When the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s (William and Katherine) visit to Canada was announced, a flurry of discussion erupted about what foods to serve them. Sandwiches? BeaverTail pastries? (A cardboard cut out of the royal couple, belonging to Ottawa Tourism, would later make a pilgrimage to a BeaverTails shack in the ByWard Market) It’s probably the wrong weather to serve maple sugar taffy…Perhaps something savoury? Duck? Moose? Elk? Venison?
In Ottawa, gelato purveyor Piccolo Grande (55 Murray Street), created a flavour just for the occasion. A number of bakeries in the downtown core specially baked cookies, hoping to score another “Obama Cookie.” You see, President Obama purchased several maple leaf-shaped shortbread cookies from Moulin de Provence (55 Byward Market Square) for his family, during his inaugural visit. The purchase was captured by the media. As a result, Moulin de Provence was flooded with orders for the cookie for months to come.
The good people behind Food Day Canada then asked, “What do you think is the quintessential Canadian food?”, an identity-defining dish, something an entire nation could stand behind. We responded with maple syrup, bannock, and butter tarts.
Yes, butter tarts are Canadian.
– the “butter tart” is defined by Wikipedia as “a small pastry highly regarded in Canadian cuisine and considered one of Canada’s quintessential desserts
– butter tarts are sweet, never savory
– while somewhat blasphemous, depending on which side of the Ottawa river you call home, the butter tart is somewhat analogous to the Québecois tart au sucre
– while there are many recipes, butter tarts are generally made from butter, sugar (including maple, brown, and dark and light molasses), eggs, and pastry
– butter tarts are augmented with additional ingredients (flourishes), including raisins, pecans, currants, caramel, and chocolate
What we discovered on our less than exhaustive roundup of Ottawa’s butter tarts is how much they vary.
Take for instance the following samples:
First, to baseline our discussion, here is what we consider superior to supermarket-bought, but pedestrian:
This butter tart came from Marcello’s, a national chain of cafeteria-style eateries. It had neither a particularly tender nor flaky crust. The crust was unevenly thick and relatively flavourless. Its filling was dense, not greasy, and tasted of darker sugars. It was topped with pecans.
Here is what bakeries in Ottawa offer:
Bread and Sons Bakery (195 Bank Street)
Pay no mind to the Bagel Shop wrapper. This butter tart was purchased at Bread and Sons.
On a regular weekday, these butter tarts sell out quickly. They feature more crust than filling. The filling however was complexly sweet and flavourful. Its texture was not runny, but almost delicate. The crust was thicker, with many flaky layers, each one tasting of butter.
Cost: $2.62 (can come topped with either raisins or pecans)
Dufflet (1321 Wellington Street W. (Ottawa Bagel Shop))
Dufflet Pastries is located in Toronto, with several brick and mortar storefronts distributed throughout the provincial capital. In Ottawa, cafés, some fine food shops, and a few supermarkets carry Dufflet cakes, pies, and tarts, everything trucked in. The butter tart pictured was purchasd from the Ottawa Bagel Shop in the West Wellington Village.
Dufflet butter tarts are wider than they are tall. The filling was slightly runny, thick but loose. The crust resembled a lighter short bread, not particularly buttery, but tender. This one came with raisins.
Cost: $2.75 for a large tart (smaller ones cost $1.40)
Three Tarts (1320 Wellington Street W.)
Three Tarts’ butter tarts are immaculate. The crust was uniquely tall (almost as tall as the tart was wide), uniform in thickness, carefully shaped, and more tender than flaky. The crust had a texture reminiscent of quality shortbread. The filling was golden in colour, sweeter, but delicious.
Cost: $2.95 (if you buy 6 or more, taxes are included)
Brown Loaf Inc. (268 Elgin Street)
Brown Loaf’s butter tarts’ sport an unbalanced pastry crust to filling ratio. Its filling was light in colour, with no molasses character at all. It also was not runny. The crust was beyond tender, soft and crumbly, and extremely thick. It was topped with pecans.
Boko Bakery (280 Elgin Street)
Boko Bakery’s butter tarts had a dryer filling, which crusted over during baking. Its crust was flakeless and almost crisp.
Which butter tart do we think is best in Ottawa? It depends entirely on what you like in a tart. Consider what you like pie-wise. For me, while I understand there is a time and place for a pâte sablée, I am in awe of flaky crusts that bake up, separating into distinct strata. It likely has something to do with how I like my Hong Kong-style egg tarts. And, like egg tarts, I prefer my fillings custardy, neither dense nor runny. As such, my favourite butter tart comes from Bread and Sons. It has the right ratio of crust to filling. Its crust is beautifully flaky. Biting into one is sublime.
So…Where do you buy your favourite butter tarts? What do you like?