Julie Van Rosendaal shares family recipes for classic lemon and butter tarts

Pies tend to get all the love and attention but tarts should also get their due.

Pastry and filling can be made ahead and frozen for when you're ready to bake

Lemon tarts often are a favourite on the dessert table, although they don't have the clear Canadian cultural history of butter tarts. (Julie Van Rosendaal/CBC)

Pies tend to get all the love and attention but tarts should also get their due.

After all, the butter tart practically has become Canada's official dessert over the past century or so.

A tart can be large and pie-like, only thinner with a sturdier, snappier crust baked in a shallow tart pan with a fluted edge and removable bottom. It's often filled with a curd, fruit or ganache — and never a top crust.

It also can be a tiny pie, small enough to hold in your hand.

The first printed butter tart recipe is believed to have appeared in a 1900 cookbook in Ontario. (Julie Van Rosendaal/CBC)

These two tarts are classics: one made with traditional butter-lard-flour-water pastry and the other with a crumbly, butter-sugar-flour mixture you press into mini muffin tins.

The smaller muffin size works well with rich shortbread — and be sure to bake the crusts before filling them with a quick stovetop lemon curd.

Pastry always can be made ahead and refrigerated for a few days or frozen for a few months. Lemon curd (and even the butter tart filling) can be refrigerated for up to a week.

Grandma Woodall's butter tarts

The earliest known butter tart recipe to have appeared in print was in the Royal Victoria Hospital's Women's Auxiliary cookbook from Barrie, Ont., in 1900. Early versions contained currants or Corinthian raisins made from the small, seedless black Corinth grape.

My grandma didn't use lemon juice but I add a bit to help keep the filling a bit runny. A tiny bit of acid also helps balance the sweetness of the tarts.

To save yourself from re-rolling scraps, shape your finished pastry dough into a log. Slice off pieces and roll each piece into a circle to fit into your muffin tins.

Pastry ingredients

1 ⅓ cups all-purpose flour

Pinch of salt

½ cup butter, cut into pieces

½ cup lard, cut into pieces (or more butter)

3 to 4 tbsp cold water

Filling ingredients

½ cup packed brown sugar

½ cup corn syrup or maple syrup

1 egg

2 tbsp butter. My grandma's instructions read, "dump in a lump of butter."

1 tsp lemon juice

1 tsp vanilla

Handful of currants, raisins, and/or chopped pecans. Grandma Woodall always used currants.


Put flour and salt into a medium bowl and add butter and shortening. Use a fork, pastry blender or your fingers to blend the mixture until it resembles coarse meal, leaving some pea-sized lumps of fat.

Drizzle the minimum amount of water over the mixture and stir until the dough comes together. Add a little more water a bit at a time if you need it.

Gather the dough into a ball and flatten it into a disc. Let it rest for at least 20 minutes or wrap and refrigerate for up to several days.

Alternatively, roll the dough into a log.

Julie Van Rosendaal's grandmother used currants in her butter tarts. (Julie Van Rosendaal/CBC)

When you're ready to bake, preheat the oven to 400˚ F / 204 C.

On a lightly floured surface, roll the pastry out ¼-inch thick. Cut out circles using a four-inch cookie cutter or glass rim. Alternatively, slide the log into 12 pieces and roll each piece into a circle.

Press into ungreased muffin cups.

In the same bowl, stir together brown sugar, corn syrup, egg, butter and vanilla.

Stir in the currants and pecans, if you're using them.

Fill the tart shells about two-thirds full and bake for 15 to 20 minutes until bubbly and golden.

  • Listen to Julie Van Rosendaal on the art of making tarts:

Take them out of the pan using a thin knife.

Coax them out while they are still warm. Otherwise any goo bubbled over will stick to the pan as it cools.

If it does, pop them back in the oven for a minute to soften it again. Cool on a wire rack.

Serving: Makes one dozen butter tarts.

Recipe for lemon tarts with shortbread crust

Although lemon tarts don't have a clear Canadian cultural history, they seem to be everyone's favourite. Mini muffin tins make perfect two-bite tarts.

If you like, you can use the reserved whites from the curd to make meringue to spoon on top. If you do this, torch the tarts or run them under the broiler for just a few minutes to brown the meringue.

Julie Van Rosendaal recommends baking the tart shells before putting in the filling. (Julie Van Rosendaal/CBC)

Shortbread crust ingredients

¾ cup butter slightly softened

½ cup sugar

1 ¾ cups all-purpose flour

Pinch of salt

Curd ingredients

6 large egg yolks

1 cup sugar

Zest of one or two lemons

½ cup lemon juice

½ cup butter, cut into pieces


Preheat the oven to 350˚F / 176 C.

To make the shortbread shells, beat the butter and sugar together until well combined.

Add the flour and salt and blend until the mixture is crumbly. Use your hands to blend it further until the mixture holds together when you squeeze it.

Press the dough into the bottom and up the sides of mini muffin tins. You can do this with the crumbs or roll walnut-sized balls of dough and press those in.

Bake for eight minutes or until pale golden.

A dusting of icing sugar is a tasty polish for the lemon tarts. (Julie Van Rosendaal/CBC)

To make the curd, whisk together the egg yolks, sugar, lemon zest and juice.

Set over medium heat and cook, stirring often, if not constantly, with a whisk until the mixture comes to a boil and thickens.

Remove from the heat and stir in the butter.

If you like, pour through a sieve while it's still warm to get rid of any bits of zest or egg.

Set aside to cool, then spoon into the cooled shells.

Serving: Makes 2½ to three dozen tarts.

With files from the Calgary Eyeopener


  • This article has been updated to include tart pastry preparation instructions.
    Nov 15, 2017 7:19 AM MT


Julie Van Rosendaal

Calgary Eyeopener's food guide

Julie Van Rosendaal talks about food trends, recipes and cooking tips on the Calgary Eyeopener every Tuesday at 8:20 a.m. MT. The best-selling cookbook author is a contributing food editor for the Globe and Mail, and writes for other publications across Canada.