Butter Tarts

Butter Tarts

Butter Tarts

I don’t know about you but it’s bake sale season in my world, with both our employers running United Way workplace fundraisers. Somewhere along the line I got pegged for butter tarts, and now I’m a bit of a November workplace baking celebrity.

What is it about butter tarts and the Canadian identity? They aren’t really a thing in the US apparently, although the southern pecan pie is very similar — we just leave out the pecans. According to Wikipedia, butter tarts are a quintessentially Eastern Canadian dessert, and have their origins in pioneer Canadian cooking. There are festivals dedicated to them, and they’ve become a must-have cottage country staple. People are obsessed.

For me, butter tarts really started with my Mom, although I have to say she has her own recipe and I have mine. My Mom’s also been pegged as the butter tart queen in her circles, being threatened to be barred entry to gatherings unless she arrives bearing a few dozen. For my part, I get people trying to reserve them for the bake sale the night before, and others emailing me to confirm I’m making them. I’ve even been offered bribes.

And then there’s the raisins or no raisins divide. My husband, who does not have a sweet tooth at all (damn him), makes an exception for butter tarts, and he is firmly in the “with raisins” camp. I have to ensure I make several extra for him or the bake sale supply will never get out of the house in tact. I make both kinds for the bake sales.

My recipe is based on the Canadian Living magazine version with a couple tweaks. First, I don’t use their pastry recipe. I’ve got my own no fail pie crust that I use for everything, and I like it better. I thought I got it from Smitten Kitchen but I can’t find the recipe on her site now, so maybe I modified it and made it all my own at some point in my pie crust love affair. The important thing is I’m whole hog on the butter baby. No shortening for me. Secondly, I discovered by using an extra egg in the butter tart filling it becomes more stable during baking and less prone to boiling over into a sticky impossible caramelized mess that make the tarts difficult to remove from the tins. Adding the extra egg does not take away from the sweet, gooey awesomeness that is the heart of the tart.

Butter Tart Pastry

Butter Tart Pastry

Let me tell you from experience that if you are indeed making these babies for a bake sale, borrow or buy some extra tart tins. Butter tart baking is messy business, and if you need to make at least 4 dozen like I do, washing the tins between baking is a serious drag. The filling that does manage to escape the pastry is literally caramel, and it hardens to the tin just like a hard candy — no stick coating or not. Save the washing up headache for the end and have a fresh tin for each dozen you’re going to pull off. I just bought a couple extra tins for this very reason; and there is really no other justification for me to own 4 sets of muffin/tart tins other than butter tart baking.

And now for the much anticipated recipe sharing. Enjoy!

Butter Tarts
Servings: 12 regular sized tarts

Ingredients:

Pastry:

  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1/4 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 cup butter
  • cold water, usually about 3 tablespoons but use what you need (see directions)

Filling:

  • 3/4 cup brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup corn syrup
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 tbsp butter, very softened but not fully melted
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 1 tsp vinegar
  • 1 pinch salt
  • 1/4 cup raisins or dried black currants (optional)

Directions:

  1. In large bowl, whisk flour with salt and baking powder. Cut in butter with pastry cutter until mixture resembles coarse crumbs with a few larger pieces. Some people advocate using a food processor for this. I do not; I recommend using a hand-powered pastry cutter for the best results.
  2. Starting with a tablespoon at a time, sprinkle cold water over flour mixture, stirring until pastry holds together. DO NOT over hydrate the dough and DO NOT over mix. You can use your hands instead of a spoon as the dough gets harder to mix to help press the dough together but resist the urge to knead — this is not bread. You should be able to see bits of butter that are not blended into the dough; this is what makes the pastry flaky during baking.
  3. Once your dough is more or less holding together, press into disc shape (like the photo above) and wrap in waxed paper. Refrigerate until chilled, about 1 hour. Make-ahead and refrigerate for up to 3 days.
  4. Preheat your oven to 450 ºF (230 ºC) and move the rack to the lower third of the oven.
  5. For the filling, in a separate bowl, whisk together brown sugar, corn syrup, eggs, butter, vanilla, vinegar and salt until blended; set aside.
  6. On lightly floured surface, roll out pastry to 1/8-inch (3 mm) thickness. Using 4-inch (10 cm) round cookie cutter (or empty 28 oz/796 mL can), cut out 12 circles, re-rolling scraps once or twice if necessary. Note that overworked dough will turn out poorly. Fit into muffin cups. Divide raisins among shells if using. Spoon in filling until three-quarters full.
  7. Bake tarts in your pre-heated oven until the filling is puffed and bubbly and pastry is golden, about 12 minutes. Different metals of pans can affect cooking time so monitor your tarts closely to avoid scorching. Let the tin stand and cool on a rack for 1 minute. Run a metal spatula or thin knife around tarts to loosen; carefully lift the tarts and transfer to rack to cool. Note that timing is crucial here — if you leave the tarts in the tin cooling for too long, any filling that has boiled over will harden considerably and make extricating the tarts very difficult.

