a couple of minutes to chill dough. Then add mixture and place in hot oven.

    For my large old-fashioned pans the butter tart mixture will fill about 8. Therefore, to make about 24 tarts I'll quadruple (4x) the recipe.

    I'm not too fussy about currants so I replace with golden or sultan raisins soaked in hot water and dried. Walnuts are also nice as well. Many butter tart lovers just like them plain.

    Enjoy, Kathleen

    PS. There is a PEI version of the butter tart which adds lemon juice and zest. Will locate the recipe.

  4. 1st Annual Buttertart Festival - Midland Ontario - June 15 2013 - It's a SMACK-DOWN for sure! Enter your buttertart for a $500 prize!


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...