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.
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.