A Better Butter Tart

buttertarts

What does it mean to be truly Canadian? Buying milk in plastic bags? Designing your Halloween costume to fit over your snowsuit? Celebrating Thanksgiving in October?

Well, what about butter tarts? You know up until last week I actually thought that the rest of the world knew what these were, until my mother promptly corrected me. “No! Butter tarts are a truly Canadian thing. Like peacekeeping! And Tim Hortons!”

And she would know. My mother loves butter tarts. Never put yourself between her and one of these pastries, as you’d be putting your life at risk.

Last summer she found a classic butter tart recipe in our national newspaper, and as it was a lazy day at the cottage, she decided to give them a try. “They were sinfully delicious”, she said, when I asked about the success of the dessert. “But the ingredients were pretty sinful too. Maybe you should give them a makeover! Then I can eat more.” Good thinkin’ mum. That is what I am here for.

You see butter tarts are not healthy. Not in the slightest. Not even if you used your imagination. For those of you who aren’t Canadian, a butter tart is a white-flour-and butter (or lard!) pastry shell filled with butter, sugar, eggs, and a token handful of raisins (but more often than not, corn syrup as well). That’s about it. They are undoubtedly delicious – I would liken them to edible crack. Ooey, gooey, caramel-ly filling that ceremoniously oozes out when sliced, surrounded by a flaky pastry crust – what’s not to love about that?  And although I am all in for a celebratory dessert now and again, I hope I have proven to most of you by now that there are better alternatives to the über-processed ingredients ever-present in common desserts, Canadian or otherwise.

buttertarts2

Grain-based Sweeteners: A pretty sweet deal!
In this recipe I am using two different sweeteners: barley malt and brown rice syrup.  These are both grain malt syrups and are the least concentrated, least sweet and most nearly whole-food sweeteners.

Barley malt and brown rice syrup are naturally processed sweeteners made from fermented grains, and are made of 50% maltose: a sugar that is only one-third as sweet as white sugar. At least half the composition of these grain-based sweeteners are nutrients found in the original whole grains from which they are made. They also contain good percentages of complex sugars, which take much longer to digest than the simple variety of sugars we find in processed sweeteners, like white sugar for example. Because complex sugars take longer to break down, this smoothes out the blood-sugar highs and lows associated with the consumption of highly processed sweeteners.

Although sugar is a major life force and our bodies need it as fuel, we can lose sight of the fact that there are huge differences is quality when it comes to the sugar we choose to eat. Sugars are plentiful in many whole foods like fruits, vegetables, even grains and dairy products, yet these sugars are balanced because whole food contains the proper minerals. Because refined sugars have been stripped of everything except the sweet, they have lost their mineral content, which creates a deficit of sorts, or an imbalance. The digestion of refined sugars forces our bodies to draw minerals out of our bones, tissues, and blood just regain the delicate equilibrium necessary for us to function. It’s a scary thought! You can imagine after years and years of eating refined sweeteners what a deficit of minerals one could be left with. That is why sugar consumption is linked to so many diseases, including immune deficiency, tooth decay, bone loss, heart disease, hypoglycemia, diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, PMS, and yeast overgrowth (just to name a few).

But I don’t want this to be all doom and gloom! Part of the motivation behind making healthier choices is being informed. And when you know the difference between sweeteners that actually take precious minerals from your hard working body, versus sweeteners that maintain the balance, you can make healthier choices from an educated place because you want to do what is best for you.

