Butter tart is a phrase and a confection that is 100% Canadian. There is even a proper Canuck way to ingest this northern nectar of the oven. One holds the butter tart in one hand at lip height. One does not bring the flaky-doughed cuplet with its inner pool of sugared gold to the mouth. No. One stoops slightly inward toward the butter tart, not only to take an encompassing chomp but also to do obeisance to the gooey rills of embuttered ambrosia soon to trickle in sweet streamlets down the eater’s gullet and, if he be too esurient a consumer, down his munching chipmunky chin.
In other words, when a real Canadian consumes a butter tart, British Edwardian reserve is abandoned utterly. One must mess the lips and cheeks with the warm brown liquidity which is the center of the true butter tart. Out in the boondocks it is permissible to jaw the tart so hard that a minor explosion of sugary elixir spritzes up one’s nose or splatters an eyelid. But, be warned, the peckish avidity of such revolting gusto will insure that you are banned forever from Rideau Hall and its dainty precincts.
“It’s a nice little tart without much pedigree but I know you’ll be amused by its lack of pretension,” is how Toronto Moose artist Charles Pachter remembers one particular butter tart. Canadians are serious about butter-tartery and have been for more than 100 years. One of the earliest recipes for this staple of Canadian cooking dates back to 1915. Renowned Food writer Marion Kane states that the recipe is one of the few genuine Canadian recipes.
The butter tart has entered and lodged in our national mental kitchen. When I was senior producer for CBC Radio’s “This Country in The Morning” in the early 1970s we ran several contests in which host Peter Gzowski sought to discover the definitive butter tart recipe. Scrumptious is the word that defined our judging of the tarty candidates.
There are many variations on the butter tart and debates have raged over what makes a proper butter tart. The seemingly innocuous question of adding raisins to the butter, sugar and egg mixture gets some Canucks hot enough to melt their permafrost.
Sheldon Posen, Curator of Canadian Folklife at the Canadian Museum of Civilization, is doing research on Canadian sweet foods. The award-winning and exquisite museum is on the Quebec bank of the Ottawa River, directly opposite Parliament Hill. Mr. Posen sends me this interesting email on the butter tart.
No one else has a “butter tart.” There are several relatives (or some would say, ancestors) usually cited, such as treacle tart (England), pecan pie (Southern U.S.), black bottom pie (Mennonite), sugar pie (French Canada). But all of these use sweet syrupy bases (molasses, corn syrup, maple syrup) or rely for their identity on additions (pecans). Granted, most have butter in them, but that is not their defining feature. The classic Canadian butter tart uses creamed butter and sugar as its base. There may be little butter (1 T. in some recipes), but butter and sugar there always are. Though no one I’ve ever read has actually come out and said it (perhaps it’s too obvious), this creamed butter-with-sugar base is the butter tart’s defining feature — so unique in the sweet pie/tart world, in fact, that the medium diverts attention away from the sweetener. It’s called, ahem, a BUTTER tart, not a sugar tart. An early case of the medium is the message?
Curator, Canadian Folklife
Ethnology & Cultural Studies
Canadian Museum of Civilization
Clearly our butter tart is a confection to be reckoned with, not perhaps as architecturally compelling as a Gâteau St. Honoré but nevertheless nicely Canuck, a dessert dulcifluent in its mellifluousness, if I may end this column on a verbally saccharine note.
Here is the link for a butter tart recipe tested to my personal satisfaction:
© 2006 William Gordon Casselman
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OTHER CANADIAN WORD STORIES
butter tart, example of a Canadian food
Canadian dessert: butter tart