Butter tart art!

I’m definitely going to have to make the drive to Lang Pioneer Village in Keene, Ontario (near Peterborough) to pick up one of these fantastic posters by Saskatchewan artist Wendy Tancock. Proof positive that butter tart bliss is not just an Ontario thang! Yes, I’m a wee bit obsessive. But I think the message is spot on for my blog and I think it would look great in my kitchen. ;)

Thanks to the Kawarthas Butter Tart Tour for the tip!

Poster by Wendy Tancock of Saskatchewan

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Peterborough’s Great Butter Tart Taste-off!

I’d been looking forward to this day for weeks. Gathering in one place at Peterborough’s Flavour Festival would be 10 professional bakers of butter tarts competing in the First Annual Kawarthas Northumberland Butter Tart Taste-Off!DSC_0094

Many of these bakers have been on my list to investigate for a long time because they’d been recommended on the famous Chowhound thread that started this whole blog. For a butter tart hound with limited resources and time, being able to taste-test multiple bakeries in one afternoon was too good an opportunity to pass up! It was also great to meet some of the friendly faces behind the butter tarts that have developed their own fan base.

However, even one gal can only taste so many butter tarts in one afternoon. So, I did a visual edit, passing over those butter tarts that did not look appetizing, mostly because their filling was thin and collapsed into the shell. So, I was surprised to see the judges had given Doo Doo’s Bakery two awards (see below), which didn’t even make my tasting cut!

In the end, my trusty butter tart companion, my partner, John,  and I tasted butter tarts from six bakeries. We are usually on the same page in choosing our favourites, but this time, not only could we not agree on the best butter tart, but we actually didn’t enjoy each other’s first pick!

DSC_0090

The clear winner for me was The Pie Shack from Fenelon Falls. I found it perfectly runny, with the most beautifully buttery and rich filling, without being too sweet. The pastry was just the kind of soft mouth-feel that I really enjoy, with the right kind of handmade thickness. Compared to my all-time favourites (The Danish Pastry Shop in Toronto and Little Tub Bakery in Tobermory), The Pie Shack tarts are darn close to the best of the best. I’d give them 8.5/10.  Sadly, John did not share my opinion. He didn’t enjoy the buttery taste of the filling and gave them a 6/10.

John’s favourite was my second choice, Betty’s from Port Hope, which won best overall in the official competition. He would have given them a 9/10 if the tarts hadn’t been so runny they ran all over our hands. So he docked them a point and scored Betty’s at 8/10.

I tried the Betty’s tart after having a tart that I didn’t enjoy, and at the first bite my immediate thought was, “Now that’s a butter tart!” The Betty’s filling is the kind I grew up on, and that, after all, is what I’m searching for on this now multi-year quest. It hits the right buttery and brown sugar notes, and the pastry is good, although a bit chewy in the thicker parts. I gave Betty’s an 8/10.

The women of Betty's (Port Hope)

The women of Betty’s (Port Hope)

John and I totally disagreed on the tarts from the Pastry Peddler from Millbrook. Because they looked yummy, I broke my own rule and chose them for our tasting even though they only offered butter tarts with nuts.

I’m a bit of a purist and only consider those with raisins (and ok, plain, if you hate raisins) to be true butter tarts. When you start adding nuts, cranberries, blueberries, chocolate chips or any other ingredient, then in my opinion, the tarts turn into something else.

When we broke them open, the first step in our taste testing ritual, the Tasty Peddler tarts were solid on top and runny underneath, which I found off-putting. I think the solid mass on top is where the walnuts gathered during baking. For me, the filling had an odd flavour, with an unpleasant aftertaste that I couldn’t identify. The pastry was good, but not as soft as The Pie Shack. I gave them 5/10. John, however, absolutely loved the taste of the filling, found the pastry flakey (I found it brittle and tough) and gave them 7/10.

Sadly, other offerings in the other three that made our tasting cut were quite disappointing.

I’d heard about Dooher’s tarts in the lovely town of Campbellford for a while now, and so I was eager to try them. You can imagine my dismay at the small, machine-crimped (come on, people, you know that’s a dead giveaway to lacklustre pastry) tarts that didn’t have even a hint of runny. Both pastry and filling had an unpleasant taste, reminiscent of vinegar. John was generous at 5/10, I gave Dooher’s a 3/10.