Some other examples of naturally processed sweeteners are unrefined cane juice powder (Sucanat), unrefined coconut sap powder (coconut sugar), maple syrup, blackstrap molasses, raw honey, fruit juices, fruit syrups and date sugar, amasake (fermented rice). Look for these at health food stores, natural grocers and increasingly good supermarkets. Be on the lookout for products that label themselves “natural” sweeteners such as fructose, brown sugar and turbinado sugar. They are nearly as refined and concentrated as white sugar and have similar effects on the body. And keep in mind that even though naturally processed sweeteners are better than their refined counterparts, you should still treat naturally processed sweeteners as something special (especially theses butter tarts!).

buttertarts3

These new-and-improved butter tarts are pretty darn delicious. Slightly different than your traditional version, they have a more caramel-y center and crunchier crust, almost like a shortbread cookie. I used ghee as the fat in the filling for this recipe because heck, this is a butter tart. If you choose to use butter, make sure that it is unsalted, or omit the salt in the filling. If you don’t want to use any animal products stick to the coconut oil. I haven’t tried it this way, but I am very confident it will be just as delicious.

buttertarts4

It’s hard being away from the homeland, but munching on one of these with my family last week sure helped ease the pain. If you’ve never enjoyed a butter tart before give these healthier treats a try and enjoy a little bite of true Canadian heritage – ‘cause you’d be a real hoser if ya didn’t, eh? Geeeeez.

See you this summer my dearest Canada! I’m counting the days…

 

93 comments

  1. Anne

    Hi Sarah,
    I don’t have barley malt. Any suggestions for substitutes – honey, agave, brown rice syrup, maple syrup?
    Thanks! Anne

  2. Nicole

    Growing up my mom made a tart that’s very much regionally specific to Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia – pork pies. I never ate them as a kid because I was always grossed out by the idea that there was meat in them. As an adult, I was pleased to learn they contained no meat at all (though I imagine they must have once been made with lard). They’re simply a shortbread-like tart shell filled with a cooked date mixture and sometimes topped with a maple-flavoured icing sugar-based frosting.

    Now that my mom can’t eat those tarts anymore, I imagine I might use your butter tarts to inspire a healthier version for my mom.

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  6. Asha

    I made these beauties last night. And…. I burnt them (entirely my own mess up as I forgot to put the timer on). It was a gorgeous experience, not least because I licked the syrups off the spoon, but also because I (eventually) gave myself the gift of self compassion. It’s okay; recipes go wrong sometimes, and I do mess up sometimes. And that’s okay. Thanks for the ongoing inspiration Sarah B.

  7. Danica

    I make butter tarts for all special occasions in Texas – my American friends here LOVE them. Now I have a much much healthier option. Thank you so much!

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  9. Maria

    I made these and I also found the cases to be a little too hard en the filling too little. I did use only oat syrup, since that was what I had on hand and I love that stuff. They did bubble up quite a bit and the filling spilled in my oven.
    However, the taste is good. I think I will try heating them up a bit (as soon as my oven is cleaned out) so that hopefully the filling will get a little more runny.

  10. Priscilla

    Oh, Sarah! Thank you for sharing your Canadian heritage! I am now inspired to find healthy/healthier versions of traditional Dominican dishes. You have been such a blessing in my life with your blog and personal encouragement!

    I’m glad to let you know I’ve lost 25 lbs and I feel better than I’ve felt in all my life. I look forward to more health, learning more about my body and its nutrition, and more decadently healthy recipes from you!

    I’m looking forward to buying your book, too!

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  12. Maggie R. Nighswander

    Oh. Yum. Love love the butter tarts. Will try. Important note: Milk-in-a-bag is an “eastern” thing! I grew up in Ontario (my sister used to play baby with bags of milk) but I’m on the Prairies now and milk is only carton or plastic jug. Too bad since those bags are super versatile.

    • Nicole

      Actually, I grew up in Ft. McMurrary (northern alberta, tar sands country), and even into the late 80s we had milk in a bag up there. I have even seen it here in British Columbia, though it is extremely rare.

      Now, if we could just have some healthier Nanaimo bars or Tart au Sucre!

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  14. christina

    Love this. I am from Montreal, Quebec and I grew up on these delicious things.
    Thank you for reminding me of my roots!
    Christina
    Cooking and Thinking Outside the Box!

