I haven’t written a recipe post in more than a month. It’s not because I haven’t been cooking, it’s because I’ve been cooking simple dishes. Now that fall is officially here, the meals will become more complex because I can use the oven again, and nothing says “fall” to me more than a classic tarte Tatin.
Despite its classic status, I had my first taste of this dessert only 13 years ago under memorable circumstances. She Who Must Be Obeyed and I were in New York City to see the premiere of Recreation, a play written by Penn Jillette of Penn and Teller. When the play was over, our friends took us to what I thought at the time was a French bistro for drinks and dessert. I was reminded yesterday that the “bistro” was Nougatine, the bar at the front of Jean-Georges on Central Park West. We were surprised that they seated us just for dessert, but it was late and we’d be an easy service.
Before I could read the dessert menu, someone snatched it out of my hand, telling me “You’re ordering the tarte Tatin. Trust me.” He was right, the dish was a revelation: caramelized apples, flaky pastry, a bit of tangy crème fraiche on the side – I was amazed that something made from so few ingredients could taste so good. And then, I promptly forgot about it for five years.
I had a kitchen full of apples, the result of two apple picking play dates with friends of He Who Must Not Be Ignored. I had already made apple preserves, I couldn’t bear the thought of eating another apple crisp (even though the wife’s version is to die for), and there was no way I was going to bake apple pies – I know my limitations. It was then that I found the tarte Tatin recipe in the January 1996 issue of Cook’s Illustrated, the recipe I used here.
There are only six ingredients in the entire recipe. I started by making the pastry, assembling 1 1/3 cup all-purpose flour, 1/4 cup confectioner’s sugar, 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1 stick of butter cut into 1/4-inch pats, and 1 large cold beaten egg.
I mixed the dry ingredients in a food processor, scattered the butter over the top, and mixed again for about ten seconds until the mixture resembled cornmeal.
I transferred this to a bowl, added the egg, and stirred with a fork until it clumped into little balls.
I gathered the dough together, wrapped it in plastic, and shaped it into a disc about 4 inches in diameter.
After chilling in the fridge for 40 minutes, I rolled out the dough on a floured counter until it was 12 inches in diameter.
I moved the crust onto a rimless cookie sheet, covered it in plastic, and returned it to the fridge.
While the crust chilled, I prepped the apples. I used two each of Jonagold, Blushing Gold, and Gala apples, along with another cut-up stick of butter and 3/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon of granulated sugar.
I cored, peeled, and quartered the apples, using a melon baller to scoop out the tough center that surrounds the seeds.
I melted the butter in a 9-inch nonstick skillet, removed it from the heat, sprinkled the sugar over the top and swirled the pan until the butter and sugar were incorporated. Then I arranged the apples in the skillet. It was a bit tricky to get started since the apples have to be stood on the short edge, but once I got four slices in place I was able to use both hands to place the remaining slices.
I returned the skillet to high heat and cooked until the liquid in the pan turned rich amber like maple syrup, about 15 minutes.
I removed the pan from the heat, and, using a paring knife, flipped the slices over.
I returned the pan to high heat and cooked for another five minutes to cook the uncaramelized sides. I removed the pan from the heat, took the crust out of the fridge, and slid it off the sheet so that it was centered on the rim of the pan. I tucked the overhang into the pan, pressing it against the sides.
I baked the pan in a 375° oven for 30 minutes, until the crust was golden brown, then cooled it on a rack for 20 minutes.
I loosened the edges from the pan with a thin plastic spatula, placed a serving platter over the pan, and inverted the tart onto the platter. You can scrape off any apples that stick to the pan and place them back on the tart, but I didn’t need to do that (see first photo).
The hardest part of the recipe was next: wait about 15 minutes for the caramel to cool from runny to thick before eating. During the wait I made a faux crème fraiche by beating together heavy cream and sour cream in a 2:1 ratio. Time to serve:
Another study in contrasts: sweet apples vs. tart crème, crispy, flaky crust vs. soft apples, warm tart vs. cold topping. It took a lot of willpower to eat only one slice.
I recently compared the steps in the Cook’s recipe with Julia’s recipe in Mastering Vol. 1, and I don’t think I would have been as successful with her version. She calls for slicing the apples 1/8 inch thick, layering them in a baking dish with the butter and sugar, covering the dish with the crust and baking everything at once. I’m convinced that would result in a soggy, insufficiently browned tart due to the water content released from the apples in a closed container. I’m fortunate to have tried the other recipe first, otherwise la tarte des demoiselles Tatin would have been added to my “fail” file.
(Thanks to Phyllis Bregman for jogging my memory. How could I have forgotten Jean-Georges?)
Apples: Nicewicz Family Farm
Butter, flour: Whole Foods