Variations: 

  • Try using maple syrup instead of corn syrup. The tart filling will be a bit runnier but the flavour is lovely.
  • Drizzle cooled tarts with melted chocolate, or add a few chocolate chips to the filling instead of raisins.
  • Substitute walnuts or pecans for raisins in the filling.

 

Wanting Less

Christmas light bokeh

The older I get, the more I struggle with the materialism of Christmas. I think it’s worse this year than the past because we have a baby on the way — babies are generally considered to require a lot of stuff — and because we moved in the last year, and still have an absolutely atrocious amount of stuff that we’re struggling to find room for. Generally speaking, I want less stuff — not more.

This struggle with the accumulation of stuff is something that becomes especially acute when it the annual request for Christmas lists comes in from one side of the family. I’m not keen on providing a list of more stuff that I supposedly want when truly, I do not want for anything. And while I know it’s not intended to come across this way, I just can’t help but feeling like, “Don’t they know me well enough to have some idea of what I like or what I’m into?”

We’ve had some success with focusing on investing in experiences for the kids on one side of my family, and I think that’s really appreciated by the parents as well as the little people. But these types of gifts have gone over like lead balloons with the other side of the family. I don’t really know why this hasn’t been successful except that some feedback we’ve gotten included that the family is to busy for such gifts, even though we’ve consciously tried to choose experiences that were super flexible. (As an aside, this is a big hint to GTA attractions: Get your gift certificate side of the biz going! It’s incredible how few attractions offer family passes or gift certificates. Talk about a missed opportunity!)

I realize we can’t change (or apparently even influence) the ideology of other families, but these challenges makes me think deeply about what I want for mine. Because of this struggle with the accumulation of stuff, I really enjoyed reading the article 16 Ways to Help Children Want Less by Jo Hegerty. It contains excellent ideas I hope to foster in my own family. I thank my friend Alice for sharing it; at least I know she and I are on the same page when it comes to focusing less on stuff. The real challenge as we increase our family size by one will be asking our families to respect our ideologies around accumulation of stuff — something I anticipate to be no small feat.

Neighbourhood parenthood training

Our house is across the street from the backyard of an adult assisted living facility, run by the Salvation Army. A chain-link fence backs the property, which feels more like a park, because this part of their facility is big open green space with a path running through it. We often lament that we can’t cross it for a shortcut to the bus stop, but on the other hand it adds to the private nature of our little cul-de-sac.

As this is our first year living in this house, we’ve had to get used to a few quirks of the neighbourhood. Sometimes there are very unhappy sounding screams and hollering coming from the people who live in the facility. This is just a fact of life here, and we’ve learned that no, someone isn’t being assaulted or hurt — it’s just vocalizations. More recently, we’ve met Genevieve.

Genevieve is a resident of the facility, a cute and very friendly woman who is apparently 38 years old (she told me). I was out raking leaves today and she was out for a stroll. My husband I have both encountered Genevieve a few times while out working on the front yard. She is always very chatty and fully of questions. She obviously remembers some of the details of our chats from time to time, even though our conversations can be very cyclical and repetitive.

