The beginning of apple season this year found me in Highlands, North Carolina. The Forest Service had just finished a new hiking trail, the trailhead just steps away from my parents’ cabin. Dad, Sophie the doggie and I hiked along the trail until it opened up into a rolling field with rows of huge old McIntosh apple trees–the remnants of an old farm, it seemed, with some abandoned garden flowers still blooming, even. The apple trees were long untended–even overgrown in places with blackberry brambles–but still sagging with delicious fruit. We stopped and filled our backpacks. If there’s anything my Dad loves more than food in general, it’s free food, so he was thrilled.
Back at the cabin, I made a baked apple dessert and 2 quarts of applesauce. It was the end of a weekend of epic feasting, largely thanks to the efforts of Smitten AKA the Best Houseguest Ever. [Ed note: Aww.] So the thought of a Tarte Tatin, my favorite apple dessert, seemed gluttonous, as it contains more than two sticks of butter. I would have to save it for another time.
Several weeks later, I’m still up to my ears in apples here in NYC. The Greenmarkets are bursting with them, and even my humble neighborhood grocery, the Associated Supermarket on Avenue C, has piles of 5-pound bags of New York apples at bargain-basement prices. Jocelyn invited a bunch of us over for wine and cheese recently, and I had a date to impress. It was time to make the Tarte Tatin.
Joy is the source for my Tarte Tatin recipe, except I make an all-butter pate brisée instead of their recommended combination of a half cup of butter and two tablespoons of vegetable shortening. And, more importantly, I use salted butter in both the apples and the pastry. When Deb tried my Tarte Tatin for the first time, the first thing out of her mouth (besides “MMMMM!”) was, “Salted butter caramel?” Right on. A savory element takes apple desserts (indeed, most desserts) from merely delicious to addictively scrumptious. As for using all butter instead of a combination of butter and shortening in the crust, I think the flavor is superior. As long as all your ingredients are very cold and you work quickly, your crust will be tender and flaky–no vegetable shortening is necessary.
I’ve tried this recipe using both cast-iron and stainless steel skillets. While many people seem to assume a cast-iron skillet is best for making Tarte Tatin, I’ve had superior results with this All-Clad stainless steel pan. I am lucky enough to have an array of vintage All-Clad, which belongs to my landladies, at my disposal in the apartment. I am not sure when it was manufactured, but our friend Alexis said that my pots and pans are heavier than the stainless currently produced by All-Clad under the same series name. Deb and I tested Alexis’ hypothesis on the Smitten Kitchen Digital Scale and found that mine did, in fact, weigh 2 ounces more than hers. My extra-heavy Magic Pan might be the secret to the perfect Tarte Tatin. I am loathe to make it with any other piece of equipment. Of course, I encourage all of you to try.
I admit, the recipe sounds kind of scary. Apples boiling in a cup of sugar and a stick of butter on the stove at HIGH heat for nearly 20 minutes?! One might think the caramel would burn, or the apples would stick. But have faith. If you wimp out and use lower heat, the apples will cook too slowly and they’ll start to disintegrate, and then they really WILL stick to the pan. (This happened to me once. I had to start over, and since I don’t have a garbage disposal, that meant figuring out how to dispose of a whole skillet full of blazing-hot sugary fruit. I couldn’t just switch to another pan–remember, this is the Magic Pan we‘re talking about!) Another rejoinder: don’t skimp on the caramelization time. If you don’t caramelize on the stovetop for long enough, your Tarte Tatin will come out of the oven a gritty, runny, inedible mess. You must watch the pan carefully, though, because about 10 or 15 seconds can mean the difference between perfect, deep caramelization and burnt apples.
The upside: this recipe is a delight even for cooks who aren’t normally nuts about baking; the stovetop caramelization is a fragrant, fascinating process. Plus, the result is incredibly delicious, as everyone at Deb’s house on Thursday night will attest. [Ed note: Indeed, it was the very best part of Vice-President Debate Night!]
