Food & Drink

“We’re selling fifteen times more than normal”: This North York bakery makes the province’s best butter tarts

Circles and Squares bakery won big at this year’s Ontario’s Best Butter Tart Festival. Owner David Baxter weighs in on the secret to their recipe, the fandom around the pastry and the great raisin debate

By Courtney Shea| Photography by Yasin Osman
"We're selling fifteen times more than normal": This North York bakery makes the province's best butter tarts

Last weekend, Circles and Squares bakery in North York took first prize at Ontario’s Best Butter Tart Festival, an annual homage to Canada’s most celebrated confection. Bringing home the blue ribbon for best traditional tart (plus second place in the “wild-style” category) is a feat that can be achieved only after months of planning and prep. “It’s an extremely stressful process, so it feels really great to win after all that,” says David Baxter, the bakery’s owner and one of the masterminds behind the winning tart recipe. Here, he tells us about why Toronto bakeries rarely come out on top and his theory on the great raisin-or-no-raisin debate.

Congratulations are in order. Can you tell me about the moment you learned that your butter tart was the fairest of them all?
We were totally taken off guard. Two of my senior pastry chefs went up to accept the award. I was actually back in the booth, so I didn’t see it. We’ve been going to the festival for years, and after you lose a few times, you kind of want to avoid getting your hopes up. I guess it’s self-preservation. I really wasn’t expecting to win. I didn’t find out until I saw my team running up the street toward me, shrieking. 

The festival bills itself as the oldest and largest butter tart festival in Canada. How large are we talking?
I think 60,000 people attended this year. It was busy, and you get a lot of butter tart—I don’t want to say addicts, but these people are more than just fans. Every single one of them considers themselves a judge. They will tell you which tart they think is the best, and it won’t be an opinion. You also get people who still remember a tart we did four years ago and are coming back for that specific one.  

Almost like rare music bootlegs.
Yeah, exactly. It’s like that ‘97 Red Rocks show, except it’s a butter tart. 

How many butter tarts do you prepare for the festival?
We did between 3,500 and 4,000. We came pretty close to selling out, but not quite. In previous years our booth has been pretty central, but this year we were a little off the main path, next to a cannabis shop.

How long does it take to make that volume of tarts?
We try to get all of the baking done in a couple of days. It’s really a feat of scheduling, because something is always going on and you’re juggling making all of these butter tarts with everything else we have to make for a normal week. It’s not like we close the bakery to go to the festival. And then the logistics around transport and set-up—renting a truck and making sure all of the supplies arrive with you—that’s probably just as much work as the baking. 

Were you tweaking the winning recipe right up to the last minute?
The category we won was best traditional butter tart by a professional baker. It was pretty much the same recipe we’ve been selling at the shop for the past fifteen years. We do have one secret, which is that we up the usual amount of brown sugar in the crust. You’d think the filling would be sweet enough on its own, but butter tart fans tend to like sweet. The recipe is less important than the process, though—things like not over-working the dough, or making sure you bake for exactly the right amount of time. When you’re talking about your classic butter tart, the ingredients don’t really vary: it’s corn syrup, butter, brown sugar, flour, eggs.


Dare I mention raisins?
Um. Yeah, I really don’t like raisins. I get that some people do. 

You sound nervous to be talking about this.
My staff tease me about being on a diatribe against raisins. Personally, I’m not a fan. For a long time, we didn’t make raisin butter tarts at all. Then we got an order to supply Balzac’s coffee house, which has a bunch of locations throughout the city. They wanted raisins, so now we do them. 

But not in your winning tart?
No. It’s a decision every baker has to make for themselves. There are people who walk up to our booth and ask, “Are there raisins?" When you say no, they look at you like you’re dead. They walk away immediately. 

And then there must be another group that appreciates the lack of dried fruit.
Yes. I call those the good people. 

Ouch. I’m team raisin. Is this going to get awkward?
No, no. We’ll be fine. I think it goes back to the tarts you had as a child. If that was the raisin version, then that’s what you love as an adult. 

"We're selling fifteen times more than normal": This North York bakery makes the province's best butter tarts

Do you have any early butter tart memories?
My family had a cottage near Port Perry, and there was a butter tart factory in town. I think it was called Flamingo’s—it’s since turned into a meat-packing factory. My mom wasn’t a baker, but every now and then she would go in and bring some back for us. 

Was it love at first bite?
My clearest memory is of picking out the raisins. So I guess that totally contradicts my theory. I didn’t dislike butter tarts, but I was more of a doughnut kid. There was this amazing bakery called Hank’s that did a classic chocolate raised, which was my absolute favourite.

You also took second place in the “wild-style” category. Can you describe that tart?
It was salted chocolate and peanut butter, so very decadent but not too sweet. We did a lot of trial and error with that recipe: more chocolate, less chocolate, salted peanuts, roasted peanuts, different amounts of peanuts. The other challenge is that the judges will only have a tiny slice. You have to make sure that every bit has the full taste of the tart. 

Are you a fan of that kind of stunt recipe, or are you more of a butter tart purist?
I like the wild-style entries. We’re always around classic butter tarts, so it’s a welcome change. The winning tart in the wild category this year was cream cheese with potato chips on top. I think that, after the judges have tasted hundreds of different tarts, anything that’s way out of the norm has a good shot. 


I gather that it’s unusual for a Toronto bakery to win best in show. Why is that?
In Toronto, you don’t have bakeries doing just butter tarts—there is so much diversity in our clientele and in our staff, so you want to cover more ground. We have a pastry chef from South America who has been doing these amazing empanadas. Whereas, if you go out of the city, there are spots where they literally only do butter tarts. But I think we also have an edge because we’re a bit less tied to the traditional rules of what a butter tart has to be. We can do the crust a little bit thicker or thinner or add a different type of vanilla.

Ha, exactly. But we like to try things out. 

Are there any other experimental tarts you’re particularly proud of?
We’ve tried a lot of cool things over the years. We did one called an Inception butter tart, which was a mini butter tart baked into a regular size tart with Nanaimo filling around it. We did a croissant one, where we soaked the croissant in butter tart syrup and then used that for filling. It was delicious, but it was a tough sell at the festival. You start mixing in French things and suddenly people have strong feelings. 

Even though legend has it that the butter tart is actually Ontario’s take on Quebec’s tart au sucre?
All I know is that there are three or four origin stories for the butter tart, and they’re all totally different. I have no idea which is the real deal. I will say, when you look at the ingredients available in the past, there were only so many things you could make. That may explain the overlap and why you have the pudding chômeur and sugar pie in Quebec and then the butter tart in Ontario. 

Has your Toronto shop been overrun by butter tart enthusiasts since the big win?
We have definitely been selling a lot—about fifteen times more than normal. And the funny thing is that we are getting a huge amount of voicemail. Normally, we might get one or two voice messages a week, but now our phone is ringing off the hook. I think it may be because butter tart fans are a bit of an older demographic. We’re really focused on quality control, which we are always focused on, but especially after creating the winning tart, you want to make sure that every person who comes into the store is getting that same experience.


This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


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