Don’t eat them in a tuxedo or in a car
I’ve never met a butter tart I didn’t like, but when it comes to butter tarts, good is just not good enough. No, if I’m going to put inches on my hips it had better be amazingly great.
Wikipedia claims butter tarts are “one of Canada’s quintessential desserts”, putting them into a category with Saskatoon berry pies, Nanaimo Bars, Sugar Pies and Blueberry Grunt.
So how special are Ontario butter tarts? Just ask Donna Artuso of Canadian Sweets and Treats Bakery in Washington, DC. A native of Guelph, Ontario Donna now lives in Washington baking butter tarts and other quintessential Canadian desserts. Donna claims to “serve a niche market of expat Canadians who miss their butter tarts. They’re not available anywhere else in the USA.”
Donna is a regular caterer to the Canadian Embassy and Canadian American Business Council and is often called upon to serve butter tarts at official functions. Her filling is both gooey and dense and always comes with a warning, “don’t eat these standing up, wearing a tuxedo.” She speaks from experience.
Charles Pachter painted a plate of butter tarts and called his work, The State of Tarts. If you don’t know Pachter, he’s a very successful Canadian artist. You may recall his paintings of the Maple Leaf flag, and other Canadian icons like the majestic moose – his steel and granite moose silhouette sculptures have been installed across Canada: one in Niagara-on-the-Lake at Inniskillin Wines.
The artist has a true passion for butter tarts and tells me his research revealed that Anglicans prefer their butter tarts crusty while the Presbyterians like them really runny. His favourite place for butter tarts is Wilkies Bakery in Orillia because they’re not too runny just barely holding together in the centre.
Basically butter tarts are very simple. Mix butter, sugar, syrup, and egg together. Pour it into a flaky pastry crust. Pâte brisée is best, it’s a magically rich shortcrust pastry. Bake until the filling is soft and runny or firm and dense. Of course, everything is open to interpretation, so how do you like yours?
Peter Mansbridge (Broadcaster, CBC The National) has a secret addiction to Ontario’s sweet and sticky tarts. For Mansbridge a great butter tart should be runny in the middle and not too chewy. He has no real loyalty to raisins but alluded to preferring nuts; either pecans or walnuts. It wasn’t too difficult to pry Mansbridge’s secret location for the best butter tarts he’s ever had, Crosswinds Restaurant in Mitchell, Ontario.
So if Pachter leans towards a more solid centre and Mansbridge is a liquidy centre kind of guy, then how is it the three of us all agree the butter tarts at Marty’s in Bracebridge are the best? I guess butter tart lovers are fickle as well as opinionated.
Ask any real butter tart lover and they’ll tell you Marty’s is a special place. Marty Curtis is described by celebrity chef Micheal Smith as the “Michelangelo of butter tarts”. He won the Toronto Star best butter tart competition and that’s when people began flocking to his café. Walk in and customers are obsessed with their small plates of tarts, a light brown filling puddling around the pastry like gravy dripping around mashed potatoes. Taste it. Marty’s crust is a crunchy buttery gift to the world of pastry while the super light and lusciously butterscotchy vanilla centre luxuriates across the palate in an angelic sort of hypnotic way, yet it’s simultaneously sinfully delicious!
Unlike Mansbridge and Pachter, butter tart addict Donald Ziraldo (founder of Inniskillin Wines) was a little more guarded about his favourite place to get his butter tart fix. But finally, “every time I got my hair cut, Al (barber of Hello Hair in Yorkville, Toronto) would run next door and get me a cappuccino and butter tart.” The bakery next door to Hello Hair is Wanda’s Pie In The Sky. While Ziraldo isn’t too particular about walnuts or raisins, he was eager to share the best part was biting into the fluffy, thick, buttery crust that just “tasted so good” – he swoons.
As for me, I put myself into the “fickle tart” category. I love different butter tarts depending on my varying moods. Yet, at the same time I feel like I’ve graduated from the simple, soft, white-crusted tarts with the frothy anemic fillings to the more creative reincarnations of Ontario’s buttery sweet symbols of bliss. If pressed, I’d have to warn everyone about the tarts at Detour Café in Dundas. I’ve developed a great dependency on the powerful caramel hit, the savoury flow of buttery rich vanilla cream and feather light pastry. In fact, I love them so much they’ve offered me a free butter tart for every 10 customers who come in and tell them I sent you. So please, feel free to feed my addiction.
A word of caution with the butter tarts at Marty’s and Detour. They’re not to be eaten out of hand – no, these are plate and fork tarts. Perhaps even a spoon to get all the insides that will undoubtedly spill out when you break the crust. Just never, never eat these while wearing a tuxedo or driving a car!
I think everyone has made a pilgrimage to The Fruit Shack farm market in Niagara-on-the-Lake for butter tarts. One bite and the pâte brisée (magically rich shortcrust pastry) dominates the sweet, light, semi runny centre with a nutty essence making it a strong complex mouthful of bliss. If you close your eyes, these extra large tarts cream across your palate and permeate your pleasure senses. Beware though, like a drug, you will need more than one – perhaps that’s why they offer a 6-pack!
Who would have guessed 13th Street Winery gives as much time and attention to butter tarts as they do their beloved wine. 13th Street Winery in St Catharines has a bakery of the same name. The gooey filling is stirred by hand making sure you don’t get the traditional frothing on the surface of the tart – yum! The filling caramelizes on the crust for an extra punch of sticky toffee flavour that layers with caramel and vanilla. Like wine, they make different varieties of butter tarts. Check their website to find out when they’re making bacon butter tarts or chocolately Skor butter tarts. In addition to their pecan and plain versions, they’re all the same semi-firm style with butter rich pastry that feed the fickleness of butter tart lovers who need to have a different tart with every mood.
Whatever you do, don’t settle for any butter tart. Instead, elevate your palate to the creative reincarnations of Ontario’s buttery sweet gift to the world. This story first appeared in Today Niagara Magazine.