The other day, I received an email from my friend Ron, who had recently returned from a long weekend in Paris, which is something people who live in New York can do without killing themselves, time-wise:
“I had such a good time in Paris, and am so inspired to cook! I was thinking about you when I was there, and I almost bought a tarte tatin pan, but they were so expensive, and I realized I probably didn’t need to get it there.
So, I thought i’d ask for your opinion on a good pan. Do you have a recommendation? I’d also LOVE to get your recipe as well. You were always going to teach me how to make one and we never got around to it. So, perhaps, i could at least get your recipe.”
I thought for a moment. There he was in Paris, inspired to cook, looking at expensive tarte Tatin pans. He must have been to E. Dehillerin’s— a mind-blowing, intoxicating cookware store that only those with a severe allergy to copper or eating could leave without the purchase of something shiny or, at the very least, without inspiration.
I am delighted and somehow unsurprised that Ron managed to leave the store without the pan. Delighted because I would be jealous of any friend outside of easy borrowing distance who owned one, unsurprised because he’s one of the best bargain hunters ever. He also has one of the tiniest apartments in the universe, which I think has been officially documented. He would hang that document on his wall, but he would most likely think it would take up too much wall space.
It is precisely due to this lack of space that I would suggest to Ron that he not invest in a one-use pan. Some folks swear by non-stick sauté pans, others by cast iron skillets for making this upside down apple tart. I happen to lean towards cast iron, because I’m just plain folksy. Either will do, so take your pick.
A Promise is a Promise
I had forgotten my promise of teaching him how to make Tarte Tatin, since it was about two lifetimes ago. I do, however, like to think of myself as a man of my word. So, Ron, though it’s about six or seven years after the fact, and you now live on the other side of the continent, I will do my best to answer your questions. By opening this up from a simple email into a blog post, I encourage others with more Tarte Tatin expertise to weigh in, if you like.
I initially hesitated when offering up my recipe, because I thought it produced inconsistent results. It seemed a bit odd that something static– printed and frozen on glossy paper– could be inconsistent. It was I who was inconsistent. And the ingredients. Would I be vigilant and make a perfect caramel, with apples well-cooked and brown, but holding together? That is sometimes me. Or would I wind up with what my goddaughter Zelly referred to as “apple mush tart” when I decided to make one for her while trying to keep her 4 year-old little sister away from the knives and hot caramel? That is, unfortunately me, too. I’m glad it was the tart that wound up overcooked and not the child.
And what about the ingredients? I’ve made this dish at least two dozen times during my adulthood, but never with any sort of regularity. Somewhere along the way, I got it into my head that Granny Smith apples were the best, owing to their tartness and name-sharing with Dame Maggie. I had forgotten the better results I’d had with Golden Delicious and jumped back to the Smiths, which also happens to be the name of one of my favorite bands from my high school days. Unfortunately, while yielding great flavor, the Smiths yield an attractive-but-depressing mush, not unlike the music of the aforementioned band. I vote Jonagold which has inherited the firm flesh of its Golden Delicious mother, but taken on a little of it’s father’s (Jonathan) tartness.
I hope Ron has fun experimenting with this dessert. Especially in New York where the Autumn apples are better than anywhere I’ve had.
If he messes one up, it will still more than likely taste good, because how badly can you screw up apples, butter, and sugar? Well, I might suggest he watch Julia Child making one of the biggest goofs of her television career.
Suddenly, mine doesn’t look so bad.
Serves 8 to 10, depending on how you slice it.
When I first had this dessert presented to me, I can’t remember where I was. Was it at some high school French Club get together? A special occasion restaurant venture with my family? The quaint little Loire Valley farm house where I learned a lot of dirty words from the sons of the proprietress who were trying to describe what they wanted to do with one of my female friends? I don’t remember, since I’ve had it in all of those situations. I just remember the shock I felt at my love for the dish, since I had always been indifferent to apple pie. And I remembered the name thanks to the way I remember most everything– through word association. “A good Tarte Tatin,” I thought, “should be tart and tan.”
The back story on this dessert is nearly as quaint as the tart itself. If it is to be believed, in 1888, Mlle. Stéphanie Tatin, owner of L’Hôtel Tatin in Lamotte-Beuvron with her sister either a) was not a very bright woman and accidentally baked her famous apple tart upside down in one of her frequent moments of confusion; b) became distracted during the making of said tart, let the cooking go a little too far, but managed to save the day by throwing a crust over the apples and baking them upside down; or c) was threatened with a smoldering cigarette to the face by a jealous Brett Somers, who suspected the Mlle. Tatin of having an unsavory dalliance with her then-husband, Jack Klugman, and therefore unable to reach the caramelizing apples in time to make a proper, right side up tart until La Somers was finished with her smoke.
I prefer to believe version “c”, because it is the most exciting story.
For the pastry:
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon sugar
A pinch of salt
1/2 cup chilled, unsalted butter, cut into pieces
1/4 cup ice water
For the filling:
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
3/4 cup sugar
6 apples, peeled, quartered, and cored. Jonagolds will do nicely. So will Golden Delicious. Go ahead and experiment with different varieties.
A pinch of salt
A dash of vanilla extract
1. To make the pastry, combine flour, sugar, and salt into the bowl of a food processor. Pulse briefly to mix. Add the chopped, chilled butter to the flour mixture and pulse until the the butter has been coated and broken into a million, pea-sized pellets. Sprinkle dough with enough cold water to make the dough barely come together. Turn the dough out onto a lightly-floured work surface and roll out into an 11″ round about 1/4 of an inch thick. Transfer dough to a baking sheet, cover with wax paper or plastic wrap and refrigerate.
2. Preheat your oven to 400 F. In an 10″ cast iron skillet or non-stick frying pan, melt butter over medium heat. Stir in sugar and pinch of salt until nearly dissolved (about 2 minutes or so). If it’s lumpy, don’t worry. Add the apple quarters, rounded side down into the bubbling proto-caramel using enough apples to fit snuggly. Reduce the heat to low and cook until the caramel is dark brown and the apples are just tender (about 15 minutes).
3. Place pan in the oven to cook the apples a bit more (5 minutes). Remove pan from oven and raise the heat to 450 F. Perfume apples with a bit of vanilla extract, then gently place the pastry circle over the top of the apples, tucking the excess pastry inside the rim of the pan. Return pan to the oven and bake until the pastry is all brown and flaky-like (about 20 minutes).
4. Remove from the oven. Run a knife around the inside edge of the pan, invert a serving plate over the pan and then flip over and pray that the tarte unmolds easily. Lift off the pan. And please, Ron, do wear oven mitts and sensible shoes. I’d hate to hear that someone spent the evening in a Manhattan emergency room being treated for caramel burns.
5. Serve warm with sweetened whipped cream or with vanilla ice cream.