Put Your Stories to the Sniff Test

Put Your Stories to the Sniff Test | KOTAW Content MarketingWhen I lost my mother’s recipe for butter tarts, I spent hundreds of hours over several years calling book publishers and bookshop owners, trolling the Internet and pestering bakers the world over to find it. And Christmas morning was never the same until I possessed the recipe again.

Butter tarts, a Canadian pastry, contain very few ingredients. And most recipes read pretty much the same. But I didn’t want any recipe. I wanted the recipe from the Five Roses cookbook that my mom was given as a wedding present, the one with a red cardboard cover.

I didn’t want the Five Roses recipe from the 1929 cookbook or the one from the 1999 edition. And I absolutely did not want a recipe handed down by someone’s else’s mother or favorite aunt. All of those recipes probably produced perfectly fine, maybe even delicious, butter tarts.

But none of them contained my memories…watching my mom roll out the crust and fitting it carefully into the only muffin tin worthy of her tarts…learning how to meticulously fill the shells to just the right height so that they would neither bubble over nor deflate…pledging to keep secret her slight modification of the Five Roses recipe…consoling her when our Irish setter ate 24 tarts she’d left to cool on the counter…laughing with her as she found humor in the story in later years.

Emotional Nose

Sense memory is a powerful thing. It’s the reason why the scent of our grandmother’s dish soap can move us to tears or the aroma of a chocolate chip cookie makes us remember our first day of school, says Rachel Herz, author of “The Scent of Desire.”

It’s why Christmas isn’t Christmas at our house unless it includes butter tarts, Kris Kringles (my father’s variation of Magic Cookie Bars) and a half-dozen other must-have treats we bake every holiday. It’s not the sugar we crave, but the connection to events and people we love.

Whenever I write something, I put my words to this same “sniff test.” Will I remember the story a year from now? Will it mean something to a reader in a decade? Will my words make anyone laugh, cry, get angry or feel inspired? Or would I be embarrassed if someone found my writing on the Internet (or its successor) in a hundred years?

It’s a tough olfactory test and not everything I write passes it. But it’s standard I apply to my stories and urge you to apply to yours.

If you’re writing and publishing content just for the sake of achieving some arbitrary quota for quantity, stop. Bad content will soon go the way of bad links — it will harm you and your company. Write fewer, better stories. Aim for a single, perfect butter tart, not a platter of stale cookies.

Although I thought I’d found my mother’s butter tart recipe online, I wasn’t absolutely positive until my elder daughter gave me a Five Roses cookbook for Christmas a few years ago. She’d done her own detective work to confirm that the recipe on the latest edition, printed in 2008, was exactly the same as the one my mom had used 50 years ago.

In keeping the promise to my mom, I won’t divulge her secret variation of the recipe. But I promise it won’t make an appreciable difference if you’re trying these delicious goodies for the first time.

Writing and Publishing Content: Put Your Stories to the Sniff Test | KOTAW Content MarketingFive Roses Butter Tarts


1 egg, beaten
1/3 cup butter
1 cup brown sugar
1 tablespoons milk
1/2 cup currants (may substitute raisins or chopped pecans)
1 tsp. vanilla

Pastry (makes enough for four single pie shells or about 24 tarts)

4 cups flour
1 tablespoon sugar
1 3/4 cup Crisco
1 egg
1 tablespoon vinegar or lemon

Sift together flour and sugar. Cut in shortening. In separate bowl mix together egg and vinegar. Add to flour shortening mixture and combine. Mixture will be sticky. Divide into four balls, wrap and store in refrigerator for at least one hour before using.

Prepare pastry; roll 1/8 inch thick and cut into 4-inch rounds. Press into medium-sized tart pans. Mix all ingredients together; fill tart shells 2/3 full. Bake in a hot oven, 450 degrees, for 8 minutes; reduce temperature to 350 and bake 15 to 20 minutes longer or until pastry is delicately brown. Yields 12 tarts.

It’s better to give than to receive, but I do want something from you: your comments! Please share your thoughts on brand storytelling below. Wishing you and your loved ones a fabulous holiday season!


  1. Elizabeth says:

    This was so lovely Katherine. As I read this I could remember all of the smells that made the holidays special to me. And there are certain places I’ll walk into 20 years later and remember the “smell” – it triggers all of the memories and emotions associated with place or event.

    I was discussing the concept of “storytelling” just yesterday with a group of folks and I’m going to share your posts with them. You are a remarkable storyteller. And I definitely need to start doing the “sniff test” on my own writing as well. Thanks!

