Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Turning out Tarte Tatin

Here it is. The moment of truth.

You manage this, and your two hours of hulling produce, reducing caramel, kneading pastry, and trying to improvise an airtight turkey baster will (maybe) be rewarded spectacularly. If you mess it up, not only is your desert ruined, but you're risking everything from the fate of your glass cookware to personal injury.

All you have to do to unlock the (potential) glory of your exquisitely crafted dessert is to upend a heavy cast-iron pan filled with scalding liquid onto a breakable platter wearing padded mittens that wouldn't look out of place on an Eskimo.

But boy is the result worth it.

I present la tarte tatin.

Here's the basic methodology behind a tarte tatin: start by making a simple caramel out of butter and sugar (um, yum) in a stovetop saucepan. You delicately arrange an interlocking starburst of apple slices onto the bottom of the pan and then heap the thing with as many apples as you can physically stack. You cook them into tender submission, basting them in lemon juice and sugar until the entire filling is rendered with delicious caramel. Now here's the interesting part: once the apples are done baking, the pie crust goes on top of the filling; you cover the fruit with a circle of dough and bake the entire production in the oven until the crust browns and hardens. At that point, you flip the entire dessert so that the crust is actually on the bottom of the tart. Prepare for the moment of truth!

According to the fantastical land of error-free modern baking media, the tarte tatin is a masterpiece of foresight wherein the baker meticulously blueprints and lays out her fruit on the base of the pan (the top of the tart, remember?) and the final release is an all-or-nothing revelation of the success of the original vision. Here's an example of what television says an outturned tarte tatin should look like:

According to real life, your carefully organized design of lemon-coated crescents have likely already been prodded aside by your turkey baster, smashed by the adjacent layer of apples, and in all probability glued to the bottom of the pan by that lovely caramel you created.

Here's what a real outturned tarte tatin looks like.
But never fear! With a spatula and a delicate pair of fingers, you can put your tart back together like nothing happened. I promise. If you don't believe me that retroactively reconstituting your tarte tatin is valid baking practice, just ask Julia Child. After watching this chef turn out her own tarte tatin you will feel much better about your own kitchen!

(Thank goodness for Julia Child.)

This was my first time making tarte tatin, and this recipe came out gorgeously. I think the trick is making sure that each component--the caramel, the apples, the crust--are all cooked properly in their turn, even if you have to cook them for longer than strictly called for, and the tart just eventually comes together compliantly.

My mom loves tarte tatin, and by her declaration, this dish was the best tarte tatin she has ever tasted.

(Which is a good thing, because it means I'm allowed to keep buying butter and getting flour all over the kitchen. Phew!)

Here's the recipe!

Tarte Tatin de Pommes
An elegant dessert with a dramatic reveal: when you flip over the pan, the result is a delicate and beautifully artistic tart: a thin, rimless circle of delicate puff-pastry-like crust covered with apples caramelized to a crimson hue. Emblematic of the best parts of French cooking: simple ingredients, masterful technique and a result that's as delicious as it is beautiful.


Apple filling
Equipment: a sturdy, oven-safe stovetop pan (with a handle), about 9 inches in diameter
About 8 Golden Delicious apples, or other sturdy baking apples
Zest and juice of one lemon
1 ½ cups sugar
6 tbsp (3/4 cube) butter

Pie crust
1 cup flour
2 tbsp sugar
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup (1 stick) cold butter
1/4 cup ice water


1. Core and peel your apples. Cut them into crescent-shaped slices (I recommend eighths, but some people prefer quarters). Toss the apple slices in a bowl with the lemon zest and juice and ½ cup sugar. Let sit for about half an hour so that they begin to emit their juices. Drain.
2. Make your pie dough.
           a. Mix together the flour, sugar, and salt in a bowl.
           b. Cut your butter into small cubes and add it to the flour mixture. Work it in with your hands until you have a pretty uniform, crumby mixture.
           c. Add the ice water. Stir in with a spoon or fork until it comes together into a ball. Your dough will be pretty wet and sticky. Knead it in your hands a few times to make sure that all the ingredients are incorporated, then wrap it in wax paper and let it sit in the fridge for an hour.
3. Set the frying pan over medium-high heat. Melt your butter. Add 1 cup sugar and stir with a wooden spoon. The ingredients will form a very thick caramel, and you might have some difficulty incorporating them into a homogeneous mixture (that’s ok, do the best you can and the apple juices will help out later). Continue cooking until the caramel turns a light amber color (pics below).
4. Remove from heat. Arrange a layer of apple slices flat on the bottom of the pan, closely packed and forming a pretty pattern. Heap the remaining apple slices into the pan so that they rise about an inch above the top of the pan.
5. At this point, preheat the oven to 425 degrees. 
6. Return the pan to medium-high heat. Cook the apples for 10-20 minutes. Press them down with a wooden spoon. Using a turkey baster, continuously baste the apples in the caramel settled in the bottom of the pan (the caramel should be bubbling up through the chinks in the apples). It is important to make sure that all the apple slices are bathed in the caramel to ensure a decadent taste, full cook, and caramelized texture in every bite. Once your apples are well on the way to softening and have compressed enough that you can fit a lid on top of your pan, continue to the next step.
7. Cover the frying pan and cook for another approximately 10-15 minutes. Check the apples frequently and continue to baste with the caramel.  You want to continue cooking until your apples are essentially cooked through. They should be soft, visibly browned and coated with caramel, and fit within the pan. The caramel should have thickened somewhat, so that when you pour it over your apple slices it leaves a glaze. Remove the pan from the heat.
8. Roll out your pie crust. Liberally flour your work surface and the ball of dough. Roll into a rough circle slightly larger than the top of your pan, about 3/16 of an inch thick. Transfer the pie crust to your pan, covering the top of the apples. Trim the excess and, using your wooden spoon, tuck it in slightly around the edges of the pan.
9. Bake in the oven for about 20 minutes until the crust is firm and golden. 
10. Upon removing the tart from the oven, tilt the pan slightly to check the consistency of the caramel. If it is very runny, cook the tart over the stove quickly until it thickens (but do not completely evaporate). Let cool for about 5 minutes.
11. Place a platter or plate upside-down on top of your pan. Wearing oven mitts, sandwich the plate and pan together and flip the whole thing over. Remove the pan from atop the tart. If any pieces of fruit are left in the pan, remove them gently with a spatula and arrange them attractively on the tart, caramelized side up. 
12. Serve with a dollop of whipped cream or a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

If you have an apple corer, you can use it to core your apples; otherwise, just cut out the seedy part after you cut slices.

Your pie dough should look like this when you put it in the fridge
Here is what the butter-and-sugar "caramel" looks like when you first mix it together. It does not remotely resemble a syrup.
When your caramel looks like this, add the apples to the pan. You can see that there is still a clear layer of butter sort of floating around the edges of the amber caramel, which is perfectly ok.
The apple slices just after I put them in the pan. I forgot to take a picture of the neat bottom layer!
Baste the apple slices in the caramel with a turkey baster
Here's what the apples looked like when I decided to put the cap on
The apples again! This is what they looked like when they were done. As you can see, they have sunken down from the top of the pan considerably and are coated in sticky caramel.
My rolled-out pie crust on top of the apple slices
Trim the excess and tuck in slightly
All baked and ready to turn out and enjoy!

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