Learning Big Lessons from a Family Recipe
A family recipe can be a legacy. We all learn from our parents. For many of us, parents are our first teachers and our most influential teachers. I’ve worked with so many families over the years and whatever the family story, whether the parents are very present or very absent, children learn big lessons. And we learn from every experience and encounter with our parents, things that can hurt us and things that can heal us, things that take us backward and things that move us forward.
The beginnings of a family recipe
Mom learned how to cook and bake from her parents. She grew up in Northern Ontario watching her French-Canadian mother cook and bake. Grandma was famous for her blueberry pie, blancmange, chicken and dumplings, hamburgers with stuffing in the middle, swiss steak, sauce aux salmon, and of course tourtierre at Christmastime. She always made her own pastry and was a master cake decorator. Mom said that Grandma grew up watching her father, Olivier Charron, cooking in a boarding house along the Still River for coal dock workers in Britt, Ontario.
Grandpa cooked sometimes too when Grandma was at work at Silverman’s Department Store in Sudbury (outfitting miners with uniforms). FYI: Grandpa’s classic dish was pork chops and french fries.
It was great-Aunt Florence who was a good tart maker when Mom was a child.
Grandma may have made tarts, but Mom remembers more about Grandma’s pies. Grandma would make five pies at a time, her apple pies were the best. For years my grandparents had five cabins on their property in Britt that they rented to tourists. Grandma would give away pies to their favourite guests, much to my great-grandmother’s shock, horror, and descriptive disapproval in angry French.
We learn a lot about food from our parents.
Mom took Home Economics in high school and it quickly became her favourite class…
The first thing Mom remembers ever cooking was for my dad when they were dating. Mom was about 18 years old. It was at Grandma’s house. Mom made a dish from her Home Ec class for her guy with shrimp, rice, green peppers, and melted cheese.
When I asked Dad this question, he says the first thing Mom ever cooked was a jar of Aunt Muriel’s “Chow-Chow Chilli” heated in a saucepan shortly after they were married. Although “chilli” was in the title it was actually a salsa meant to be a condiment: far too spicy to be eaten by the bowlful!
From my childhood, I remember Mom’s homemade pizza, cinnamon buns, blueberry pie, and butter tarts. Mom is an amazing cook and baker–everything she makes is filled with the best ingredients, careful preparation, and love.
The first time Mom made butter tarts she was in her mid-twenties, after Grandma died.
Her neighbour and best friend, Cathy, gave her a list of tart making ingredients from a Kinette Cookbook over the phone.
Every Friday Mom and Cathy would bake while us kids were napping. Cathy taught Mom how to make bread and German food (gulasch, knochlen, kipferl cookies) and Christmas fruitcakes. Mom wanted to learn how to make tarts so naturally she called Cathy.
Using the list of tart ingredients, Mom made her first butter tarts and they were good! The tart obsession started slowly. By the time Mom was in her thirties she would come home from working all day to make 40 butter tarts and 24 cinnamon buns for the staff at her school the next day. (And she’d make dinner!)
Mom became known by all of us as the Queen of Tarts.
When Mom was in her forties, she lost her tart recipe. For over a decade we were tart-less! She prayed to St. Anthony for years, searching the house for her list of ingredients. Then in 2012 her prayers were answered. Mom found our beloved tart recipe in a kitchen drawer she had checked many times before. Now that Dad was retired he became the sous chef. Mom and Dad make butter tarts on rainy days. Together they have perfected tart making!
Queen of Tart Family Recipe Legends:
- Mom and Dad made 120 tarts for a friend’s retirement and it took 2 days, 27 cups of flour, 3 pounds of butter, and 24 cups of brown sugar, 24 eggs…
- About 15 years ago, Mom and I had a baking exchange party with all our friends. Not long into the party we noticed that the tarts were missing. The exchange hadn’t officially started yet. We never did find the two dozen tarts. One of our friends had stolen them all!! No one at the party confessed.
