Butter Tarts, Glorious and Free (of Eggs and Dairy)
June 27, 2008
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“Um, Mum, we are coming with you, aren’t we? Because (and sorry to have to tell you this), we actually have more fans than you do on this blog.”
There’s an annual event in Montreal called The High Lights Festival in which (among other things) La Belle Ville invites chefs from other world-class cities to cook alongside the Quebeçois culinary masters and exchange ideas. This year (2008), the guest city was the very one yours truly calls home: Toronto.
Toronto? Some of the French hosts, apparently, almost refused to participate. After all, every other location in Canada is entirely inferior to well, anywhere in Quebec when it comes to cuisine, non? I mean, the rest of us are simply les bêtes sans a mote of culinary imagination or refinement, n’est-ce pas?
Well, it may be true that the phrases “Canadian gourmet” or “Canadian cuisine” are, like the iconic “jumbo shrimp,” simply oxymorons. (And boo hoo, we’ve now lost one of the great comedians of all time along with the originator of that wordplay). I mean, for most of my life, the mere idea of a uniquely Canadian cuisine was pretty much a joke. As in so many other areas, our gastronomy is often eclipsed by that of our overseas ancestors. Pizza? Nope–that was Italy. Crêpes Suzette? France, of course. Schwarzwald torte? Germany beat us to it. Haggis? Scotland claimed that one. Chocolate-covered bacon? Well, turns out that was the creation of none other than our older and more populous neighbor, the good ole U. S. of A.
And what about us here in Canuck Country? A quick excursion to Wikipedia reveals several “Canadian-made” foodstuffs, many of which are cooked forms of indigenous plants. There are Saskatoon berries out west, Nanaimo bars way out west, cloudberries (also known as bakeapple) and cod tongues way out east, or fine wines of Ontario (no, seriously. Apparently, the Niagara region shares the same microclimate as parts of California).
But for truly singular creations that seem to roar “Canada,” like it or not, we’ve routinely turned to Quebec. No wonder those guys have swelled heads when it comes to food. Quebec–where the language is different (bien sûr!), the aesthetic is different (ah, those couture‘d demoiselles!), the zeitgeist is different (4-hour dinners? de rigeur!), the beer is definitely different (um, 12 per cent?), and the cuisine is nonpareil.
Tortière? Quebec. Poutine? Quebec. Sugar pie? Quebec. Hamburger with truffles and foie gras? Quebec. Yep; they may have crazy gas prices, draconian language laws and a love-hate relationship with the rest of the country, but those Québecois sure do know how to cook!
And so, when I read about Jasmine (of Confessions of a Cardamom Addict) and Jennifer’s (of The Domestic Goddess) Mmmm. . . .Canada event in honor of our July 1st Canada Day celebration, I knew I was in! The event asks us to prepare something quintessentially “Canadian,” and it was Ontario’s original butter tart that immediately came to mind. (Take that, cretons!)
According to Bill Casselman in his Canadian Food Words, “butter tart” is “a phrase and a confection that is 100% Canadian.” He goes on to write,
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 . . . .
Sounds great, doesn’t it? Just a couple of minor problems: (a) I’ve never even tasted a butter tart, let alone baked one; (b) with a filling made primarily of butter and eggs, they are decidedly not vegan. What to do?
I consulted my trusty human encylopedia (that would be the HH) as well as my world’s biggest butter tart aficionado (ditto). From what he tells me, the filling is very much the consistency of that in a pecan pie (probably why I never tasted them)–only about 1,462,873.05 times sweeter.
I examined various online photos of the things and got a sense of the density required: a filling firm enough to hold its shape, spongy around the edges yet soft and oozing in the middle, all enclosed by a buttery tart crust. With this exemplar in mind, I went to work in the kitchen.
The first round, with a serviceable shell and not entirely unpleasant taste, were nonetheless a wee bit too gooey and glossy–sort of like heavy, sugared shellac poured over raisins (too much like a stealth weapon in a James Bond movie, I’m afraid). Given the preponderance of eggs in the original recipe, I knew I’d have to reproduce the same airy, slightly bubbly consistency that results when whites are beaten until foamy. A few extra filling ingredients and a pinch of baking powder later, and–zut alors!–I had it.
The HH tells me that these are extremely close to the real thing. They’re everything you’d want in a butter tart: flaky pastry crust, with a rich, sticky, firmer-on-the-outside, gooey-on-the-inside filling. All they’re missing is the cholesterol, animal fat, and refined sugars (quel domage!)
I know what I’ll be baking for the upcoming long weekend, as we sit out back sipping Mojitos (decidedly not Canadian–well, except for the mint), shield the dogs from neighbours’ fireworks, hope the rain takes a hike, and enjoy our all-Ontario meal. We’ll look up at the stars and be thankful to live in such a diverse, scenic, and placid country (and let’s not forget–“polite.”) Now, if only the snow were a little less abundant, it would be perfect. . . ..
Bon Fête, Canada!
(“Um, Mum, we beg to differ on the ” world’s biggest butter tart aficionado” point. You know we’d be the biggest fans. . . except you never let us eat them. Oh, to taste something with sugar. . . And what was that about fireworks?“)
Vegan Butter Tarts
[Note the “embuttered ambrosia” as it trickles out, glorious and free, from the center of that tart!]
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[This recipe will also appear in my upcoming cookbook, Sweet Freedom, along with more than 100 others, most of which are not featured on this blog. For more information, check the “Cookbook” button at right, or visit the cookbook blog.]