I don’t know if I’m so obviously pregnant at this point that she just made an educated guess (I don’t think it’s that obvious, especially when I’m wearing a warm jacket) or whether she had been told previously about it, but she wanted to know if she could see the baby. I tried to explain that it would still be a few months. She wanted to know if it was a boy or a girl, and then the more complicated questions came: how did you know you were pregnant? When did you get pregnant? How do you know it’s a boy? And round and round again with the same questions.

Obviously Genevieve has some kind of developmental disability. But I couldn’t help but think about how her questions were so like that of a little child — the exact kinds of questions I’ll probably have to figure out how to answer some day. Who knew that my neighbourhood interactions would present as parenthood training?

Leafy Baby Blanket

Baby Blanket

Leafy Baby Blanket, designed by Leyla Alieva.

I recently finished up this blanket and gifted it to a coworker who is about to go on maternity leave this week. It’s a relatively simple lace pattern, despite looking rather complex.  What I found to be most unusual with this pattern was that the lace stitches are worked on both the right and wrong sides, a technique I hadn’t yet encountered in my lace knitting experience.

Baby Blanket

Detail of the leaf lace

I knitted this in Patons Grace, a mercerized cotton yarn with an excellent smoothness and sheen. This is in the colour Apricot. I have a stockpile of this yarn in both this colour and another called Champagne.

The blanket is lovely, although I felt it should have been a bit bigger. I followed the pattern exactly: Leafy Baby Blanket by Leyla Alieva. Since I gifted this one, I’m now remaking a version for my baby in the Champagne colour, and making it about 3 pattern repetitions wider. I’m a little bored of the pattern after knitting it for so long, but at the same time that makes it easy to knit, and lately I knit super slowly. It takes me eons to finish a project. I’m just so busy lately that I haven’t committed a lot of time to it. I want to knit a bunch of things for baby but I’m trying not to set my expectations too high. I also want to quilt a couple small blankets for him, so between these ambitions I have lots to keep me busy.

Baking up something special

We've got a bun in the oven

Yup. We’ve got a bun in the oven.

So the cat’s out of the bag as of today! Yup — we’re expecting! I’ve spent the last couple days doing the big reveal at work and online, something that’s had me feeling quite a bit of anxiety. But in the end, it’s been a lot of fun to tell people, and generally everyone has been very positive and excited for us. My anxiety was rooted in knowing that suddenly I would be… exposed… along with worries about all the stuff women generally have to deal with throughout a pregnancy, like changes in how people treat you, as if you have a disability (I don’t), or the collective social notion that suddenly your body is no longer your own — that it belongs to society as a whole (it does not; my body is all mine, and only temporarily on loan to a small being).

Despite today being the first day virtually my whole world has been informed of our news, in fact my closest friends and family have been aware for a while. So I’ve already experienced some of these changes. And I don’t entirely blame people for their odd choices of words, the horror stories they decide to tell you, or their notions that I need special treatment. I get the psychology behind it, which is quite enlightened by Sally Raskoff over on the Everyday Sociology Blog. But I still wish people would think about what they intend to say or how they may come across, before those horror stories leave their mouths!

Because really, when you’re pregnant, you’ve likely done some reading. You’ve probably given some thought to the many “what ifs” you may be confronted with. At least I know I have. I’m a Virgo after all; I organize and prepare and inform myself. Being pregnant is an intensely personal experience, and different for every woman. I don’t want any special treatment (although the offer of a subway seat would be nice once in a while), and I’m the best judge of my capabilities during each phase of this experience. If I don’t think I can lift that box, I’ll tell you and ask you to do it. And no, I don’t really care to hear your favourite horrible pregnancy story.

Also, as of today, I’ve been asked what Katharine Wroth in Salon.com describes as “What not to ask a pregnant woman,” that is, “Were you trying?” When I first encountered this article I admittedly was a bit confused about why this question could be viewed so negatively, but as I read on, my response changed to, “Damn straight! Who’s business is it really how my sex life has been?” I think my initial response to the article was because for me, part of our delay in getting in the family way had to do with my rheumatoid arthritis diagnosis three years ago. So I’m somewhat less offended by this question, but thanks to the article, I now consider this one a little more, especially depending on who’s asking.

