Across the Table: In Paris, falling in love with tarte Tatin
Most of the time, though, I couldn’t afford it. Or even the small cup of coffee I envisioned enjoying after. So when I did finally get my tarte des demoiselles Tatin, referring to the two spinster sisters who invented it (on purpose or no) at their family hotel in the Loire Valley of France, it tasted all the sweeter.
I treasure that memory of eating a warm tarte made with new crop apples, the windows of the wine bar or bistro steamed up, the blue-gray of November or December outside. And years later, on a subsequent trip to France, when I had more money in my pocket, I marched right into the cookware shop Déhillerin and accosted one of their famously grouchy clerks: “I would like to buy a proper tarte tatin pan”.
I ended up splurging on two heavy copper pans (what can I say? the dollar was strong), one about the size of a 9-inch tart pan with 2-inch sides and tiny copper “ears,” and the other a generous 13 inches in diameter. I guess because it reminded me of those big tartes I’d seen at the wine bars.
I’ve been happily making tarte Tatin ever since, mostly in the smaller pan but occasionally in that grand one, which will serve 10 and counting. When I rented a house near Joshua Tree with friends last year, I even managed on an electric stove, using a wine bottle to roll out the pastry.
I love standing by the stove, keeping watch as the butter and sugar mixture caramelizes. It sputters up between the wedges, sending the smell of burnt sugar and apple through the entire house.
I’ve tried lots of recipes and eventually worked out the simplest. Not for me the usual puff pastry. I make mine with a classic pâte brisé, which takes just minutes to make.
After I tried New York chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s version, I no longer even make the caramel first. His method (detailed in his book “Home Cooking With Jean-Georges”) works just as well. He basically smooshes the butter together with the sugar, spreads it out in the bottom of the pan and arranges the tightly packed apples on top. Then he turns the fire on high and waits for butter and sugar to caramelize. Caution: If the flame is too low, the apples will start giving up their juice before the caramelization takes place and it will be hard to get that characteristic deep amber color.
It takes close to 5 pounds of apples to make a 9-inch tarte Tatin (the apples shrink as they cook). Even so, I find it pays to use the larger pan. The leftovers are wonderful the next afternoon with a freshly brewed cup of coffee.
Recipe: Tarte Tatin
Tarte Tatin. (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times / November 19, 2012)
Total time: 1½ hours, plus chilling and cooling times
Servings: Makes 1 (9-inch) tart
Note: Investigate the heirloom apples at the farmers market, asking the farmer’s advice about baking apples. Golden Delicious is a classic apple for this tart, but you can also use Pippin, Cox, Granny Smith and especially Braeburn, if you can find it. This recipe calls for a copper tarte Tatin pan or cast-iron skillet.
Pâte brisée (flaky pastry)
1 cup flour
Pinch of salt
6 tablespoons chilled butter
3 tablespoons ice water, more if needed
In a bowl, combine the flour and salt. Cut the butter into half-inch pieces. Using a pastry blender or two knives, cut the butter into the flour until the butter is the size of peas. Sprinkle over the ice water, a tablespoon at a time, fluffing with a fork, until the dough sticks together when you try to form a ball. Form into a flat disk and cover with plastic wrap. Refrigerate for at least a half hour.
6 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup sugar
8 to 10 (5 pounds) Golden Delicious or similar apples, peeled, cored and halved
Prepared pâte brisée
Crème fraîche or crema Mexicana
1. In a copper tarte Tatin pan or cast-iron skillet, mix the butter into the sugar with your fingers. Spread it out in an even layer over the pan. Starting at the outside, place the apple halves standing up in the butter-sugar mixture, each fitting into the next as if they were spooning. Fit as many halves as you can into the center. And don’t worry about the fact that the apples are taller than the pan; they’ll shrink down as they cook.
2. Place the pan or skillet on a burner turned to high and cook until the butter-sugar mixture bubbles up between the apples and turns a medium amber. This can take 15 to 25 minutes. Don’t be afraid. The only mistake you can make is keeping the flame too low so the juice exudes from the apples before the sugar is caramelized. As the bottom of the apples soften, press down with a wooden spoon or spatula.
3. Heat the oven to 400 degrees.
4. Remove the pan from the heat and set aside to cool slightly while you roll out the pastry dough.
5. On a floured board, roll out the pastry to about 12 inches in diameter. Carefully place on top of the caramelized apples, trimming so there’s just an inch or so as border. Tuck the border in around the apples.
6. Place the pan on the middle rack of the oven and bake for 35 to 40 minutes until the pastry is set and browned.
7. Cool the tart in the pan. Just before serving, warm the tart on the stovetop. Place a serving plate on top and invert the tart onto the plate. Serve in wedges with a big dollop of crème fraîche or crema Mexicana. (If you use crema Mexicana, add a pinch of sugar to counterbalance its tartness.)
Each of 8 servings: 374 calories; 2 grams protein; 5 grams carbohydrates; 4 grams fiber; 18 grams fat; 11 grams saturated fat; 46 mg cholesterol; 37 grams sugar; 20 mg sodium.