  15. Deloraine W

    Hi Sarah I LOVE THIS!!! I am also a Canadian (living in Florida),a pastry chef and a chef. I have often thought of trying to make a healthier version of Butter tarts and Nanaimo bars. but you did it so beautifully and deliciously. You are such and inspiration to me and thousand others. I love your website I often tell anyone I meet,who is interested in cooking healthy and delicious foods to check out your blog. We all LOVE you, keep up the Awesome job you do…Delicious Blessings Always xoxo P.S. I too also chuckled about the milk in plastic bag so true :)

  16. Susie Hutchison

    Hi Sarah, I am an Australian but am married to a Canadian. Butter tarts were one of my earliest Canadian food experiences. Have tried many over the 37 years but Have never made them though for all the reasons you stated. Will definitely be making these . Would also love a healthy recipe for Naniamo Bars.
    Back in Australia now but love to share these flavours with friends. Love your blog and have tried a few of your wonderful recipes. Thanks for sharing.

  17. Sarah B

    Dear Allison,

    I wanted to write a HUGE, heartfelt thank you for the beautiful comment you left here. I am so moved to hear that you are embracing a healthier lifestyle and enjoying the rewards! It’s also great to learn that people are noticing the positive changes you’ve made in your life and are wanting to follow suit – thank you for spreading the healthy word!

    Receiving comments like yours really motivates me to keep doing what I am doing. Thank you for taking the time to write – it means more than you know.

    All love and light,
    Sarah B

  18. Allison

    Hi Sarah!

    I found your website in February and have made almost everything that you’ve posted since then, as well as trying many of your past recipes. I made a change to eat healthier at the time in an effort to just try and make healthier choices everyday and feel better on the inside. I now use your recipes daily and have fully replaced all the food in my kitchen with healthier options that you mention in your recipes. Its three months later, I’m off all digestive meds, I’ve lost 37 pounds, my boyfriend has lost 30 (he’s loved your recipes too btw), my brain works faster, and we have no desire to go back! The weight loss was unintentional, it just happened! Crazy!

    This post was my absolute favourite recipe so far because I am an east coaster in Canada and butter tarts are definitely a fav here. These taste so close to the real thing it’s hard to believe that they have nutritional value!

    Anywho, I just had to write you to finally express my love for what you do. You’ve really changed my life, my way of living, and the way I think about food. This lifestyle is contagious as well! People have been curious about the food I eat and my weight loss. Whenever I talk to them about cutting refined foods from my diet and how good it makes me feel they want in on the deal. I immediately recommend your site every time as a great place to start and get informed! It’s contagious!

    Thank you for everything you do and I hope you continue to do it long into the future. I hope you realize the impact you have on so many people.

    Many thanks,

    Allison

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  20. Brittany

    Sarah B! I recently started my own blog and your recipes inspire me !! You’re so creative and everything I’ve made of yours is so delicious. Today I was inspired by your dessert and used my own rendition of your salted caramel recipe to make a raw Samoa! It was amazing, thanks for all the inspiration I get from you :)

  21. Dale P.

    Hi Sarah
    Love your website!
    Love your recipes! …except this one…it just didn’t work out for me. I tried it twice. Totally followed the ingredient list and directions. First time, the shells were rock hard and too little filling (nothing runny or gooey about it). So second batch, I doubled the filling and added some water (~1 Tsp) to the pastry to try to make it ‘stick together’….Second batch was edible.
    And I was so looking forwards to putting these forward at the Annual Butter Tart Taste Off in Haliburton, Ontario, (it’s one of those cottage highlights of a Canadian summer).

