Eric Akis: Quebec puts a stamp on sweet treats

Early French settlers brought tarte au sucre to Canada, and it’s been a dessert staple ever since

Eric Akis

This is the second instalment in my series about the five classic Canadian desserts featured on a booklet of stamps released by Canada Post this year called Sweet Canada.

Two weeks ago, I wrote about blueberry grunt, a popular dessert in Atlantic Canada made by topping and cooking sweetened blueberries with tea-biscuit dumplings.

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Today, I’m moving east into Quebec, where another dessert featured on the stamps: Tarte au sucre — sugar pie in English — has been enjoyed for a very long time.

According to an article about tarte au sucre by Deborah Kirshner posted on the Canadian Encyclopedia website, thecanadianencyclopedia.ca, nearly all of Quebec’s earliest immigrants were peasant or artisan settlers who came from the west of France. She adds that the culture and cuisine of Quebec are almost entirely rooted in that tradition, including making dishes such as tarte au sucre.

In early days, though, what distinguished the made-in-Quebec version of the dessert from the one made in France was that maple sugar or syrup was the sweetener. That’s because way back when, brown sugar, now commonly used to sweeten many tarte au sucre recipes, was a rare commodity and not available in Quebec. But maple products, of course, were.

Because tarte au sucre has been made for eons in Quebec, variations developed. For example, in Kirshner’s article, she includes an early recipe for the dessert that sees a piecrust baked with a filling made from only maple sugar, 35 per cent cream and chopped nuts.

In Julian Armstrong’s book A Taste of Quebec, she has an old family recipe for tarte au sucre provided to her by Nicole Kretz of Val David, and brown sugar is the sweetener. To explain why that was, in the introduction to that recipe, it says Val David is located in the Laurentians and maple syrup has never been plentiful there.

In other recipes I found for tarte au sucre, both brown sugar and maple syrup were used in the filling, including those published in Madame Benoit’s book, Cooks at Home, and Rose Murray and Elizabeth Baird’s book, Canada’s Favourite Recipes.

Also, some tarte au sucre recipes add flour and eggs, and sometimes egg yolks, to the filling, mix in spices, such as nutmeg or cinnamon, and/or use condensed milk instead of the more commonly used whipping cream.

In other books and resources, I noticed that when maple syrup is the only sweetener used, or the primary one, the dessert is sometimes called tarte au sirop d’érable — maple syrup pie — instead of tarte au sucre.

With regard to the pastry crust, in most cases, it’s put in a pieplate, but in some recipes, particularly those from restaurants, a fluted tart pan is used. In some recipes, the crust is blind-baked first, before the filling is added and cooked in it. In others, it’s not. In some recipes, a lattice pastry top was put on the pie before it was baked.

Hopefully, I have made the point that there are many different ways to make tarte au sucre, but the end results are pretty much the same. A super-sweet, ultra-rich, divinely textured dessert you only need a small wedge of to make you smile and feel like you have indulged.

To makes things even grander, some tarte au sucre recipes, including mine, also suggest you top servings of it with a dollop of whipped cream and garnish it with a few summer berries.

Note: My next column about the desserts featured on the Canada Post stamps will be Aug. 28. The topic will be butter tarts. The columns on the other two desserts, Saskatoon berry pie and Nanaimo bars, will run on Sept. 11 and Sept. 25.

Eric’s Tarte au Sucre

This is my version of tarte au sucre that indulgently uses both brown sugar and maple syrup in the filling. It’s a deeper-dish version of the dessert that yields nice slices you can plate and decoratively top with whipped cream and summer berries. You can use your own favourite pie-dough recipe for the crust or try my recipe below.

Preparation time: 30 minutes

Cooking time: 40 minutes

Makes: 10 servings

3 large eggs

3/4 cup packed golden brown sugar

1 1/4 cups maple syrup

1/3 cup whipping cream

1/4 cup all-purpose flour, sifted

1 tsp pure vanilla extract

1 (9-inch/23 cm) deep-dish piecrust (see recipe below)

• whipping cream, whipped until firm peaks form, to taste (optional)

• fresh summer berries, to taste, such as strawberries, blueberries or blackberries, or a mix of berries, whole or sliced (optional)

Set an oven rack in the bottom third of your oven. Preheat oven to 425 F.

Crack the eggs into a mixing bowl. Add the brown sugar and whisk until completely blended into the eggs.

Add the maple syrup, 1/3 cup whipping cream, flour and vanilla to the bowl and whisk until the mixture is lump-free and very smooth.

Pour mixture into the piecrust. Set tarte au sucre in the oven and bake 15 minutes. Lower oven to 350 F and bake 25 minutes more, or until the filling is puffed, looks dry on top, but still jiggles a bit when the pieplate is tapped.

Set the tarte au sucre on a baking rack and cool to room temperature, and as it does, the filling will set.

You can make the tarte au sucre many hours before serving. Once cooled, cover it, if desired, and keep at room temperature.

When ready to serve, cut the tarte au sucre into wedges, plate them and then, if desired, garnish each serving with a dollop of whipped cream and a few summer berries.

Flaky Pie Dough

The generous amount of shortening, a touch of butter and the beaten egg blended into the dough yields an ultra flaky crust when baked. This recipe makes enough dough for two single-crust pies. It freezes well, so use half the dough to make the crust for the tarte au sucre and freeze the other half for another time.

Preparation time: 20 minutes

Cooking time: None

Makes: Enough dough for two single-crust pies, or one double-crust pie

3 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 tsp salt

1 1/4 cups cold vegetable shortening, cut into 1/2-inch cubes

1/4 cup cold butter, cut into 1/4-inch cubes

1 large egg, beaten with 1/3 cup ice-cold water

Combine the flour and salt in a bowl. With a pastry cutter or two forks, or with the paddle attachment of your stand mixer, cut the shortening and butter into the flour until well blended. Pour the egg/water mixture into the bowl; gently work it until it forms loose, moist dough.

Transfer dough to a lightly floured work surface. With lightly floured hands, shape the dough into a ball. Cut the ball in half. Press each half into a 1/2-inch-thick disk. Wrap and refrigerate one disk of dough for at least 20 minutes before rolling out (see Note). Wrap and freeze the other piece of pie dough for another time.

When dough has chilled, set out a 9-inch (23 cm), four-cup capacity pieplate. Unwrap the dough and set on the floured work surface. With a lightly floured rolling pin, roll the dough from the centre out into a round large enough to fit your pie plate. Don’t push too firmly — let the roller do the work. Turn the dough an eighth of a turn after each roll; this will help create a round shape and at the same time you can make sure the dough is not sticking. Sprinkle additional flour on the rolling pin and under the dough as necessary.

When the round of dough is ready, carefully fold in half and lay it across the centre of the pie plate. Then unfold and gently nestle the dough into the pan. Simply press the dough back together if any cracks form during this process.

Crimp the top edges of the pie to create a festive design and trim off any excess dough from the side of the plate. Refrigerate the piecrust at least 20 minutes and it is ready to use for the tarte au sucre.

Note: You can make, wrap and refrigerated the disc of dough at least a day before rolling it out. If it became overly firm as it chilled, let it soften and warm at room temperature a while before rolling it.

Eric Akis is the author of eight cookbooks. His columns appear in the Life section Wednesday and Sunday.

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