This month on the Canadian Food Experience Project, participating bloggers are asked to write about a cherished Canadian recipe – and I can’t think of one more cherished, nor more Canadian, than my Grandma Woodall’s butter tarts. She lived in Windsor, Ontario – on Riverside Drive – and I have fond memories of watching her make pastry from scratch in her kitchen, which looked out over the Detroit river. She made the best butter tarts imaginable – with currants rather than raisins or pecans, which she said was proper. During the holidays she’d make large batches and store them in tins in their old walk-in fridge (I know!), and I’d sneak down the hallway, into the fridge and eat them cold and chewy, motionless when I heard my tiny Grandma coming down the hall…
A few years ago, I was honoured to bring treats for the citizenship ceremony at the CBC building here in Calgary, where we welcomed 40 new Canadians of all ages from 16 different countries. There were mounties and families and kids dressed up with shiny patent shoes waving Canadian flags, and my Grandma’s butter tarts. I think I produced more tears than anyone there.
The secret to the perfect butter tart is to not overbake it – you want it to ever so slightly ooze when you bite into it. And you’ll need the recipe for her pastry – which I suspect is the same as the one on the Tenderflake box – regardless, it’s my go-to pastry recipe whether I’m making a pie or tarts. It will give you enough pastry to line a 9” pie plate; double it to make enough for two pies or a double crust. Some pie bakers swear by a teaspoon of vinegar added to their water to discourage the formation of gluten and make a tender crust, but it’s not necessary. Handle it gently and all will be well. The recipe is easily doubled, if you want a batch of pastry at the ready in your freezer for your next butter tart craving.
Grandma Woodall’s “Never-fail” Pastry
1 1/3 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp. sugar
1/4 tsp. salt
1/4 cup butter, chilled and cut into pieces
1/4 cup shortening or lard, chilled and cut into pieces
4 Tbsp. ice-cold water
1 tsp. vinegar (optional, stir it into the water)
In a large bowl or the bowl of a food processor, stir together the flour, sugar and salt. Add the butter and shortening and use a fork, pastry blender, wire whisk or the “pulse” motion of the food processor to blend the mixture until it resembles coarse meal, with lumps of fat no bigger than a pea.
Drizzle the minimum amount of water over the mixture and stir until the dough comes together, adding a little more a bit at a time if you need it. Gather the dough into a ball, flatten it into a disc, wrap it in plastic and chill it for at least half an hour. If you are making a double crust pie, divide the dough in half, making one half slightly larger than the other. (Your pastry can be prepared up to this point and frozen for up to 4 months; let it thaw on the countertop when you need it.
Grandma Woodall’s Butter Tarts
Pastry for a single crust pie
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
1/2 cup corn syrup or maple syrup
“dump in a lump of butter” (I use about a tablespoon)
1 tsp. vanilla
a handful of currants, raisins, and/or chopped pecans (she always used currants)
Preheat oven to 400°F. On a lightly floured surface, roll the pastry out 1/4″ thick. Cut out circles using a 4″ cookie cutter or empty can, and press into ungreased muffin cups.
In a medium bowl, stir together the brown sugar, corn syrup, egg, butter and vanilla. Stir in the currants and pecans, if you’re using them. Fill the tart shells about 2/3 full and bake for 20 minutes, until bubbly and golden. Take them out of the pan using a thin knife to coax them out while they are still warm, otherwise any goo that has bubbled over will stick to the pan as it cools. If it does, pop them back in the oven for a minute to soften it again. Cool on a wire rack.
Makes about 18 butter tarts.