That’s it for now. I’m sure there will be much more to come before our munchkin is due to arrive by mid March!

 

Wish List: Flash Disc Portable Light Modifier

Part of being lazy with my blog over the last year or two has included being lazy with my photography. I’ve been relying an awful lot on my iPhone to take photos. It’s convenient and always handy, and I don’t have to download or do much, if any, post production. I can just upload my photo straightaway. I blame my job, where I use a DSLR and create video more frequently than I used to, so I feel less inclined to do the work in my personal life. Plus my job just makes for a handy scapegoat.

But then my hubby sends me links to nifty tools that get me kind of excited again. Call me a gear junkie. He’s exactly the same when it comes to back country camping equipment.

The Flash Disc Portable Light Modifier is the most recent gizmo he’s sent me, and I have to admit it looks pretty darn handy and very cool. It’s a portable little soft box you can pop right onto your flash. How cool is that? Christmas is coming…

The brightest veggie of the bunch: the beet

Borscht

A tasty bowl of borscht will warm your bones on a chilly autumn day

After returning from the land of beef, lamb and potatoes (Ireland) I crave veggies. Lots and lots and lots of them. While it was possible to get yourself a decent salad, and virtually every restaurant or pub had seafood chowder on the menu (and I ate a LOT of that too because it’s way better than our local stuff), colourful veggies just didn’t play a major role in Ireland’s food scene. Granted, the higher end restos were more varied in their offerings, but our pocket book could only sustain eating at those places every so often.

So the first meal I made after getting home was a giant stock pot of borscht, the famous Ukrainian red beet and cabbage soup, a true celebration of autumn and vegetables. My version is a modification of a recipe from Foodland Ontario called “Ontario Borscht.” I leave out the white turnip, mushrooms and beans. I’m not really sure why; I just think the beans and the mushrooms would be a very odd texture in this soup, although admittedly the beans are what gives the soup it’s “whole meal” status by adding protein. And white turnips, well I just don’t have a relationship with this vegetable (I really should get to know them). My Mom’s borscht never included these ingredients and frankly this soup reminds me of growing up. Not that we were Ukranian of course. It’s just something she made once in a while.

Of course Chris hates beets, and finds this soup a bit difficult to stomach. He can’t easily get a whole bowl down. So it’s really just me that thoroughly appreciates it. As with many soups, this one is better on the second day, and it freezes very well (minus the sour cream garnish of course), so I’ve got a supply to keep me going for months now.

For the love of potatoes

Torr Head, Northern Ireland

The view from Torr Head in Northern Ireland

Earlier this year I learned that I won — yes won — a week-long trip to Ireland for four people through a draw offered by Tourism Ireland at the Canada Blooms garden show. Crazy, right? People actually win these things!

My Mom had already been working on trying to organize a family trip for next year as part of her 60th birthday, but the plan wasn’t working out for a whole variety of reasons. It was a trip she intended to take with my Dad before he passed away, to go back to the ancestral homeland and try to see some of the places our fore bearers came from. So it was strangely karmic, like stars aligning, to win such a massive prize out of the blue.

Aunt Beth and Mom in Galway, Ireland

My Aunt Beth and my Mom at the Cottage Bar in Galway City, Ireland

We decided to extend it to a two week vacation, and I invited my Mom and Aunt Beth (my Dad’s sister) to join Chris and I. We just came back on Saturday, and it was a fantastic trip…although I’ll happily abstain from eating potatoes for at least a month, and I’m going on an intensive veggie kick for a while after what is a very meat based diet. It’s no surprise that the Irish love potatoes but…just WOW.

While we were there we even managed to connect with some long distant cousins, to see some family graves and even visit the farm that my great-great-great grandfather likely grew up on, a farm which still belongs to a family member today.

The Dark Hedges, Northern Ireland

The Dark Hedges (of Game of Thrones and other film fame) in Northern Ireland

I have filled a 32G card with photos that are likely going to take me weeks to process and edit, so this post includes just a tiny sample of a couple favourites from the good ol’ iPhone. We saw a great deal of the country but I think the north was my favourite. Stay tuned with much more to come!