We were also disappointed by the Country Mart’s (no website, see Taste-Off listing for contact info) butter tart offerings, which were dry, without a bit of ooze. To make things worse, the filling had an odd taste — a “fake” buttery note like margarine or oil, and a floury aftertaste. I felt like I’d paid good money for fillers. The pastry was quite chewy and not soft at all.  We gave it a 3-4/10.

Our final taste-test was Cravings, which we were surprised to learn won People’s Choice yesterday. The dark-looking filling had a thick, floury taste and was not runny at all. The pastry was dark, thin and on this side of brittle. We gave it a 4-5/10.

Official Winners of the First AnnualKawarthas Northumberland Butter Tart Taste-Off:

Best Crust – Country Mart in Buckhorn

Best Filling – Doo Doo’s Bakery in Bailieboro

People’s Choice – Cravings Bakery in Peterborough

Best Specialty Butter Tart – Doo Doo’s in Bailieboro

Best Overall – Betty’s Pies and Tarts in Port Hope

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This is *not* a butter tart, dammit! (The worst, so far, in the GTA)

I never thought it would be possible to be annoyed by a butter tart. But so help me, it’s happened.

I don’t know what kind of tart the hipster Pic Nic At Home Bakery & Cafe is selling as a butter tart (for $2.50 no less), but it sure isn’t anything that I even remotely recognize as one. It’s so much *not* a butter tart that I was actually annoyed when I bit into it.

I should have known by the look — an unappealing dark brown, with some of the filling glazed hard over the edges of the crust. They did not look like butter tarts, but hey, the sign said so… and besides, Pic Nic’s cinnamon twist buns were exquisite and the apple cinnamon muffins were quite good. So, I tried. All in the name of science, of course.

Sometimes, you just gotta learn to walk away.

The filling didn’t just lack ooze, it was solid. In fact, when I tore away a bit of the crust, the filling actually jutted out on its own in a craggy finger of brown grossness. In contrast to the cheap square butter tarts from MacMillan’s Orchards, which at least attempted to ooze, the Pic Nic filling just sat there stolidly. It would have remained that way for weeks if I hadn’t poked and prodded it into submission.

Pic Nic At Home Bakery

From the sublime (Danish Pastry Shop, see Dec 18th post) to the ridiculous (Pic Nic At Home calls this a butter tart).

The filling was nothing like any reasonable person could expect from a butter tart. With a texture more akin to a pumpkin tart, the taste had notes of flour, edible oil product, and cheap corn syrup. There was an unpleasant aftertaste reminiscent of molasses. I’ll be charitable and say the filling could have contained real brown sugar.

The pastry had a mealy feel in the mouth, almost like an attempt at a shortbread crust, with none of the richness. In fact, this crust is the anti-taste. It’s not just mouth-puckering bland, this crust actually sucks taste from other food in the universe into its vortex. This is a cheesly, measly crust that has no business being near any tart of any kind… ever.

I just read on Pic Nic’s Facebook page that one fan called them “the best butter tarts I’ve ever had.” That person must have been on a desert island with nothing but banana leaves to eat for the last decade. Seriously.

The whole thing reminds me of the ill fated chocolate pie I made at the cottage back in the 90s, a complete and utter disaster. I neglected to bake the graham crust before adding the chocolate filling. The crust soaked right into the filling and became this inedible solid mass. Believe me when I say that in those days, my then partner and I, and her sister, would have eaten just about any dessert, no matter how poor. This pie went straight into the garbage, still warm.

That’s how bad the “butter tarts” are at Pic Nic. Just walk away.

Rated: 0 out of 10

Price: $2.50 each (I want my money back!)

The Deets: Pic Nic At Home Bakery & Café, 753 Queen St E (west of Broadview), Toronto. No phone number listed and their web site, www.picnicathome.com is under construction, but you can visit their Facebook page at www.facebook.com/PicNicAtHome. From the folks who brought you Pic Nic Wine Bar.