    Thanks also for the wonderful recipe – I think I could smell those tarts through the computer screen!

  2. Katherine Kotaw says:

    How kind of you, Elizabeth! Your comments are so thoughtful — and they make me smile!

    Be prepared to become addicted to butter tarts, if you try the recipe. Their heavenly smell and gooey deliciousness will live on in your sense memories forever!

    • Elizabeth says:

      You are too kind Katherine! And I really do want to try those tarts- I’ve been looking for a new recipe for the holidays. Hopefully I’ll have some down time to make them! Thanks!

      • Katherine Kotaw says:

        If you try them, let me know how they turn out. Except for rolling out all of that pie crust, they are very easy to make. And your note reminds me, I have to run out and buy some currants! :)

  3. […] Excite the Senses of Your Audience: Put Your Stories to the Sniff Test […]

  4. Renee says:

    Hi and thanks for adding this recipie!! We live in Reykjavik, Iceland now and when going to international potlucks it is rather difficult to actually bring something ‘Canadian’.

    With this recipie however, I can now bring the taste of home (my Mom makes these, too!) to my international friends here in the More northern captial to share with the world’s people. My only hope is that I will do your Mom’s tradition proud.

    • Katherine Kotaw says:

      Hi, Renee,

      Please forgive this VERY delayed response to your lovely note. Somehow I clicked “approve” without doing the more important thing — thanking you! And I just saw it now as I was preparing to make a batch of butter tarts this year and looked to my blog for the recipe!

      I hope you and your friends are enjoying butter tarts in Iceland — they are one of the sweetest tastes of Canada you could bring to your hew homeland.

      They are truly a tradition worth saving, and I’m sure you made both of our moms smile.

      Happy holidays to you!!!

  5. Shelly says:

    Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts, feelings and undeniably good recipe! I was snooping the net for sugar pie, as my darling French Canadian husband calls it and I stumbled upon you. Thanks again and I look forward to making it and continuing a French Canadian tradition in our home here in Kansas!

    • Katherine Kotaw says:

      Hi, Shelly,

      Please forgive this very slow reply. An illness in the family kept me away from my desk for much of the past two months. I’m so happy you found my recipe and that a bit of French Canadian tradition is making its way into the U.S. heartland. Happy baking — and eating!!

  6. MCatherine says:

    It’s just possible, Katherine, that you may have introduced an entirely new generation to creating a ‘holiday’ memory with these butter tarts. Mmmm Mmmm Gooood!

    • Katherine Kotaw says:

      Awww, I certainly hope so, MCatherine! Butter tarts are decadent in the best possible way.

      More important, I hope you have a lovely holiday. And I look forward to chatting with you in the new year.

      Hugs to celebrate another year of knowing you,


  7. […] the cookies baked, I mulled over some story ideas and came up with three that met my critical sniff test. And while I ate some of my creations, I penned “Branding Magic and the Evolution of Kris Kringle […]

  8. […] you that it’s a tradition my daughters and I have — just as perennial a tradition as baking butter tarts for Christmas or watching How The Grinch Stole Christmas on Christmas Eve — to say goodbye to all […]

  9. […] So she gave me the original recipe when I had a home of my own, and the cookies became everyone’s second-favorite holiday cookie (nothing surpassed my mom’s butter tarts.) […]

  10. […] What’s your lifelong passion? What have you longed for, but never completed? What do you want to undertake this week, this month, this year, but are struggling to start? How are you going to take the plunge? / image via […]

  11. Karen says:

    Thank you for this insightful story. I’m sharing it with my daughter who is a Photo Journalism Major in Texas. We share many holiday traditions that I hope will resonate an emotional response later in my children’s lives. My “take away” from your article is not just the recipe. It is also the hope that my daughters’ words and images will illicit the “sniff test” response from those who view her work.

    • Katherine Kotaw says:

      This is an ideal time for studying photo journalism as the need for visual storytelling is growing at a faster pace than the demand. Please give you daughter my best wishes for success.

      And, thank you for visiting my blog. I hope your holidays are memories-in-the-making this year.

  12. Kristen says:


    Another beautiful blog post and one that my own heart can relate to specifically. After the loss of my grandmother (who was one of my best friends and lived next door to me) passed away, her recipes were—gone—long story. The point, I have since tried to re-create all of her recipes that I grew up with that are at the core of my childhood. I understand completely the “need” to find the exact recipe. I am so happy her recipe was returned to you by the due diligence of your daughter! What a prized Christmas gift!

