“Try it frozen first,” urges baker Eric De Garie as he offers a plate of his maple butter tarts served three ways: from the freezer, room temperature and right out of the oven. When cold, the filling is almost like a pate de fruit: soft but not gummy, and as De Garie notes, not as sweet. “You can also eat more of them like this.”
At room temperature, the filling loosens to a gel, sweeter than frozen but not as sugary as the typical butter tart thanks to the maple lending a bit of smokiness. When warm, the crust is crisper and more flavourful, and the maple butter mixture runs like lava. Perhaps it’s the ongoing summer heat, but these tarts are even more delicious when frozen, particularly for a palate like mine that usually shies away from butter tarts because I always considered them to be too sweet. I can imagine them being chopped into small pieces and sprinkled on vanilla ice cream. Actually, I did just that with the pecan variation after I bought a variety pack from De Garie that also had Skor, banana crunch and Brazil nut flavours.
Dating back to at least the 1800s, the butter tart has become a dessert synonymous with Canada — last month, thousands flocked to the Ontario’s Best Butter Tart Festival in Midland after a two-year hiatus. The tart itself is simple: a pastry shell with a gooey syrup-and-butter filling, which means it can serve as a blank canvas for different interpretations (hello, raisins or no raisins debate).
De Garie, a former bank trader turned self-taught baker, is behind Eric’s Handcrafted Butter Tarts, which he runs out of his basement home kitchen in Etobicoke’s Lakeshore Village, and this is where some of the best butter tarts in the city are made. For De Garie, he wanted to create a tart that combined the maple flavours of the Quebecois tarte au sucre with the crust-to-filling ratio of the butter tart.
“I grew up in Montreal and we had sugar pies. In Ontario, I saw a butter tart and thought it was a hand-held sugar pie. But it was full of corn syrup and had a thick tart. Every year I’d try to make a better tart. After 20 years I came up with this recipe,” he says. “Everybody has a different opinion, but for me, a good tart uses real butter, eggs, maple syrup and good brown sugars. I use a combination of dark and light maple syrups. Too much dark and it’s too strong, too much light and there’s not enough flavour.” (The ratio of the syrups, he says, is the secret).
De Garie supplies places in the city like Cheese Boutique, San Remo Bakery, La Rocca Creative Kitchen and nearby coffee shop, Big Guy’s Little Coffee Shop. Outside of Toronto, his tarts can also be found at Port Credit’s Backroad Coffee Roasters; Oakville’s Boffo’s Fine Foods and Tribeca Coffee Shop; Hamilton’s Ward IV Coffee and Bar and Murray’s Farm Butcher Shoppe; and Burlington’s Familia Fine Food.
Depending on where you go, expect different flavours. Cheese Boutique has a variety pack with flavours like cinnamon-raison, hazelnut, coconut and crème brûlée; while San Remo has toasted marshmallow and Brazil nut, for example. De Garie doesn’t do delivery for individual orders, but people can email him for a no-contact pickup from outside his home.
Now semi-retired, the 56-year-old spends his time in his tiny kitchen big enough for exactly one person. It’s been retrofitted to hold a freezer chest, two sinks, a commercial oven and cooling rack, enough to make 30 dozen tarts each day, perhaps making it one of the smallest kitchens with a green DineSafe sign in the city. Before that, in 2016, he started out of a commissary kitchen in Hamilton, learning about food production from other vendors, while also offering financial advice to first-time business owners and testing whether his tarts would sell by going to farmers’ markets. “It’s the easiest way to get immediate feedback,” he says.
He’s since gotten offers to stock larger grocers and thought about hiring another person, but ultimately De Garie is keeping it a one-man show and isn’t interested in opening a store. “If I just wanted to make tarts, why would I pay for a space that’s three times the size of what I need?”
And from a customer perspective, butter tarts are a simple dessert with roots in home kitchens, enjoyed on camping trips or small town festivals. To pick up a pack of tarts made on a large scale from a giant grocer doesn’t have the same appeal as getting a box from a neighbourhood cafe, or in my case, have De Garie pack me a box that’s been freshly baked.
“It’s a small gig to keep me busy six hours a day, four days a week, and I get some discretionary income. I’m 56 and my ‘conquering the world time’ is over,” he says. “In finance I could make a million bucks and I’d get a slap on the back and be told to do it again the next day. But when you see someone eat your tarts and then there’s a big smile on their face, that’s all I need.”
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