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The best (so far!) butter tart in the GTA

As I stood waiting for my order in the bakery, I heard the woman behind the counter say in a low, shocked voice to another employee, “18 children.” Having just heard the bare bones of the story on my car radio, I knew what she was talking about.

I caught her eye and said, “Connecticut?” When she nodded, I mentioned that I’d just heard about it on the news, and that six adults had also been killed. Shooting a furtive look at the only two children in the shop, noting that their attention had been wholly diverted by the elaborate, massive gingerbread house in the window, she asked quietly, “Did they say what happened?”

In her voice, in her eyes, were the pain and shock and bewilderment that many of us feel at these incomprehensible tragedies. She wasn’t looking for gruesome details. She was really asking, “How could someone commit such a horror against children?”

The Danish Pastry Shop, every bit a neighbourhood bakery, is the kind of place where you can have those kinds of conversations.

It’s a timeless place where old men can scatter their change clumsily on the counter for a package of day-old Danishes, while asking for advice on which meat pie to take home for lunch, and the staff remains unfailingly polite and friendly. A small, cozily crowded place where the smells can drive you wild if you’re hungry, and the window display is always full, an ever-changing landscape of sugary heaven. The kind of place where an attractive young man behind the counter, who looks like he should be dashing across a university campus instead of darting back and forth behind the tiny counter, neatly packages goodies into old-fashioned, crisp cardboard boxes. At the while, he manages to flirt shamelessly and boast at the slightest provocation about the “awesome” quality of the baked goods.

The Danish Pastry Shop is a charmer, all right, a family-owned business that’s been around for 40 years, with quality to rival any bakery in the city.

It also just happens to be the bakeshop where I’ve finally found my favourite butter tarts in the GTA, perhaps second only to the legendary Little Tub tarts of Tobermory. (I will have to wait until next summer, when Little Tub opens again, to do a straight up comparison between these two butter tart titans.)

Danish Pastry Shop - 1

The pastry is gorgeously soft, a little on the sweet side, reminiscent of a butter cookie. Although not my traditional choice, this pastry is handled so deftly and confidently that I can suspend my doubts and just enjoy. But it’s the filling that’s the real star – rich and buttery, its sweetness controlled with a hint of salt, and pleasingly plump raisins. Plus, it oozes perfectly.

I shared my first taste of my new find with two friends, D and C, who were in the middle of re-stocking their first pop-up shop, Len, thanks to the support of the Danforth East Neighbourhood Association. D and C are not just smart, cool, and fun, they’re also knowledgeable about many important things, including food. Both D and C gave the Danish Pastry butter tarts a 9/10. C, who’s not much into sweets at all, said she’d eat them over and over again. High praise, indeed.

Now my partner, J, said he found the pastry a little greasy, leaving a slight buttery film on his fingers and lips from the first bite. Honestly, I didn’t experience that at all, although I wanted to! I really don’t want to like these butter tarts this much, they’re not a 4½ hour drive away! The Danish Pastry Shop is located alarmingly close to where I live and along one of my regular travel routes. I’ve found my mind returning to them again and again since I tasted them. *dun dun duh dun!*

 But I’m actually glad that I’ve found the GTA’s best (so far!) butter tarts in a homey neighbourhood bakery, and not in one of those trendy, artfully casual bakeries that charge $4 for a butter tart and $3.50 each for the ubiquitous cupcake. I love that the Danish Pastry Shop is kicking butt and doing it old school, with nary a cupcake in sight. I love that while remaining professional, this shop has kept its heart, providing a welcome oasis that feels worlds away from horrors like Newton, Conn.

Rating: 9 out of 10 (until I’ve tasted Little Tub tarts again!)

Added bonus: The Danish Pastry Shop makes the best “fern tarts” that I’ve tasted since my childhood trips to the bakery in Fenelon Falls (sadly, no longer operating). But fair warning, they’re not available every day. It’s also one of the few bakeries in the city that makes delicious eccles cakes, if you’re a fan of that English pastry (think mincemeat inside puff pastry with crystallized sugar on top).