  22. Tia

    Hi Sarah,
    I know you must receive so so many questions of all sorts but I still have two to add to the list. I have tried (a little, admittedly) to find answers on here but as I failed I’m thinking why not just ask. Firstly, I wonder what your view on stevia the sweetener is? I’ve studied it and grown it, yet I haven’t found any agreeable means of buying it in Finland. It seems it’s mostly used as a marketing trick. There is one intriguing version of CocoVi pure stevia, but it’s sold as a cure for wrinkles (because of European law, it says). I feel like I want to know more before I go crazy with stevia goodies. Secondly, I’ve recently discovered several yummy vegan products, which to my disappointment contain palm oil. Palm oil is supposed to be in all ways bad so I wonder why they must add it to otherwise such good products. Would absolutely love it if you could answer these questions in, say, a post, a recipe, or something. Perhaps there are more people wondering? Thanks a million for all the inspiration and information, Sarah!

  23. June

    I had no idea that butter tarts were Canadian… who knew. Butter tarts are delicious, my grandma used to make us butter tarts and ovaltine. She lives in one of the snowiest places in Western Canada, I can see her rolling her eyes now at this recipe. Her motto is “the difference between good cooking and great cooking is a pound of butter.” I would love to send her a batch of these and see what she thinks.

  24. Sarah Britton

    Hi Donna – I have never heard of Kitul syrup, but I am a fan of date syrup for sure. You could maybe use some of that in the filling in place of the barley malt.

    To all who asked: my mistake for labelling this recipe gluten-free! Barley malt is not. I’ve made the change.

    To Anne and Tal: so sorry to hear you had trouble with this one! When my recipes aren’t followed exactly in some cases, I can’t guarantee results: Anne, the brown rice flour does make a difference for sure, and Tal, maple syrup will make the filling way to runny!
    I know how frustrating it is to go to the trouble of making a recipe that doesn’t work out. Try try again! I promise these are delish :)

    All love,
    Sarah B

  25. Tal

    My shells were also a disappointment. I did use brown rice flour. The first day in a sealed container on the counter, the crusts stuck to my teeth and were somewhat bland. The second day they still stuck to my teeth, but now were also dry, I know it sounds contradictory . . . and they seemed even blander. The filling, however, is totally delicious. I ended up licking it out of the shell . . . I followed the crust recipe to the letter, but replaced the barley malt with maple syrup. The filling was, as said, delicious, but somewhat liquidy, not sure if that’s intended, but if not held straight, it spills out of the cup.

  26. Maggie

    You just made my week:) Thank you So Much for posting this! I’m an expat living in the US and whenever I mention my favourite dessert from back home I am met with looks of bewilderment until I bring some back with me and have people try them. I am so happy they are now a bit healthier thanks to you:) Your mum must be so proud;)

  27. Anne

    These little tarts look so delicious I had to try them and so I did. They tasted all right, but they ask some skill. My tart shells turned out rock hard and the filling very sticky. So, unfortunately this batch ended in the bin.
    I don’t like sharing failures, but perhaps my failures help others to get these beauties right.
    Because I didn’t have brown rice flour, I replaced it with white rice flour and fine maize meal. But perhaps using brown rice flour was crucial for getting a crisp result. Pressing out the crust as thin as possible also is crucial.
    The filling tasted wonderful, but it really needs the 1/3 cup of raisins or a replacement to have enough filling. Even then there was barely enough. The recipe said to bake the filled tarts for 30 minutes, but next time I would check them after 20 minutes.
    Many of my favorite recipes come from My New Roots, so I’m sure the recipe is great, but this one I need to practice a few more times to get the mouthwatering results of the pictures.

  28. Mariam

    This looks so yummy! I’ve never heard of a butter tart before this, but then again i’m Australia! I haven’t been able to find barley syrup, can I just use all rice malt syrup? Or perhaps maple?

  29. Krista

    I’m a Canadian girl living in Australia and when it gets around to Thanksgiving time, I simply HAVE to make butter tarts and Nanaimo bars for my loves. :-) Your version of these delicious nibbles looks so good. :-)

  30. Shelley

    So funny! After nearly 10 years living away from home I never knew that butter tarts were Canadian! Now suddenly I need to eat one!!