Two years ago: Classic Brownies
Deb and Alex went to Paris and all I got was this awesome tarte tatin! Yes, it’s true. Alex and I have flown the coop this week and are (hopefully) wandering around ancient cobblestone streets in a haze of wine and butter. Comment responses will be slow–if at all–this week, but I have fortunately been cooking up enough of a storm that you should never be left without your smitten kitchen fix!
Molly’s Apple Tarte Tatin
Adapted from The Joy of Cooking
1 stick plus two tablespoons cold salted butter (5 ounces), cut into cubes and chilled in freezer
1 tablespoon sugar (optional)
1 1/2 cup flour
3 to 6 tablespoons ice water
7 medium apples (I’ve had good results with Granny Smith, Gala, McIntosh…use your favorite, but make sure they are very firm, fresh and flavorful.)
1 stick (4 ounces) salted butter
1 cup sugar
Prepare Crust: I always use the food processor for this. Pre-mix the flour and sugar in the food processor container, and cube the butter on a plate. Then put the dry ingredients and the butter in the freezer for a while. This will get everything, including the blade and container, nice and chilled. The colder everything is, the flakier and more tender your crust will be. Prepare about 1/3 cup ice water and refrigerate.
After you’ve chilled everything for at least 20 minutes, add the cubes of butter to dry ingredients and pulse until the largest pieces of butter are no bigger than tiny peas.
Add the ice water a little at a time, processing just until the dough starts to come together into a mass. (it won’t quite be a “ball,” and it won‘t look smooth–you don’t want to overprocess it!) Turn out onto well-floured surface and pat together into a ball. Don’t handle the dough too much, or the warmth of your hands will start to melt the butter. Flour the top of the dough and use rolling pin to quickly press and roll the dough out into a 10 to 11-inch circle. Keep turning the dough as you do this to make sure it doesn’t stick to the rolling surface. Throw more flour underneath the dough if necessary. Check the crust to make sure it’s just big enough to cover the top of your tarte tatin pan. Move the crust onto a piece of parchment paper or onto a floured rimless baking sheet, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate.
Prepare filling: Preheat oven to 375° F.
Over low heat in a heavy, ovenproof skillet measuring 7 to 8 inches across the bottom and 10 to 11 inches across the top, melt the stick of butter. Remove from heat, add the sugar and stir until blended.
Shake/tap the pan so the butter-sugar mixture distributes evenly across the bottom. Arrange apple quarters in pan, first making a circle inside the edge of the pan. Place them on their sides and overlap them so you can fit as many as possible. Then fill the center of the pan; you may have some apple left over. Keep at least one extra apple quarter on hand–when you turn the apples over, they may have shrunk to the extent that you’ll need to cheat and fill in the space with an extra piece. This one piece won’t get quite as caramelized as the other pieces, but don’t worry–it will still cook through and no one will notice.
Return your pan to the stovetop on high heat. Let boil for 10 to 12 minutes or until the juices in the pan turn from golden in color to dark amber. Remove from heat. With the tip of a sharp knife, turn apple slices over, keeping them in their original places. If necessary, add an extra slice of apple to keep your arrangement intact. Return to the stovetop on high heat once more. Let cook another 5 minutes and then remove from heat.
Place the crust on top of the apples and brush off excess flour. Tuck edges under slightly, along the inside of the pan, being careful not to burn fingers. You can use your knife.
Bake in oven until the top of the crust is golden-brown in color, about 25-35 minutes. Remove from oven and allow to cool on a rack about 30 minutes.
Run a sharp knife along the inside edge of the pan. Place a plate or other serving dish on top of the pan and quickly flip over the whole shebang so the Tarte Tatin drops down onto the plate. The pan will still be hot, so use potholders and be careful! Don’t burn yourself or drop stuff! If you are feeble and clumsy, get someone stronger and more coordinated than you to do this. Peek under the edge of the pan to see if the Tarte came out. You may need to bop the bottom of the pan with your potholder-encased fist for this to happen. If there are any pieces of apple left behind in the pan or otherwise out of place, carefully put them back where they are supposed to be. Voila! A beautiful TREAT!
This keeps well for about a day at room temperature; if you have to refrigerate it, warm it up slightly before serving for optimum enjoyment.