Price: A steal at $1.65 each or 6 for $8.50 (be sure to ask for the “old fashioned” kind, not the ones with foil liners)

The Deets: Danish Pastry Shop, 1017 Pape Avenue (near Cosburn), Toronto; (416) 425-8877. 

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My unicorn of the baking world (or the internal search for butter tart bliss)

I found myself dismissing this blog today to someone I’d just met. “It’s just a silly thing,” I laughed it off, “It’s just a way to start blogging.”

But as I said it, I felt I’d somehow betrayed myself. Deep down, this search means more to me than a frivolous desire to feed my sugar habit. As I lay in bed tonight trying to sleep, that moment of self-deprecation came back to me. I wondered why I’ve really become so obsessed with this butter tart quest.

Of course, I immediately thought of my Mom.

I’ve often said that Mom was an indifferent cook. She used frozen vegetables and boiled them beyond recognition. She bought canned mushrooms and peas. She served mushy pasta with No Name canned pasta sauce. Her roast beef turned out a dull grey, chickens only had breasts, and although her cupboard contained about a dozen spices, eight of them were for baking. I didn’t start to discover the wide and wonderful world of food – everything from brie to asparagus, fresh herbs to scallops – until after I’d left home.

In our house, dinner was also a battleground of silent skirmishes. Mom infamously tried to conceal pieces of dreaded cauliflower in my mashed potatoes once, convinced I wouldn’t taste them. She insisted I eat every brussel sprout on my plate, even though they made me physically shudder. Ditto for the harshly fried liver (while she ate wieners), served with exactly two measly slices of bacon. I remember carefully cutting those two slices into small pieces that would help me choke down each bite of liver.

In retrospect, I don’t think Mom was an indifferent cook. I think she hated cooking. She certainly cooked like she hated food, and our family has a complicated relationship with it as a result. But like most women of her generation, she was expected to cook and “keep a good house.” She confessed to me, later in life, that in the early days of her marriage she was considered something of a disaster by her new husband. She approached her domestic responsibilities with a sort of grim determination, and it certainly came out in her cooking.

I suspect that underlying her attitude must have been a good measure of anxiety. Can you imagine doing something you don’t like, three times a day, day in and day out, and being judged on it? Her worth as a wife and mother hinged on the ungrateful and critical reactions of three children and a demanding husband.

But if my mother was an indifferent, anxious cook, she baked from her heart.

She was justifiably proud of her pastry, which was flaky and soft. Mom’s pies were amazing, especially her lemon meringue. Her date squares were groan worthy, her Christmas cake legendary. And I’m convinced she made the best peanut butter cookies on the planet. Unlike her “take it or leave it” attitude when it came dinner, she clucked over every batch of baked goods, working hard to perfect our favourites. Over time, she developed an easy confidence in her baking that she never achieved with cooking.

And of course, there were butter tarts. I remember them as a rare treat. Encased in Mom’s deftly constructed pastry, the filling was so runny it made us giggle as we tried to catch it with our tongues before it hit the plate. At my brother’s urging, she added more and more raisins, carefully spooning them into each well of the muffin tin.

Mom’s butter tarts were special little jewels of love and comfort and unbridled joy, in a house that didn’t see a lot of those moments.

I have not tasted my mother’s butter tarts for decades. When I was in my mid-30s, we became estranged over an early betrayal of trust by my father. It was a loss from which I will never recover.

During the long years of my exile, I dreamed that one day after my father was gone, she and I would reunite.

But before that could happen, Mom developed Alzheimer Disease. My dreams disappeared along with her memory.

And so, perhaps, the perfect butter tart has become my unicorn. In addition to the thrill of the chase, I realize tonight that it’s quite possible I’m seeking to recreate those early moments of joy and comfort with pastries made by the hands of strangers. It occurs to me that I may be on a fool’s errand.

People have asked me if I am going to post recipes (a question usually closely followed by a request for me to make them some). I have very few momentos of the “Mom that was,” and the most treasured ones are a few of her recipes… including one for butter tarts.

I *can* make a passable butter tart. I suppose that if I worked hard at it like she once did, I could even make a great one.

But for this quest, the unicorn has to be created by other hands.

