Is the butter tart the most Canadian of sweet treats? Not so fast

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Marco Werman: “American as apple pie.” Alright, fill in this sentence: “As Canadian as”¦” Poutine? Nope, too local. Maple syrup? Nah, we’re looking for a baked good, people. Food writer Steve Dolinsky is on a quest to fill in the blank. He’s been poking around the food markets in Toronto and he thinks he’s found the answer. Steve, tell us about your hands-down favorite, something nicknamed “the sugar pie”?


Steve Dolinsky: Yeah, it’s really called a butter tart here though, Marco. You go to any bakery, any market, and you’re going to see butter tarts. I mean, every place in Toronto, somebody has got an opinion about a butter tart. They are just all over Ontario.


Werman: Is it seasonal? Or is it, like, all year-long you get butter tarts?


Dolinsky: No way. No, this is like hockey, they talk about it all year-long here. It fits in the palm of your hand; it’s a little butter tart. But it’s essentially four things: it’s eggs, brown sugar, butter, and some corn syrup, and then it’s inside of sort of a flaky pastry shell, what really is like a pie shell, but it’s so intense and just packed with sweet and fat.


Werman: How many of these butter tarts have you felt you’ve had to eat?


Dolinsky: I’ve probably had a half-dozen so far. There’s quite a bit of variation, actually. Not everybody uses whole butter, not everybody uses the greatest brown sugar. On the eastern side of the province, closer to Quebec, they’ll use maple syrup--not just in the maple syrup season, but all year-long. Neighborhood bakeries--there’s a place called Lia’s up in the Witchwood neighborhood, kind of north Toronto. They’ve got a chocolate pecan version, as well.


Werman: So, you’re discovering, Steve, butter tarts for the first time. Let’s capture the Canadian passion for butter tarts. Here’s one fan, Rebecca LeHeup, kind of breaks it down this way, the butter tart.


Rebecca LeHeup: Some people like a firmer filling, and some people like it when the filling is kind of gooey and runny, because sometimes you can actually have so much filling that it’s just too much. You finish and you’re on this crazy, crazy sugar high, or you have so much dough, so much pastry, you’re like, “Ugh: Where’s the tart?” right? So, you have to have the perfect blend.


Werman: Yeah, the perfect blend. I guess it’s not that complicated, though Steve. Butter and sugar--a lot of cultures have figured that one out. And yet--and yet--my colleague, Andrea Crossan, who helms our Canada desk, she’s just popped into the studio, and Andrea, what would you like to share with Mr. Dolinsky?


Andrea Crossan: Here’s the thing: I’ve never had a butter tart. When I heard about this, I had no idea. I had to Google it to see what it looks like. You know, I believe you man, you’re the expert on this stuff. But I’m from the west coast and we do not do butter tarts.


Dolinsky: Well, that’s why: because you’re from the west coast. It is not a B.C., it’s not a Vancouver thing. It’s not even a Montreal thing. It is an Ontario thing. They have butter tart tours in Ontario. I mean, you can get on a bus and eat butter tarts all day. So, I don’t think it’s quintessential Canada coast-to-coast, but it is really one of their quintessential desserts in this province. Yeah, that’s the important thing.


Crossan: I’m sure you’re absolutely right on that. But just FYI: next time you go to Canada, I’m going to take you to the best coast and you’re going to have some nanaimo bars, which is what we’re famous for, and they’re the bomb, and I think you’re going to be having to rethink your whole butter tart obsession.


Werman: Wow. You know, the east coast/west coast rivalry. Canada, you guys have a east coast, west coast, and a middle coast rivalry. You do it up.


Dolinsky: No kidding. By the way, Rebecca was saying in the interview how you, after one or two of these, you might get too much of a sugar high--after two bites, I was done for the week. I mean, these are really intense. There’s a lot of sweetness to this.


Crossan: We’re a sweet people.


Dolinsky: They are sweet people; they’ve got sweet tooths. They need something because, you know, they eat all that poutine, with the fries, and the cheese curds, and the gravy, and they’ve got to have something to kind of wash that down, a little sweetness.


Crossan: That’s why we need universal healthcare. And seriously man, you need a nanaimo bar. Trust me on this one.


Dolinsky: I’ve heard of Nanaimo. Nanaimo is a place, isn’t it?


Crossan: Nanaimo is a place, it’s on Vancouver Island, and it’s a bar, it’s got, like, graham cracker crust on the bottom, the middle bit is like a custard made with butter icing, and then the top you have melted chocolate.


Dolinsky: Oh, god.


Werman: So, it’s like a moon pie for Marie Antoinette.


Crossan: Yeah, it’s crazy sweet.


Dolinsky: Alright, I’ll let you know when I go to Vancouver.


Crossan: Yeah, I’ll send you to my mom’s house.


Werman: My colleague at the Canada desk, Andrea Crossan. Of course, food writer, Steve Dolinsky, who joins us from Toronto, on the trail of the perfect butter tart. Steve, Andrea, thank you.


Dolinsky: My pleasure.


Crossan: Thanks.