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Butter tarts: a complicated sweet from the colonial 'frontier'

Butter tarts — their saccharine filling punctuated with pop of raisins and offset by the thick flake of their crust — taste to me like Christmas. Of course, nobody makes them better than my mum, who always smiles slyly as she feeds them to me for breakfast (“Is it Christmas?”) alongside my coffee. Little known outside of Canada, my mum takes pride in butter tarts’ quintessential Canadian-ness. Last year, because of the pandemic, I was unable to make it home for the holidays so I was glad that I had copied out her recipe, which comes from an issue of Saveur from March 2000. I made two dozen (warning: this recipe makes a big batch) during a virtual baking session with my mum, and proceeded to eat them all, unaided by my (supposedly) sweet adverse partner.

I recently learned more about the story behind the dessert I’ve enjoyed for so long. I should not have been surprised, given the gender dynamics of ‘traditional’ cooking and Canada’s colonial history, to discover butter tarts’ links to colonialism and patriarchy. Butter tarts, it turns out, were invented by the Filles Du Roi, young women sent to Canada between 1663 and 1673 by Louis XIV to marry, cook, clean, and procreate in support of France’s efforts to colonize New France. These women, faced with the limited resources of their new lives on the ‘frontier’, developed the butter tart out of simple and readily available ingredients.

This year, I’m lucky enough to be able be home for the holidays again and I’m very excited to indulge in (far too many) of my mum’s butter tarts. As I savor the gooeyness, I will be reflecting on this history and marveling at the rich stories hidden in the mundane all around us — and especially in what we eat. Butter tarts are an edible reminder of the intimate links between food and national identity and of the importance of interrogating these identities and the often exploitative, violent, and exclusionary histories that underlie them. Interrogating ‘Canadianness’ requires reckoning with this country’s abhorrent history of colonialism. The story of the Filles Du Roi forces us to furthermore think about the intricate ways in which the patriarchy and colonialism intersect to blur the lines between victim and perpetrator; these women were both the victims of a patriarchal system that exploited their reproductive labour for the glory of a monarch and perpetrators of a violent and racist campaign of dispossession. I don’t think this will temper their sweetness but perhaps it will make it more complex.

- Zoë

Recipe: Canadian Butter Tarts

Adapted from Christopher Testani's recipe in Saveur, Issue #41. This version swaps butter in for the shortening suggested by the original recipe and honey for the corn syrup.

For the tart shells

5 ½ cups all purpose flour

1 ½ tsp salt

1 lb butter

1 egg

1 tbs white vinegar

For the filling

2 cups raisins

3 tbs unsalted butter, cut into pieces

2 cups packed brown sugar

½ cup pure maple syrup

¼ cup honey

4 eggs

1 tsp vanilla extract

1. Make the dough: In a large bowl, sift together the flour and salt. Using a pastry cutter or 2 knives, work the butterinto the flour mixture until it resembles coarse meal; set aside. In a medium bowl, whisk together the egg, vinegar, and 1 cup cold water, then drizzle the liquids into the flour mixture while stirring with a fork just until a shaggy dough begins to form. Lightly flour a clean work surface, then turn the dough out onto it. Give the dough several quick kneads to smooth, then shape into a 1-inch-thick disk. Wrap tightly in plastic and refrigerate for at least 1 hour or up to 2 days.

2. Meanwhile, make the filling: To a medium pot, add the raisins and enough cold water to cover by 1 inch. Bring to a boil over high heat, then drain, discarding the cooking liquid. Transfer the raisins to a medium bowl, then add the butter, brown sugar, maple syrup, and honey; stir until the butter melts and the mixture is combined. Set aside to cool slightly, 3–4 minutes. In a small bowl, beat 1 egg well, then fold it into the raisin mixture; repeat with remaining 3 eggs. Stir in the vanilla and set the filling aside at room temperature. (The raisins will sink to the bottom and need to be stirred up again when you fill the tarts.)

3. Preheat the oven to 425°F. Meanwhile, retrieve the dough from the fridge and unwrap. Lightly flour a clean work surface and a rolling pin, then roll out the dough to an even ¼-inch-thick sheet. Using a 4-inch round cookie cutter, cut 28 circles from the dough, gathering the scraps into a ball and rerolling as needed. Press the rounds into standard-size muffin tins, then fill each with 2 tablespoons of filling. Bake until the crusts are lightly golden and the filling is crackly and dry on the surface and barely set, 12–15 minutes. Cool the tarts completely, then use a thin, offset spatula or butter knife to lift them carefully from the tins. Serve at room temperature.

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