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ButterTarty in the GTA (with no apologies to Miley Cyrus, who doesn’t deserve them)

The catalyst for my current obsession with The Search for The Perfect Butter Tart is actually a six-year-long thread on Chowhound in which the OP concluded that a decent butter tart cannot be found in Toronto. The thread, still current, is kept alive by people passionate about extolling the virtues of their favourite butter tart sources all across Ontario, from Elliot Lake to Odessa, Manitoulin Island to Ajax.

Ever since I started this blog, everyone I’ve told about my search has their own story. I hear nostalgic stories about butter tarts made by mothers and grandmothers… about pilots flying out of Lindsay, ON, who have made it a tradition to eat one after take-off… about the evolution of butter tarts since the Depression, when a scarcity of ingredients led to thin little saucer-shaped tarts. I plan to delve into some of these stories in future blogs, including the origin of the lowly butter tart itself.

Practically everyone has a memory, a tip, or a request for my own home-baked tarts. And while I’ve taught myself to make a fairly decent butter tart, this blog is about the hunt for perfection.

So at the same time that I’ll be chasing perfection across Ontario, I will also be reviewing the mixed offerings available in the GTA. You would think, with a city this size, one could easily find a remarkable butter tart. You would be wrong.

This blog post, which will feature mini reviews of butter tarts found in the GTA, will be added to periodically. Feel free to add your own opinions and discoveries here!

Bobbette & Belle (Queen St E & Jones) 

Bobbette & Belle’s disappointing butter tarts

I endure Bobbette & Belle’s incredibly precious décor because they create some of the best sweets in the city, most notably their macarons and handmade marshmallows in a variety of delicious flavours. Their prices for those items, while not cheap, are reasonable giving the quality of their product. So, when someone on the aforementioned Chowhound thread praised their butter tarts, I had high hopes. Unfortunately, the B&B butter tart experience was quite disappointing. The pastry was much too brown and brittle, with an unpleasant aftertaste. The filling was oversweet, contained nary a single raisin, and barely oozed when broken. At $3.75 per tart, I expect something close to nirvana on a plate, but Bobbette & Belle barely makes it to purgatory. I’d give it a 5/10.

Dark Horse Espresso Bar (Queen St E & Broadview, one of four locations) 

Dark Horse’s butter tarts are actually made by wholesaler Circles & Squares

The butter tarts sold at Dark Horse are actually made by a wholesale baker in Markham called Circles & Squares [http://www.circles-squares.com/]. This time, we came pretty close to remarkable. Especially after the head-knocking sweetness of Bobbette & Belle, the C&S butter tart demonstrated a perfect balance. The sugar content was offset by a great raisin ratio and a buttery depth of flavour. Unfortunately, the filling had one major flaw, not one drop of ooze. I don’t need (or even like) filling to run all over the plate, but there must be some movement when you take that first bite. Nada. Plus, the filling had sunk significantly into the pastry cup after cooling. So, the filling only gets an 8/10 from me. The pastry was also pretty great, with a rich mouth feel, soft and flaky at the same time. Sadly, there was way too much of it – the filling to pastry ratio was way out of balance – taking the pastry score down to 7/10. Overall, I’ll give the Circles & Squares butter tart, via Dark Horse, a 7.5/10. I consider the price, $2.70 each to be on the high side of average for Toronto.

Celena’s Bakery (Danforth & Woodbine) 

A solid effort from Celena’s, but not as perfect as it looked.

Celena’s is a fabulous neighbourhood bakery that offers a variety of quality goods, including beautiful little quiche tarts, and some of the best-tasting, most reasonable birthday cakes in the city (although they need to improve their cake decorating). Once again, I had higher expectations than I would with an average bakery, which were further fuelled by the perfect appearance of their butter tarts. But my experience at Little Tub taught me not to judge a tart by its cover, and the inside of Celena’s butter tarts was not perfect. The filling was buttery and rich, without being cloying, and included a nice quantity of dark raisins. But the filling ran all over the plate, a perfect waste of good butter tart, if you ask me. The pastry belongs in the sweetcrust family, which would have been fine if it hadn’t been so thick. Once again, commercial bakers seem to have a problem with finding the right balance between pastry (less, please) and filling (generally, more, please). Overall, I’d give the Celena’s butter tart a 7/10 and at $2.50 each, call it average priced.

