This is a tale of three tarts. Three tarte Tatins, actually, the rustic French apple tart that you find on bistro menus all over the country each fall — and sometimes, if everything goes right, on my table, too.
Tarte Tatin is basically caramel, apples and pastry, and it’s cooked upside-down, as it has been since 1898, when it was invented by the Tatin sisters who were running a little hotel in the Loire Valley, in the town of Lamotte-Beuvron. Legend has it that Stephanie Tatin, the older sister, was cooking up some apples in butter and sugar for a tart, and when she realized that they’d cooked too long, she put the tart dough on top of the apples in the skillet, and put it in the oven. When it was time to serve this newfangled tart, she turned it over, so the apples, not the pastry was on top.
Sounds pretty easy, right?
I thought so, too. So when I decided to make this for a recent Fort Worth Star-Telegram story on apples, I went to the market, and talked to the apple seller about which apples would be best for this tart. He told me that the Reine de Reinettes, a medium-firm apple, would work just fine, and so I bought two kilo’s worth.
First I made pâte brisée, which is the go-to pastry for most tarts in France, and I rolled it out and put it in the fridge. I halved the apples, put them in a bowl, and put equal amounts of butter and sugar in a skillet and turned the heat on medium-high.
When the color of the caramel changed from a light gold to a dark amber, I slipped the apples in, let it cook for 15 minutes, just as I was supposed to, then put the dough layer on top and slid the whole thing in the oven for a half-hour.
So far, so good. When the top of the pastry crust began to brown, and the caramel had gotten a very dark color, I pulled it out. I waited for it to stop bubbling, and then flipped it over. I didn’t want to let it rest for too long in the pan, because I was afraid that it would stick.
The result: Tarte Applesauce. It was a mushy, flat mess.
I figured it was the apples. What else could it be?
I talked to everyone I knew about apples in France and after much discussion, I learned that I needed the pommes du Canada or the Boskoop apples, both hard cooking apples that wouldn’t get mushy when cooked, neither of which were in season yet.
I couldn’t wait for two weeks — I was on deadline — and I didn’t want to use Granny Smith, which are available here, but like the ones in the States, they’re too sour for my taste.
As it turns out, my friend Catherine said that she’d seen some of the Canadian apples at the fruit and vegetable stand near her apartment in Boulogne and she’d be glad to get me some.
I made the Tarte Tatin again, this time with the good, firm Canadian apples.
When I pulled it out of the oven, and flipped it over, it was another big apple-y mess. How could this be?
I looked at my thermostat inside the oven. Damn this evil oven! It had escalated to 260 C (500 F). Those poor apples. I’d overcooked them.
I had four apples and two hours left before I needed to take a shower and get ready for dinner at X’s parents’ house. I’d been reading “Appetite for Life,” the Julia Child biography written by Noel Riley Fitch, and I already knew the answer to “What Would Julia Do?” (WWJD)
Again, I cut up my apples, which were the last of the Reine de Reinettes, leftover from my first failure – and this time, I cut them in fourths and not halves, simply because I thought they’d be easier to core (they were). I made my caramel and let it cook for 10 minutes, and added the apples for the last 5 minutes, so they wouldn’t overcook.
I reduced the temperature, and checked the oven frequently, opening the door to let it cool down when the temperature rose to 240 (my oven and I are constantly at war, as I’ve mentioned many times before). I did my best to keep the temperature at a steady 200, and when I saw the caramel get a dark, dark amber color, I took it out.
This time, I did not immediately flip it over. Perhaps part of the problem was also in the flipping, I thought. Maybe the apples needed to rest. So I set the timer for 10 minutes. When the buzzer sounded, I set it for 5 minutes more. Just for good measure.
Then, I flipped. But before I lifted the skillet, I actually felt something – an apple? — move.
It was perfect. Beautiful. I took it to the dinner party and we served it along with creme fraiche and everyone said that it was the best Tarte Tatin, ever.
Evil oven: 2. Me: 1.
This battle isn’t over yet.
1 recipe pâte brisée sucrée, recipe follows
4-5 medium medium-firm apples, such as Fuji or Golden Delicious
juice of 1 lemon, divided
1 cup brown sugar or cane sugar, divided
½ cup (1 stick) salted butter
Preheat oven to 200 C/375 F.
1. Make the pate brisee, and between two pieces of wax paper, roll out the dough to the diameter of the pan, and slide into the fridge.
2. Peel and core the apples and cut them into fourths. In a medium bowl, toss the apples in half of the lemon juice and 1/2 cup of the brown sugar.
3. In a 10-inch cast-iron skillet (or any skillet that can go into the oven), over medium heat, melt the butter, the other 1/2 cup of the sugar, and the other half of the lemon juice. Let this cook until it begins to thicken and darken to about the color of a Kraft caramel — this should take about 10 minutes. Now, gently put the apples into the pan of bubbling caramel, round-side down, fitting as many as you can into the pan. Let this cook for five more minutes, turn off the heat, and place the pastry on top, letting it fold down over the edges of the apples. With a sharp knife, make a few slits in the dough so it’ll steam. Slide into the oven, and keep a close watch on the color of the caramel and the crust. It should cook for 30 to 40 minutes. You’ll know it’s ready when the color becomes nice and dark and the edges of the crust begin to brown. Remove from the oven and let rest for 15 minutes (Be patient — a too-early flip will ruin the tart). Flip over, and serve warm with creme fraiche, sour cream, or vanilla ice cream.
*In France, the Reine de Reinettes apples work fine, as do the Boskoop and pommes du Canada. In the U.S. try Fuji apples or Golden Delicious.
Pâte Brisée Sucrée (Sweet short pastry crust)
Adapted from Kate Hill’s “A Culinary Journey in Gascony.”
1 cup all-purpose flour
¼ teaspoon sea salt
2 tablespoons sugar
¼ cup butter, cut into 1/4-inch cubes and put in the freezer for at least a half hour
¼ cup ice water
1. Put the flour, salt and sugar in food processor and pulse a few times to blend. Add the pieces of cold butter, and pulse until mixture is crumbly.
2. Add the ice water and mix quickly. If the dough is too dry, just add a little more ice water. You only want the dough to come together in a ball in your hands.
3. If dough’s super cold, you may go ahead and roll it out. Otherwise, roll out dough in a circle about 1/2-inch thick, refrigerate for a half hour, then roll out to the size that you need.