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.

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!).

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.

A Better Butter Tart

2 cups / 190g rolled oats (gluten-free, if possible)
1 cup /140g brown rice flour
1/2 tsp. sea salt
6 Tbsp. brown rice syrup
5 Tbsp. coconut oil, melted

1/2 cup (125 ml.) brown rice syrup
1/4 cup (60 ml.) barley malt
2 Tbsp. arrowroot powder
2 Tbsp. ghee, melted (unsalted butter or coconut oil is fine)
1 vanilla bean, seeds scraped
1/4 tsp. baking powder
a couple pinches sea salt
1/3 cup organic raisins (optional, although traditional)

1. Preheat oven to 325°F / 170°C).
2. Make the crust: In a food processor, blend the rolled oats on high until you have a rough flour. In a large mixing bowl, combine the oat flour with the brown rice flour and salt. In a small saucepan, melt the coconut oil and brown rice syrup together, pour it over the dry ingredients and mix with a spoon until everything is incorporated. You may need to use your hands to knead the dough a little at this point.
3. In a standard muffin pan press a golf ball-sized amount of dough very firmly into each form, continuing high up on the sides. I found that the thinner the crust on this the better. They will puff up slightly in the oven.
4. Bake the shells for 10 minutes until just turning a light golden colour on the edges. Remove from oven.
5. While the shells are baking, make the filling: melt the fat you are using in a small saucepan over low heat. Add the seeds of one vanilla bean pod.
6. In a medium mixing bowl measure out the brown rice syrup and barley malt. Pour in the melted fat and whisk to combine with the sweeteners. Sift in the arrowroot and baking powder, add salt (unless you are using salted butter) and whisk until completely smooth. Fold in the raisins, if using.
7. Spoon enough filling into each baked shell until just below the rim of the crust. The filling will bubble up while baking and coat the top edge of the crust, which looks very beautiful. Place the filled shells in the oven and bake for 20 minutes until the filling is bubbling and browning around the edges. Remove from oven, let cool, then place in the refrigerator until completely chilled. This is an important step because it will crystallize the sugars, making removal of the tarts very easy.
8. Using a very sharp, pointed knife, insert the tip of the blade down along the side of each tart breaking the sugar seal if necessary – they should pop out of the mold very easily. If not, pierce the sugar seal in a couple places until you can remove them. If they are stubborn, keep them in the fridge until colder. Once removed from their molds you can keep the tarts at room temperature in a tightly sealed container, and warm them a little before serving if desired. Keeps for a week.

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…


You may also like…