French Bistro – Part 3 – Tarte Tatin

January 28, 2009

Tarte Tatin, a caramelized upside-down tart, was supposedly invented by accident in 1898 at the Hotel Tatin by the Tatin sisters, Caroline and Stephanie, in the town of Lamotte-Beuvron in the Loire Valley of France.

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There are many different versions of the history of the dish but I’ll share the most prevalent one. As the story goes, one day, Stephanie was “in the shit” or more politely “in the weeds” because the hotel was especially busy during the hunting season. She absent-mindedly forgot to line the pan with pastry and tried to cover for her mistake by baking the tart with the pastry on top and upending it. It was a huge hit with the locals and when the restaurateur Louis Vaudable added it to the permanent menu at Maxim’s in Paris, a legend was born.

I first learned how to make Tarte Tatin from my Baking and Pastry instructor, Chef Janet MacGregor at the Los Angeles Culinary Institute. She won 1st place in an official Tarte Tatin competition and since I’m a bit obsessed with finding the ultimate recipe for everything, I begged her to tell me the secret. She didn’t give it to me at first and then, one day several months later, I received a 5-page Word document email attachment with her extremely detailed instructions on making Tarte Tatin. I will now share her instructions with you but I will attempt to paraphrase in the interest of keeping this blog from becoming too long.

As Chef MacGregor used to always drill into our brains: get your mise en place together, turn on your ovens and prepare your pans. Preheat your oven to 425 degrees. Now, the pan is very important. It needs to be a pan that you can go from stovetop to oven with no problems like handles melting. I actually happen to have a copper Tarte Tatin pan which is 9-1/2 inches across the top and about 2 inches deep and that’s what I’ll be using but you can also use a 3 quart sauté pan or a shallow sauce pan but just make sure that the handle is oven safe.

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Let’s talk apples. I recommend that you buy the best apples that you can find and make this tart only in season. This tart is all about the apples and if it’s the middle of summer and you’re grabbing the mealy ones that have been sitting on the shelves at Costco for 6 months, it’s not going to taste very good. Check your farmer’s markets in the fall for the best selection and talk to the farmer because they can often point you in the right direction as far as varieties. I have to be honest in that I have NO idea what kind of apples I have because they had an unusual name that I’ve never heard before and now I’ve forgotten but classically, Golden Delicious apples are used. It’s very important to use a firm dessert apple because they need to hold their shape and some varieties will turn to applesauce before you’re through. In her notes, Chef MacGregor says: “I use 12 medium, Red Delicious apples. Some people use Yellow Delicious apples, but whatever you do, don’t use Granny Smith or Pippin. I think you might be OK with Gala.” Strangely, I’ve always thought of Granny Smith apples as being a firm dessert apple but I’m no apple expert and since she specifically mentions NOT to use them, I most certainly won’t. So, here are the mystery apples I’m using:

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Let me tell you, I was praying the whole time that these apples weren’t the kind that would turn into applesauce and I lucked out. I only have 11 apples, so that will have to do but 12 would have been better. I think it looks nice for the apples in the finished dish to be squeezed very close together and there were a few gaps when I was done.

Next, let’s talk puff pastry. I really prefer puff pastry that is made with butter. To me, it makes such a huge difference in the final taste that it’s worth the trip I have to take across town to find my favorite brand: Dufour Puff Pastry.

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That said, I know how hard it is to find this pastry in Los Angeles of all places, so don’t give up on making this tart if it’s not available or too expensive. Pepperidge Farm is fine. I think Trader Joe’s might sell a frozen puff pastry that is made with butter but don’t quote me on it. Just keep an eye out for an all-butter variety if you can. Pepperidge Farm uses shortening, I believe, so the flavor isn’t as good. If you’re feeling really ambitious, make your own. It’s a bit of a process and best saved for another blog but if you’re a purist, that’s the way to go. Nancy Silverton, in her book Nancy Silverton’s Pastries from the La Brea Bakery has excellent instructions on making puff pastry. It makes a ton and you can freeze it and use it for a million different things, so if you love to make pastry and you’re not afraid of a little work and have the time, try it. It’s much more economical to make your own. You need to thaw the puff-pastry overnight in the refrigerator the night before you make this, so keep that in mind when you’re setting aside the time to do this. Thawing puff pastry on the counter right before you begin is not a great idea because it tends to thaw unevenly and becomes hard to work with, ie: sticky and too soft in some places and hard as a rock in others.

