My brain is currently in Paris, idling in a cafe after a bike ride along the Seine. It may not come home. It started a few weeks ago, when an obsession with getting to the bottom of a baked spinach dish mentioned in a letter by Julia Child allowed me to, once again, dive deeply into the pages of Mastering the Art of French Cooking. What I didn’t have was an exit strategy, which is especially dangerous when day to day life lately has been a bit more about
double ear infections, sleep deprivation, cookbooking in a tiny, overheated kitchen, oh, and then we paid taxes things nobody needs to hear me complain about. In short: I choose Paris, instead. So the last few weeks have brought to our table weeknight roasted chicken, tiny gold potatoes, simple green salads, skinny green beans, white wine, weepingly delicious onion soup and a spate of apple tarte tatins.
The tarte tatin is one of my favorite apple desserts, but also one of my most consistent failures. Again and again over the years, I’ve tried to get it right but rarely did. Some were too sweet. Often, the apples didn’t cook through. I burnt the caramel more times than I’ll admit to, even in the last week. I’ve cut the apples all wrong. I’ve used puff pastry that didn’t want to puff and short crusts that crumbled under the caramelized apple juices. And a good lot of the time, the caramel just never came together, and remained a toasty syrup with a puddle of butter floating on top. Not that anyone complains about such things. More or less, if there’s a place where you can mess up a tarte tatin, I’ve done it. Multiple times.
But in recent weeks, and I think I’ve finally gotten the swing of things. The caramel should be just a pale golden when you add the apples, as it will have the better part of an hour to darken after that. The apples, and this is essential, should be basted with the syrupy juices the whole time they’re on the stove, and you shouldn’t skimp there either or they won’t cook through. I’m no longer afraid to rearrange the apples as needed; my stove doesn’t cook evenly from the center to the edges of the burner, so why would I expect my apples to? The result has been a series of baby tatins (that’s a mini you see above; just like someone else) with copper-toned cobblestoned undersides that when flipped, sigh and slump over the edges of a very puffed pastry base. For something simmered then baked in caramel, you’ll be amazed at how un-sweet the whole thing is, yet so apple-y. Yes, I just used the word “apple-y”. Make this, you’ll see.
One year ago: Tangy Spiced Brisket and Radicchio Apple and Pear Salad
Two years ago: Bialys, Artichokes Braised in Lemon and Olive Oil and Chewy Amaretti Cookies
Three years ago: Vegetarian Cassoulet and Shaker Lemon Pie
Four years ago: Arugula Ravioli and Mixed Berry Pavlova
Apple Tarte Tatin [Upside-Down Caramelized Apple Tart]
Adapted from Julia Child, Orangette and experience
At one point, things were so bad on the apple tarte tatin front that after my friend Molly wow-ed us one night with a salted caramel apple tarte tatin, I insisted that she guest post about her recipe and technique. Although I’m still fond of Molly’s, I think this update benefits from streamlined directions and longer cooking times; I’ve also found that I prefer the puffed pastry base to the short pastry one I believed I preferred then. Finally, her base is a salted caramel, from salted butter and if that sounds good to you, go ahead and use salted butter or a couple pinches of sea salt in this version.
If you don’t have an ovenproof skillet, feel free to cook the apples on the stove and transfer them to a 9-inch round baking dish, along with all of their caramel before topping them with the pastry and baking them in the dish. Invert as you would the skillet.
Note: In the photos above, I made a 3/4-size version in a 7ish inch skillet. The recipe below is for a full-sized tatin, as you’ll hopefully only have to make it once to get it right.
6 medium apples (I had the most success with Golden Delicious and Granny Smiths)
Juice of half a lemon
6 tablespoons (3 ounces or 85 grams) butter
1 1/3 cup (266 grams) sugar, divided
Puffed pastry, chilled
A 9-inch ovenproof skillet, heavy enough that you fear dropping it on your toes
Peel apples, halve and core apples. Once cored, cut lengthwise into quarters (i.e. four pieces per apple) and cut a bevel along their inner edge, which will help their curved exteriors stay on top as they rest on this edge. (You can see this beveled edge here.) Toss apple chunks with the lemon juice and 1/3 cup of the sugar. Set aside for 15 minutes; this will help release the apple’s juices, too much of them and the caramel doesn’t thicken enough to cling merrily to the cooked apples.
Melt butter in your skillet over medium heat. Sprinkle in remaining 1 cup sugar and whisk it over the heat until it becomes the palest of caramels. Off the heat, add the apples to the skillet, arranging them rounded sides down in one layer. Lay any additional apple wedges rounded sides down in a second layer, starting from the center.
Return the pan to the stove and cook in the caramel for another 20 to 25 minutes over moderately high heat. With a spoon, regularly press down on the apples and baste them caramel juices from the pan. If it seems that your apples in the center are cooking faster, swap them with ones that are cooking more slowly, and rotate apples that are cooking unevenly 180 degrees. The apples will shrink a bit and by the end of the cooking time, your second layer of apples might end up slipping into the first — this is fine.
Preheat oven to 400. Roll out your puffed pastry to a 9-inch circle and trim if needed. Cut four vents in pastry. Remove skillet from heat again, and arrange pastry round over apples. Tuck it in around the apples for nicer edges later. Bake until the pastry is puffed and golden brown, about 20 minutes.
Once baked, use potholders to place a plate or serving dish (larger in diameter than the pan, learn from my messes!) over the pasty and with a deep breath and a quick prayer, if you’re into that kind of thing, unmold the pastry and apples at once onto the plate. If any apples stubbornly remain behind in the pan, nudge them out with a spatula.
Serve with a dollop of whipped crème fraîche, or lightly sweetened whipped cream and eat immediately.
* My favorite, by miles, though not exactly budget-minded, is from Dufour. It tastes like something straight out of a Paris pastry shop.