It’s official…I’m finally home

Vanilla Pear Butter

Vanilla Pear Butter

So I’ve been living in my new home and cooking with my new kitchen for oh, about 10 months now, and I only just got around to canning my first batch of anything: Vanilla Pear Butter. And now I finally feel like I’ve arrived.

Fresh Bartlett Pears

Fresh Bartlett Pears

We were away most weekends throughout the summer and early fall, and in the event we spent the odd one at home, I had a to-do list as long as my arm. It’s a lot of work to settle into a new house, especially one that’s still got the odd bit of renovation work yet to be completed, not to mention the massive landscaping job that took place (that is in fact, still taking place). I hung my first pictures on the walls just a few weeks ago. Part of the problem is that every time the workers are here to do something they generate a whole new round of dust that needs attention, so I’ve held back on the decor bits until just recently. I may yet regret hanging up the things I did. I hate dusting.

To be fair to myself, it’s hard to get motivated to can anything when I don’t really have a garden for inspiration. I finally decided a few weeks ago to hit up the grocery store in my old hood to see if by chance they had any bushels of roma tomatoes still kicking around, with faint hope of canning a couple batches of tomatoes and tomato sauce. I was too late, although if I’d wanted to buy a few bushels of red shepherd peppers for roasting and canning I would have been well stocked. Gotta love neighbourhoods with lots of old ladies from “the old country.”

Cooking down the pears

Cooking down the pears

While the tomato hunt turned up short, they had a couple baskets of ripe Bartlett pears, and I happened to have a stock pile of vanilla beans waiting for some love. This pear butter is perhaps my favourite recipe in the jam/jelly/butter category. It’s deliciously comforting spread simply on toast, or fancied up with some of your favourite sharp cheese on some fresh baguette.

Space to can!

Space to can!

And while I was involved in designing my kitchen and I’ve been reaping the joys of it ever since we moved in, I don’t think I fully appreciated the gift I’d given myself until I set out to can. Imagine the freedom of having room on both sides of your stove to have your tools and supplies ready! No more carrying steaming, dripping incredibly hot glass jars precariously gripped between tongs across the kitchen! I don’t even have to take the saucepan off the stove! Amazing! I’m not missing that old awkward L-shaped kitchen with no countertops around the stove at all.

Pureed Butter

Pureed butter with vanilla bean

In the end this was a rather small batch resulting in just 5 250 ml jars. It’s hardly enough to give away, and this would be a stellar holiday gift. I’m not sure I’ll be able to carve out time enough to do more but I sure hope so. If I do, I just might have to make use of my little 125 ml jars to stretch it out. These 5 are staying in my pantry, at least until they end up in my belly!

Baby Burrito Quilt

Baby Burrito Quilt

Baby Burrito Quilt

This post is a bit late in coming. I call it Baby Burrito Quilt because it was a gift for my friend Angie Griffith, who was referred to her baby belly as a baby burrito. Baby burrito was born a little over a month ago now, but I’ve just gotten around to publishing these photos.

Baby Burrito Quilt

Featuring “My Happy Garden” by Cloud9 Fabrics

I wanted to make this quilt without buying a whole bunch of new fabric. I took some creative math but I managed to use up almost all my remaining stash of “My Happy Garden” fabric by designer Michelle Engel Bencsko of Cloud9 Fabrics.

Baby Burrito Quilt

Detail

The rest is made up of a mix of miscellaneous fabric and Kona solids. I’m very pleased with how it turned out.

Baby Burrito Quilt

Quilt backing

The back had to be pieced together to have enough coordinating fabric to do the job.

Baby Burrito Quilt

Quilt top

The quilt was a hit of course, and I even have a wee bit of “My Happy Garden” left. I’ll likely need to combine it with something else to make another baby-sized quilt. I’m already shopping around for more Cloud9 fabric. It took some work but I’ve found a couple Canadian online stores that carry their lines… so dangerous on the pocket book!