    As to the Emotional Nose and the butter tarts, it reminds me very much of my own memories I shared on my “old” blog. It was called the Smell of Christmas. If you are interested, I’ll share the old link with you. I know you will relate to the sentiment.

    Hoping this Christmas season brings you and your girls much love and shared memories.

    • Katherine Kotaw says:

      Oh, yes, please share the link! I would love to read your “Smell of Christmas” stories. Our sense memories trigger very emotional responses and those connected to Christmas are some of the strongest.

      When I first tried to recreate some of my parents’ recipes, I found it frustrating. I wanted to get it right NOW! But, when I relaxed a bit, I found I enjoyed the process. Each experiment brought me closer to my parents and sometimes I felt as if one or both of them were in the room with me when I reached for a spice jar and had an “aha” moment about a missing ingredient.

      So I can definitely relate to your quest to recreate your grandmother’s recipes.

      And I look forward to including your blog in my to-be-created holiday memories this year.

      Thank you so much for your kind words and friendship.

      xox Katherine

  13. Donna says:

    Hi Katherine!
    Your post took me on a journey… back in time where I can hear the ocean and I can smell the kitchen. I don’t smell anything baking in the oven, but the smell that envelops me is just as sweet! I remember standing in the kitchen at my Grandmother’s beach house as the waves crashed in the distance. I can smell the sweet mix of dish soap and freshly laundered hand towels along with the faint smell of the ocean. One thought of the scent immediately transports me back to the beach house in Rhode Island!
    What a wonderful way to correlate these beautiful sensory memories to what we do in our professional lives. Every experience is intertwined.
    Thank you for sharing your story and what a gift it was to find the original recipe that was so important to you! <3

    • Katherine Kotaw says:

      Awwwwwwwwww. What a wonderful story! And now you know why I wrote mine — to send readers on scent-filled journeys of their own. And I’m thrilled that I helped transport you to your grandmother’s beach house and that you understand the impact these intensely personal experiences have on our professional lives.

      You made me smile — thank you you so much for the joy you brought me this morning!

  14. Monika says:

    I know this is way late, but I just stumbled on this blog via G+. It evokes great memories of my family in Germany , especially Mom baking the so famous Christmas Stollen. The entire house smelled of it a few days before the event of family gatherings. And then the visits of my cousins, nephews, nieces a day before to have a slice, warm out of the oven with a good helping of real butter on top……hmmmmm….that is why Mom always baked more than one of them.
    Fantastic memories, thank you for waking those up within me, Katherine.

    • Katherine Kotaw says:

      It’s never too late to share a good story, Monika! And I’m happy I helped you relive one of yours.

      One of the greatest rewards of being a storyteller is awakening memories in those who read my words.

      So thank you for the sweet gift of your shared memory.

  15. Adrienne says:

    Hi Katherine,

    I can’t even imagine losing any of Mom’s recipes. Yep, I know exactly where they are and as per our conversation over on Google+ earlier, I’ll be making that fudge once she’s no longer with us. All the rest of those cookies, no way.

    I’m glad your daughter found the recipe again and I can recall all those smells from my grandmother’s kitchen. We did love the holidays at her house, Mom and I were talking about that yesterday as a matter of fact.

    I think when we can bring the reader into our own story then they’ll start feeling what we’re feeling and there is no better result than that right!

    Thank you for sharing this story and I hope the butter tarts came out like you had hoped. They do look good…

    Happy Holidays.


    • Katherine Kotaw says:

      I was devastated to lose the recipes so the return of the butter tart recipe was among the best-ever gifts from Bri (who is a master at finding perfect gifts). And now she insists I write down all of my recipes (and bought me a special book in which to detail ingredients and instructions).

      And, you’re absolutely right — storytelling is not about “look at me” moments but about rekindling a reader’s memories. Butter tarts are just a (delicious) pastry and a story about them is not worth sharing unless it draws the reader into her own story.

      So, I’m delighted that we’ve shared personal recollections on Google+ and elsewhere. Stories are not meant to end with a writer’s final period but to live on in a readers memories and imagination.

      Thank you for your comments, your insights and — most important — your friendship.

      Wishing you the best holiday season ever,


  16. […] much so that they want to join us on our adventures at doggie beach and bake cookies and butter tarts with us. They especially want to wiggle with our Pit Bull Brand Ambassador Ivy and tap dance with […]

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