- Mom donated two plates of tarts to a senior’s bake sale. Dad mentioned to a friend that Mom’s tarts were there. The friend declared she must covet the tarts but alas the tarts were sold quickly and gone. The buyer offered to sell a plate of tarts for three times the bake sale cost ($18)…
- Mom and Dad often give tarts to helpful people, local photographers, OPP, their priest. My favourite story though is about the tart they gave to a Bell Canada worker in the area. When they needed support the following year a new worker was dispatched and knew about the tart the previous guy received.
- Dad often brings a random tart out to the road for people passing that he knows (unless family is visiting because we eat all the tarts!)
- After my cousin’s wedding, before the post-wedding brunch, my uncle’s brother hid the butter tarts from his own family, including the bride and groom.
- Sometimes when Mom and Dad bring tarts to an event the host hides them (so they don’t have to be shared with the guests).
- Sometimes at a potluck the tarts are eaten before the meal as the appe-tarter!
- For their forty-second wedding anniversary Mom and Dad made tarts. Then they arranged the tarts into a “42.” (Also note that they usually make 42 tarts in a batch).
Five Things I’ve Learned from Mom and Her Tarts
- Heart: Mom makes tarts to show her love. (She doesn’t even eat the tarts!) The butter tarts are a sign of her generosity, talent, and kindness. She enjoys making the people around her happy. Mom teaches me the importance of putting heart at the centre, of giving our best to others, of creating something excellent to spread joy and express gratitude.
- Attention to Detail: Mom attends to perfecting each step in the tart making process. She inspects everything along the way, reflecting on how to make it better. By attending to every small detail, her tarts are absolute perfection each and every time she bakes them. Mom teaches me the importance of being methodical, following a plan, adjusting the plan when needed, and learning from the plan as time passes.
- Community: Mom uses tarts to bring people together. From family and friends to community groups to passersby, mom creates a sense of belonging by giving away butter tarts. Mom teaches me how to connect with others through generosity and to give the most to the people who are closest and part of our every day. It’s important to use our skills and talents in the service of building community and belonging.
- Practice: Mom worked hard to become an amazing cook and baker. She asked for help when she needed it. She utilized the lessons from her teachers. Mom teaches me that if we practice something, we will improve. If we practice it long enough, we can become experts. She chose to perfect her butter tart making not because it was her favourite thing to bake, but because of the joy the tarts brought others. Every year Mom and Dad continue to adjust the butter tart baking process to improve efficiency and excellence.
- Embrace the Crown: Mom has earned her crown as Queen of Tarts and she wears it with pride. It’s important to celebrate our achievements and to accept the compliments of others. Mom teaches me to take pride in my creations, to make space for others to celebrate, and to happily wear a crown when it’s been earned.
A Short Interview with the Family Recipe Keeper
Mom answered three questions so we could get to know her better.
Q: If you could eliminate one type of bug forever, which one would you choose?
Mom: Mosquito. Or deer flies. The last two times I went in the boat I got bit. You don’t feel them biting and then you itch like crazy after.
Q: If you were to be a matchmaker, which two celebrities would you match together?
Mom: That’s a hard one. I guess I’ll just say Tom Cruise and Gwyneth Paltrow.
Q: Where do you go to have fun?
Mom: Florida. There is less cooking and more eating out. I get to wear shorts all the time. And of course the shopping.
Mom’s Butter Tart Recipe
The recipe should be enough to make 42 butter tarts.
- 8 cups brown sugar
- 8 large eggs (whisked together)
- 2 cups melted butter
- 2 cups good quality raisins (soak in hot water for 15 minutes before using)
- 4 teaspoons vanilla extract
- 8 tablespoons white vinegar
Mix all the above ingredients together well. Keep mixing it right up until you put it in the tart shells as the ingredients separate if they sit.
Mom uses Tenderflake lard, a whole pound, mixing up the whole package of dough. (Recipe is on the Tenderflake package). Divide the dough into six balls and wrap individually into plastic wrap. Refrigerate for at least an hour before rolling. Leave the balls of dough in the fridge until just before rolling.
Bake on mid to low (but not bottom) oven rack in a preheated 375 degree oven about 15-20 minutes or until pastry is brown and filling is bubbling.
Let stand to cool before removing from muffin pans, as filling is very hot.
These butter tarts freeze well.