  31. McKel

    These look like stunners! What a great recipe! I’ve never had butter tarts (well because they contain butter…) I’ll give this recipe a try ;)

  32. Kario

    I’m curious about the barley syrup, given that I am gluten-free as well. Does it not contain any gluten or should I stay away from it? I will try these, but will sub other things in for the rice-based ingredients to avoid arsenic issues. Hazelnut flour, perhaps ;-) Thanks for this – they look lovely!

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  34. Li @ Words and Cake

    I’ve actually never tried one of these tarts before even though I do know what they are, but what I find more amazing is that you’ve managed to ‘healthify’ something called butter tarts. I will definitely have to try this!

  35. Suzanne @RollWithIt

    YAY being Canadian! These look divine. One of my pet peeves about going home at Xmas is that all the butter-tarts are full of wheat & corn syrup! I will have to try thes for sure!!! Thanks Sarah!

  36. Amanda

    I’d love to make these! It’s tagged as gluten free but contains barley malt (so it isn’t GF). What would make a good substitution? Extra Brown rice syrup?

  37. Lana Pribic

    Amazing post Sarah! Loved it from start to finish.

    Hoping, praying, and crossing my fingers that you will do a fabulous workshop in Toronto while you’re here!! xx

  38. Donna

    Photographic perfection…these gems simply scream “make me …now”. Question…Here in France we have other sweetening options in our local organic “bio” épicerie…and was wondering how you feel about Kitul syrup or Date syrup?…I am trying to keep the glycemic factor at bay, but are these dangerous liquid sugars?..They would seem to impart a slightly maple syrup/caramel taste as they are not “clear” in hue?..Thoughts?..Thank you very much for the tutorial on sweeteners…very well written.

  39. Alison

    as an ex pat living in Australia I thank you for a healthy recipe for one of the best deserts on the planet.!! I will be making them tomorrow to introduce them to Australia. And those Nanaimo bars would be nice too. :)

  40. Nina

    Milk in plastic bags?! Yuck, on so many levels!

    So is brown rice syrup the same as rice malt syrup? The two things look quite different in my local (UK) health food shop, and the rice malt syrup has barley (i.e. gluten) in it…

  41. Lynn

    Perfect timing! My Mom will be here (Québec City) from Montréal for the Victoria’s Day long weekend and she’s the queen of the old fashioned full of white sugar and other white stuff butter tarts, so I’m going to try this one out on her and I’ll let you know how they do! Thanks so much, Sarah, for your continuous experimentations (is that a word?) in your wholesome kitchen and for sharing them with us!

  42. Melanie

    What could I replace the brown rice syrup with? I am concerned about the arsenic.

    Thank you for a butter tart recipe that I can make for my husband and not cringe about it!

  43. MaryAlecia

    I know it can be pretty expensive, but my husband and I make our pecan pies using pure maple syrup as the only sweetener. It’s the most amazing, wonderful, delightful experience. And we’re really fortunate that his dad has a stand of generous maple trees to make his own! So we’ll totally going to make these little beauties and use maple syrup instead of the brown rice syrup. So excited to try this recipe!

  44. Naz

    Thank you for all the deliciousness from one expat to another. And don’t forget about Caesars (Bloody Mary), tuques (woolen caps) and garburators (the garbage disposal)!

  45. Emma B

    We don’t eat butter tarts either in the French part of Canada (Quebec).
    Armed with this recipe, I intend to change that in my family!

  46. Elisabeth C

    This looks SO good:) Can’t wait to try this recipe…perhaps it will help to soothe my hubby’s aching heart (the Maple Leafs are out of the playoffs:(

  47. Health Benefits

    Wonderful site you have here. As a Canadian and a butter tart lover, I definitely approve of this post haha. The recipe looks great and you have laid it out in a way that even I can figure out. Also, your pictures look amazing. You have a real knack for photography and getting the right angles and lighting.

    So glad to have found your site. Will certainly take a look around and search for other great recipes. Thanks for all you do and all the best :).