MacMillan’s Orchards (Kingston Rd, east of Salem Rd, Ajax)

When I was a teenager, my best friend, Yvonne, and I would go to the Food Building during the CNE, back when you could still get free samples and special deals. At some point, we would end up at the Loblaws counter, where they would heat up a Granny Smith butter tart and then top it with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and butterscotch sauce. Simply divoon. As I’ve mentioned, I didn’t exactly grow up in a sophisticated culinary household.

MacMillan's

The square butter tarts from MacMillan’s Orchards in Ajax remind me a lot of Granny Smith butter tarts. Unsophisticated, grocery-style tarts with slightly leaden pastry and a childhood-worthy butter tart taste, albeit with a bit too much vinegar. The ooze factor is minimal, but they gave it the ole college try.

What makes MacMillan’s tarts slightly more interesting is that they’re square. A good friend, Sarah, an engineer who approaches many things with a confident air of logic, said that in her experience, square butter tarts give good ratio (filling to crust). So I made the drive out to MacMillan’s Ajax location (their main location is in Acton) to test her theory.

Sadly, Sarah’s observations were not borne out in the MacMillan tarts. The ample square-age was offset by rather shallow shells and filling that sank quite a bit in the middle. Overall, I tasted more pastry than filling. I’d rate these 3/10, and they’re priced at a grocery level, $4.95 for 6.

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The holy grail (and, bears have good taste)

Whenever I think about the best butter tarts I’ve ever eaten, I think about bears.

Well, one particular little bear, in fact. Because just before I tasted the legendary butter tarts made by the Little Tub Bakery in Tobermory, a determined young cub broke into the bakery on a sunny summer morning and started gobbling down everything in sight. The Little Tub being somewhat of a local icon, and Tobermory being somewhat of a small town, the incident made the local paper. The owners claimed the adolescent bear went directly for the chocolate chip cookie dough. But in my heart, I know he was after those delicious, flaky, rich and buttery tarts. After all, bears are smart.

Little Tub Bakery. Photo EthanMeleg.com

Little Tub Bakery. Photo EthanMeleg.com

When I finally arrived at the famous little bakery, after hearing my in-laws sing the praises of their equally famous butter tarts (apparently they had grown tired of taking orders for friends & coworkers back home in Hamilton, as many as four dozen every weekend), I was hopeful. But when I first saw them, slapped on styrofoam plates and covered with cling wrap, I was rather disappointed. (When I looked at the photo below on their website, in preparation for this blog post, I remembered why.)

They looked like something your cousin Lucy brings to every family gathering because years ago, someone politely complimented her home baking. They were a little dark, a little lopsided, with filling oozing out at odd angles and flakes of pastry dislodging willy nilly. I was actually dubious about buying them at all, but my partner reminded me of his brother’s serious endorsement (his brother has a penchant for the best of everything), and so I relented and bought six. Six! Later, of course, I wished I’d bought six dozen.

For this was clearly a case of not judging a tart by its cover.  The Little Tub tarts were melt-in-your-mouth flaky, with a filling that oozed comfort, Mom’s special hugs, and sugary buttery goodness. One bite of these unassuming little jewels and you could believe, for one shining moment, that all was right with the world.

They were, alas, gone too soon, even though we froze four of them to save for another joyful reunion with our palates. They lost none of their greatness when thawed, the mark of a truly great butter tart.

Of course, as with any food experience, this one has a caveat. It’s now been over four years since the first and only time that I ate Little Tub butter tarts. That’s mostly because Tobermory is a 4+hour drive from my home, for which my hips are thankful.

I have no idea if they still deserve the legendary status they have acquired in my mind. Having started down the B.T. rabbit hole, I know a return journey is in my near future. I wonder if I’ll see a bear?

Rating: 9 out of 10

The Deets: Little Tub Bakery, 4 Warner Bay Road, Tobermory, ON; (519) 596- 8399; Summer Hours: Mon-Sat 9-6, Sun 9-4. 

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