Grandma Maxwell’s French Tarts

Watkins Cookbook

This cookbook belonged to my paternal great-grandmother, Jessie Belle Parsons Maxwell, who passed it down to my grandmother, Mary Maxwell.

My mom always has been a terrific cook. She was raised on good old meat and potatoes on a farm just outside Vermillion, South Dakota. When she left home to follow an Indian guru and moved to an ashram in the mid-1970s, she left behind many of the foods of her childhood. Chicken and buttermilk biscuits were replaced with tofu and whole wheat chapatis (a form of Indian naan, similar to a tortilla).

Mom became the house cook for the ashram, where she learned to make vegetarian fare from Indian visitors, and where my dad likes to recall, there were beautiful moments of cultural exchange, such as the time when one such guest declared proudly, “How many chapatis have you eaten? … I have had 15!”

But even as she replaced white flour with wheat, and lard with ghee, and chocolate with carob, Mom’s roots in the down-home pioneer cooking of her forebears were strongly established. She still held on to the recipes on which she was raised and she passed the love of those dishes on to us. 

One of our favorites to prepare (and eat) was a recipe we simply called French tarts. Not only were they easy and fun to make, but they had a wisp and whimsy of the past.

The recipe came from my maternal grandmother, Mary Maxwell, whose maiden name was DesJarlais. Her family traced their roots back to the Carignan Regiment, France’s military unit that arrived in Canada in the 1600s, and the King’s Daughters, who were sent with dowries by King Louis XIV to marry them and propagate French bloodlines in New France.

Grandma Maxwell (DesJarlais) also was a mixer of cultures. When she married my grandfather, she took over management of the South Dakota farmhouse from her husband’s mother, Jessie Belle Parsons Maxwell.

Everett Maxwell and Jessie Belle Parsons

My paternal grandparents, Everett Maxwell and Jessie Belle Parsons, around the time of their wedding in 1900

Great-grandmother Jessie later in life

Great-grandmother Jessie later in life

The cookbook pictured at the top of this post once belonged to my great-grandmother Jessie, and was passed down to my grandmother Mary, and now belongs to my mom. 

Yesterday, Mom and I cracked open the dusty bindings of this cookbook to find a simple pie crust recipe, but the French tart recipe is not in any book. It is in my mom’s heart, and in mine. It represents the love and hardship that the women and men of our interwoven bloodlines have endured to get us to this moment. 

Grandma Maxwell’s French Tarts

I am not a very competent cook (sorry, grandmothers!), so this “recipe” is more of a loose outline. We began by making a simple pie crust and rolling it out to a sheet about an inch thick:

Pie crust dough

We then cut the dough into squares.

Place about a teaspoon of sugar at the center of each square (or wonky corner piece), and make a thumbprint in the middle of the mounds of sugar. When Mom was a little girl she always wanted to help Grandma Maxwell make the tarts, and this was the first thing that she ever was allowed to do. I recall making these thumbprints myself as a child, so you could say that these French tarts literally hold the fingerprints of our family line.

You then pour about a half-teaspoon of white vinegar into the sugar mounds and fold the tarts up by the corners.

Put them on a greased cookie sheet and drizzle with unsweetened evaporated milk, then sprinkle with sugar and bake at 375 degrees for about 20 minutes (until lightly browned).

Best to eat them when they are warm. The vinegar adds a bit of tartness. The pie crust is fluffy and buttery, and the sweetness is divine.

Sophie le Chat also was there to assist.

Sophie the cat assisting

Sophie the cat, assisting.

From Grandma Mary, Grandma Jessie, my beautiful mom, Roxanna, and all those in our family line, bon appetit!