In the middle of our last adventure, I get a message from my friend Arlene. Arlene holds the distinction of being my first ever Canadian friend. We met online in 1989 and kept in touch ever since. The message was simple: “When are you making butter tarts from scratch?”
Butter tarts are a quintessentially Canadian dessert. They are like tiny pies made in muffin tins. There is pastry on the bottom and a sweet filling like what you might find in a pecan pie inside – except of course without pecans. You have to go much further south to find where those grow.
One of the principles of the 52 Adventures project is to just say yes to things without overthinking them. And so, I looked at my calendar and said “Next weekend.” and worried about figuring out the details of how to actually do it later.
To those who follow me regularly, you might be saying “But Todd, you cook all the time. This isn’t new for you.” But it truly is. I make a lot of different things but I can count the number of times I’ve baked on one hand. And that’s counting batches of cookies made from a tube of cookie dough bought at the grocery store. And I’ve watched enough of the Great British Bake-off to know that pastry isn’t easy. Compared to a Thai or Indian curry, homemade pastry seems like a mixture of fine art and brain surgery.
Sunday morning after breakfast I’m in the kitchen gathering ingredients. Sage is guiding me through the baking process as she does it much more often and does it well. We assemble the ingredients:
In theory it is pretty simple: flour, cold water, salt, butter, and vegetable shortening. But you have to be careful. Proportions are important and so I carefully measure everything, mixing the flour, butter and vegetable shortening together until it is like a bowl full of tiny gravel.
Then I add the water one tablespoon at a time, with Sage watching me as I go, letting me know when I have added enough. It isn’t like other cooking I do where a teaspoon of cumin seeds is probably enough but if there are a few extra it won’t matter. Add too much or too little water and the pastry will be tough, or won’t hold together. See? It feels like a rocket scientist trying to calculate how to land a craft on Venus. Too much one way and it crashes in to Venus. Too much the other way and the craft burns up in the sun.
But eventually I have it. I shape the dough in to two little disks, wrap them in plastic and put them in the fridge to rest.
Did I sound confident? I had you fooled, didn’t I? I know that resting is necessary but it wasn’t until I looked it up just now that I know why: it’s so the gluten strands to ‘settle down and relax’ which makes it easier to roll out and form.
While the dough rests comfortably in the fridge, it’s time to make the filling. I gather those ingredients:
There’s brown sugar, corn syrup, salt, vanilla, more butter, and egg. I’m a little horrified at the corn syrup. I grew up in Vermont and corn syrup is the stuff they make fake maple syrup from. It’s not good for you, it’s not as tasty as maple syrup, and for crying out loud, this is a Canadian dish. Why does this not have maple syrup? But my job is not to reinvent this dish, it’s to cook it the way it’s meant to be cooked even if it doesn’t sound like a good idea.
But even “the way it’s meant to be cooked” is a little problematic. Butter tart culture is not without its controversies and one of the biggest is raisins. The way some people argue about whether or not pineapple should be on pizza? That’s how some people here argue about whether there should be raisins in butter tarts. But the recipe we have includes raisins so I’m going to include them in this batch.
I whisk all the filling ingredients together except for the raisins which I soak in hot water to soften them.
Now I’m waiting for the raisins to soften so it’s back to the pastry which has had a lovely rest in the fridge. I pull the disks out, roll them flat. This is harder than I expect. Just as I have a hard time getting roti rolled thin enough and evenly enough and most certainly round enough, I had the same problem here. But I do my best and give myself a break – it’s the first time I’ve ever baked anything or made pastry. And in one sense it’s even easier than making roti. I don’t have to roll it round, I just grab a small bowl and cut circles with it. Done!
And now the raisins are also ready. I drain them and it’s time to assemble and cook. I put one pastry circle in each of the wells of a muffin tin and then drop in a few raisins.
The last step is easy – ladle the filling in to the tart shells until they’re full.
But wait! The controversy isn’t over yet. The next debate is: Runny or not?
Some people prefer their butter tarts to be like a pecan pie – almost like jam or jelly. They hold together and are not too messy to eat. Others prefer that their butter tarts are runny – you have to carefully hold them to not make a mess, and after you bite them you might want a plate to eat them over so you don’t drip on yourself. After you eat you will need to wash your hands and maybe even your face.
I’ve never eaten them before so I have no preference. I aim for somewhere in the middle. 15 minutes of cooking will give you runny tarts, 20 will give you solid ones. I go for 17 minutes. And in to the oven they go.
How did they come out? The crust was flaky and delicious and I’m really proud of that. I had some guidance but did it all myself. So I’m pleased with that. The filling was really tasty and sweet. Sage was not a fan of the raisins but Daegan and I both preferred them. The degree of runniness was just right for me. The top was solid but when you cut through it filling oozed out deliciously.
I especially loved this challenge because it was something I would otherwise never have done. I would not have made pastry as it seemed too overwhelming. And I almost never make desserts as I don’t eat a lot of them. But I got to do a new thing, have a fun morning do it and in the end get something that I really enjoyed eating. More importantly, it opened a door for me. While I might not make butter tarts again, It broke down the barrier to my making pastry. It was much less difficult than I imagined. And there are bunches of delightful savoury pies and pastries that I enjoy eating that I could definitely enjoy making and enjoying at home. Thanks to Arlene for suggesting this.
As we often do, we made Instagram stories as we went. If you’d like to watch that, you can see them here.
And if you’d like to be like Arlene and make a suggestion for something cool for me to do, visit the 52 Adventures page and fill out the form. The suggestion will go to Sage who may even keep it a secret from me until I’m actually committed to it and doing it. You can also find a link to all of the adventures on that page if you want to catch up on ones you missed.