How do you like your butter tart — firm or runny? With raisins or bacon bits? Made with butter or shortening?
There are a gazillion and one ways to make (and eat!) a butter tart, but only one truly great place to enjoy them: in Canada, the birthplace of this sweet, satisfying treat.
“The butter tart is 100 percent Canadian,” says Food Network Star Anna Olson. “It’s an individual tart, as opposed to a full-sized pie.”
In case you’ve been in hibernation, a butter tart is a flaky, round pastry shell filled with a gooey buttery filling that’s semi-solid, with a crunchy top. Taste testing is almost a patriotic duty, offering a delicious way to sink your teeth into Canadian history.
Like many legendary dishes, the butter tart’s origins are fuzzy. It’s believed that filles à marier (“marriageable girls”) created a crude version in the 1600s. These newly arrived Québécois brides filled their French tarts with New World ingredients: maple sugar, freshly churned butter, and dried fruit such as raisins.
“The idea of mixing a syrup with eggs and dried fruit to form a dessert is an old one, and was likely born out of necessity to make do with ingredients on hand,” says Dr. Lenore Newman, Food Security and Environment Director at the University of the Fraser Valley.
Others believe the butter tart has roots in pecan pie, brought to Canada by Americans, or possibly is related to Québec’s sugar pie or even Scottish border tarts. And some experts credit pioneer cooks for creating the beloved version known today, tracing the earliest printed recipes back to the 1900s. Ultimately, no one knows for sure, but the tart’s origins are likely a combination of all of the above.
“It just slowly evolved and appeared,” says Anna. “It looks like a lot of other tarts: like the French [Canadian] tarte au sucre, or a treacle tart [a traditional British dessert].”
Four hundred years later, the butter tart has become the quintessential Canadian sweet treat. It was all the rage in the 1920s and 1930s, and it’s one of the few authentically Canadian recipes that exists on paper.
“The butter tart’s success in Canada is likely linked to our general love of sweet desserts,” says Dr. Newman. “However I do feel that the butter tart is being influenced ever so slightly by Canada’s cuisine with its dedication to local foods. British and French settlers loved sugar, but butter tarts also fit a model of early Canadian foods that needed to pack a really high calorie load into each bite. We worked outside in the cold and needed to eat a lot more than we do now.”
Today, the craze continues. There are even butter tart trails that dessert lovers can follow, with Ontario’s Kawarthas Northumberland Region and Wellington County offering maps and self-guided itineraries to explore local bakeries and cafes. What’s even more incredible is the butter tart has become an international superstar.
“No matter where I am travelling, I’m always asked to demonstrate a butter tart,” says Chef Anna. “I have demonstrated butter tarts in Argentina, Moscow, Dubai, all over Southeast Asia. I just hosted a chef from the Philippines and the one thing on his checklist was trying a butter tart. Because the world knows the butter tart as ubiquitously Canadian.”
What makes an “authentic” Canadian butter tart? It’s a hotly debated topic within the baking community, especially when it comes to three aspects: should the tart’s filling be runny or firm? Should it contain raisins? And how far can you stray from the original recipe? According to Chef Anna, there’s no clear answers: it really depends on the baker, and the proof is, well, in the pastry.
“The butter tart has as many recipes as there are people who make them,” says Chef Anna. “But whether it’s a filling made with maple syrup or corn syrup is very particular to the [baker]. Some swear by lard pastry, others by butter. To call it a butter tart, you can’t change the shape or syrupy filling.”
Nonetheless, bakers and pastry chefs are making endless and ever-evolving variations on this favourite Canuck dessert. Some stuff the flaky pastry cup with toasted pecans instead of raisins, or even chocolate or bacon fillings.
“The bacon butter tart has become a staple — it’s that salty crunch in the bottom,” says Anna. “I’m seeing more with chocolate melted into the syrupy filling. You could even put in marshmallows and chocolate chips for an s’mores butter tart!”
In recent years, some maverick chefs and bakers are even masterminding butter tart-flavoured foods, such as ice creams, cookies, cobblers, and Butter Tart Cheesecake.
“While you may not change the butter tart, you can integrate those flavours and textures elsewhere,” says Chef Anna. “For my new cookbook, I want to do a butter tart swirl cheesecake that has that the same pastry crunch, butteriness, and drifty caramel swirl.”
It’s worth taking a tantalizing tart trip across Canada to try all the variations and recipes, with Chef Anna naming Niagara’s 13th Street Winery and The Pie Plate Bakery & Café as being among the best. If you’re feeling adventurous at home, try mastering Chef Anna’s Pecan Butter Tarts or her swoon-worthy Butter Tart Coffee Cake. For holiday entertaining, you could even build a butter tart buffet that will entice guests to the table.
Despite her playful renditions, there’s one thing that Chef Anna is old-fashioned about when it comes to making a classic Canadian butter tart. “Can you make a low fat butter tart? No way!” she says. “But you could make them miniature sized.”