Let’s begin. Roll out the puff pastry quite thin (about 1/8” thick) into a 10-1/2” circle. If you’re doing this on a very hot day, be sure to work quickly because you don’t want it to get too soft. I like to roll it out on a bit piece of parchment to ensure that it doesn’t stick to the counter and to make it easier to move around but you can also throw a little flour down…not too much…it’ll toughen it. Here’s a little technique that you can use to make a 10-1/2” round stencil out of parchment paper. I use a large sheet of parchment paper (or construction paper..whatever). Fold it in half, fold it in quarters, and then keep folding inwards so that you have a sort-of cone shaped piece. Measure 5-1/4” from the point and then cut the excess off. Unfold and you will have a circle template that you can place over your puff pastry to help you cut it to the right size.

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Now, once you’ve cut the circle out with a knife, remove the excess and freeze the scraps for cookies or something. You now want to dock your pastry disc by poking little holes over it with a fork. This will ensure that the pastry doesn’t rise too high because it gives the gasses a place to escape. Once you have finished docking, slide the disc onto a cookie sheet or platter, wrap well with plastic so that it won’t dry out and place the disc in your freezer.

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Next, peel, core and halve the apples. If you have an apple corer, great…if not, peel, half and scoop out the seeds and stuff with a melon baller. Couldn’t find my corer so that’s what I did. They don’t have to be perfect but try not to take too much from the middle or break them. You want them to be in halves. After you’re done peeling, halving and coring all the apples, squeeze a lemon over them and toss to help prevent darkening and balance the sweetness a bit.

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Sift ¼ teaspoon of cinnamon into 10 Tablespoons (5 ounces) of granulated sugar. Melt 1 stick (4 ounces) of butter in your pan over medium heat and sprinkle in the sugar mixture and whisk until incorporated.

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Keep cooking until the sugar starts to melt and bubble like this:

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Put the apples in the pan – smaller side down. This isn’t so obvious with some apples, but Red Delicious apples are usually much fatter on the stem end. I do it this way so that the fat sides of the apples will end up facing up when the tart is finished. My apples are about the same size all around so I’m not particularly worried about it. Arrange the apples in the pan in a circular pattern with a second smaller arrangement of 2 or 3 halves in the middle. You will not be able to fit them all in the pan – put the extra few on the top of the apples in the middle. At some point, you will be able to squeeze the remaining apples into the center and move a few apples out to the edges of the pan. I add new halves to the middle of the pan because it is the hotter position. I start the pan on medium-high heat to get the juices simmering. As soon as it bubbles, turn it down to maintain a simmer. Not too low…you should be able to hear it.

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After about 30-45 minutes, you should be able to squeeze a few of the apples into the middle. If the apples are not very juicy, the viscosity of the juice thickens at this point and could burn. If it gets too thick, add about 1/4 cup of water. This time of the year the apples are very juicy, so I don’t need to add any. Just remember that adding a little water is an option if you’re worried that it’s about to burn. That will bring down the temperature and loosen the apples up. Continue to cook until you’ve squeezed all of the apples in.

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Let cook a little longer and then take two forks and lift up one of the apples slightly to see its progress. It should be starting to soften (hopefully not too much…you don’t want them to fall apart). They should be starting to turn golden and a little translucent on the bottom where they are touching the pan. When they are at that point, use the forks to turn the apples over one by one. Try not to pierce them too much. I usually start at the edge and work my way in because the apples in the outer ring have been cooking a little longer than the ones you squeezed in the middle.