  48. Steff

    Lol Halloween costumes over snowsuits- I truly hated that growing up in Canada! If we made it to Halloween without snow that was a bonus. And milk in bags- here in the UK I find it charming they deliver milk to your door in glass bottles.
    I always find it interesting when there are so many things I know and love being Canadian only to find that people may not have even heard of them over here!
    I have always ADORED buttertarts. My mom used to make them for me loaded with pecans and chocolate and they were heaven. This is a great recipe to revamp a classic treat, thank you!

  49. Sasha

    You’re amazing! I grew up eating butter tarts with pecans (I wasn’t really into raisins as a kid) and I think they’ll feel right at home in this recipe.

    I can’t wait to try your healthy interpretation of this classic Canadian sweet. You’ve done it again.

  50. Jenny

    Love the recipe and I will definitely be giving it a try. We had our “first” holiday this past year gluten free, and pies and tarts were not on the menu as usual. My memories are of my mum whipping up pies and having left over pie crust, which she would then make into butter tarts. Can’t wait to show her this recipe. Now the holidays will almost be back to normal….just need to perfect the GF Nanaimo bar recipe:)

    Funny about the bags of milk…forgot about that “Canadianism”…will have to tell my husband, he will get a good laugh.

  51. Makesmewannauke

    LOL! I think all butter tarts are stubborn when it comes to getting them out of the tin. I fondly recall sharing the bounty with my siblings as we sat around the tart tin with our spoons!
    Love your makeover!

  52. Clara

    Wow, beautiful pictures as ALWAYS and so very tempting. I guess I ‘ll have to make a batch. Thank you Sarah for the inspiration!

  53. Claire

    Such a great breakdown of refined sugars. I’ve been trying to explain to my mama why this is so important (she’s a sugar addict) and can’t wait to share this with her.

  54. Kelly Miller

    In the US we call these type of tarts, Pecan Tassies, sans the raisins, and usually made mini-muffin pan sized. I never thought I would have them again since I left animal products behind over a year ago, but I am going to make this asap because I can tell they are going to be yummo! Thanks a whole lot :)

  55. Carol

    You’re from Toronto! I never read your “About” page until you referenced being Canadian in this post. I could just kiss you for this recipe!
    Carol from Toronto

  56. Joy // For the Love of Leaves

    I’ve never heard of butter tarts before, but I have to say your version sounds much tastier to me! I also really enjoyed that you went into details about the different kinds of sugars. Can’t wait to try the coconut oil version of this!

  57. Karen Beth

    I’ve never heard of these before but they look REALLY amazing! I want to try them asap! Thank you!

  58. Nikole

    Mmmmm. This sounds delicious. Being for the US I have never even heard of butter tarts, but I am so going to make these this weekend :D Thank you!

  59. sarah

    These look gorgeous. ‘Part of the motivation behind making healthier choices is being informed.’ – yes, and thank you for all the good information here. It’s made me want to go through my cupboards and do some thinking.

  60. Quinn Cooper

    I am originally from Toronto, but live in NYC now. I like you assumed that everyone ate butter tarts, but as I read your post I did realize I have never seen a butter tart in any bakery in the US. I kind of love that butter tarts are exclusively Canadian. These look delicious, I’ll definitely have to try this healthier version.

    I laughed about the milk in bags, SO TRUE.

    xo Quinn
    Quinn Cooper Style

  61. Emma

    I’ve never known what butter tarts were until now. I had heard them mentioned though in the song “Steal my Sunshine” (Len). Don’t know if you’re familiar with it..
    Your little caramel-y tarts look delicious.

  62. Kathryn

    I’ve not heard of butter tarts before but I can’t even begin to imagine how delicious these are. Love that gooey centre and the tweaks that you made to the recipe. Excited to try this!

  63. Laura

    Love that your mum equated being Canadian with Peacekeeping. Oh, and I love these too. That slightly runny aspect is so crucial. Total beauts Sarah! :)

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