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Once you have all the apples turned over, continue to cook for another 15-30 minutes until they look evenly golden and translucent all over. They’ll be starting to soften up quite a bit right now, so be careful when messing with them because you don’t want to tear them up too much. At this point, I usually start pressing on them a bit with a high-heat spatula to squeeze them together as much as possible. I also insert the spatula all the way around the edge of the outer ring to make sure that the juices are bubbling evenly and not drying out and burning. Remember, you can always add a bit of water if it looks like it’s getting too dark. Be careful when you add water because it might spit when it hits the molten sugar. Just add a little bit and add it slowly. You don’t want it too runny….just a nice caramel color.

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At this point, you’re ready to add your pastry. Get your disc out of the freezer, unwrap it and place it over the pan. The dough should be frozen solid at this point but once it’s over that hot pan, it will start to soften within minutes. Start tucking the edges downwards into the pan around the edge of the apples. Don’t break the dough trying to bend it….just wait until it softens enough to tuck in. Be careful of your fingers so that you don’t burn them with the caramelized sugar.

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Put the pan in a 425 degree oven for 10 minutes. After 10 minutes has passed, lower the temperature of the oven to 375 degrees and bake for another 10-15 minutes. Then, take the pan out of the oven and give it a little shake to loosen the apples. Carefully lift the disc of dough off of the pan and place it, underside up on a cookie sheet and back in the oven, separate from the pan with the apples in it for about 5-10 minutes. You can put the apples back in the oven next to it to keep them hot. This is done so the pastry isn’t soggy where the apples were touching it. There will be sugar all over the underside, so keep an eye on it to make sure it doesn’t burn.

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The tart will bake for roughly 30-35 minutes total. Once the crust is no longer soggy on the bottom (doesn’t have to be brown…just dry it out a little), place the crust back on the pan with the apples in it, brown side up with the (formerly) soggy side touching the apples again.

Here comes the fun part…..and the slightly scary part. Place a piece of parchment paper over the tart and then a wire cooling rack (that is bigger than your pan) top down onto the parchment. You want the parchment paper and the cooling rack to be bigger so that it will hold the entire tart when you flip it. Trust me, you do not want molten sugar and apples slipping out and running down your arm.

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Once you have done this, hold the cooling rack (with the parchment in between) as tightly down onto the pan as you can…..give the pan a little shake for good luck and to loosen the apples a bit…do a shot of something if you need to and then flip it very quickly onto the rack.

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Place the whole rack with the pan upturned onto it safely down onto your work surface….give the bottom a few sharp taps for extra good luck and carefully pull the pan away from your tart. With any luck, when you remove the pan, it will look something like this:

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Now, don’t panic if it falls apart a bit when you flip it. This is actually the first time that it didn’t fall apart on me….ever. I was ecstatic. I usually have to reassemble the tart a bit with a rubber spatula in one hand and a kitchen spoon in the other. Remember that the apples will be very soft at this point and easily cut with the side of a spoon, so put it back together gently. Take a pizza peel or a pastry lifter like this and slide it carefully under the tart, raise it slightly and pull the parchment out from under it. Now, I didn’t have much extra juice this time but if you do, gather up the parchment and and pour the accumulated juices back into the pan. You can add a little bit of apricot jam to it if you have some, bring it to a boil, reduce to a glaze and pour it onto the tart. Spread it around and make pretty. Let the tart cool on the rack. If you put it on a plate while it’s still hot, the bottom will get soggy from the steam. Once the tart is cool, place it on a platter and present your masterpiece. It’s wonderful with crème fraiche, vanilla ice cream or whipped cream.

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So, there you have it, a little piece of caramelized, buttery, heaven on a plate. See it glisten! Hear it crackle! Look at the little kiss of burned sugar on the edge of the crust. You don’t want a lot of that….just a kiss. The slight bruléed bits give the tart an edge of bitterness to balance out the sweetness, Nancy Silverton-style. When I worked for her, she would insist that all of her pastries be baked dark like that. In fact, she would have probably taken it even further than I did.

Well, I hope you enjoyed our little trip to central France! Now that the holiday craziness is over, I hope to have more time to blog again. Might stick to France…might hop around the globe, but as always, in the immortal words of the wonderful Julia Child: Bon Appetit!

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