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The Recipe

In my travels around the world, I have frequently encountered tarte Tatin on the menu. Since I can hardly resist temptation,  I often ordered it, and almost as often ended up disappointed.  What reached my table was a soggy mess, under-caramelized and pallid, with none of the glorious hazel hues and crunchy notes I remembered from my youth.  It got to be too much... and this website was born.

Baking a gorgeous tarte Tatin is not complicated.  It is, one might say, as easy as apple pie, when keeping to a few simple rules.  The main challenge is to evacuate the steam.  Baking 3 or 4 pounds of apples with sugar and butter releases a large quantity of steam.  It is critical to remove it.  Recipes that trap it guarantee a mushy disaster.

The historical record is a bit hazy when it comes to picking the right mold. Paul Besnard talks about a lined-copper mold, 2.5-inch deep.  François Jarry reminds us that cast iron was once used, and that "the caramel must be formed while the apples are cooking".  The Hotel Tatin reportedly uses a Teflon-coated "moule à manqué".  A resident of Lamotte-Beuvron, Bernadette Lelièvre, shows a thick tin-plate dish, 9-inch in diameter and 1.5-inch deep that was once used to bake the real thing.  Some of the recent prize-winning chefs, however,  recommend a cast-iron skillet.  It is also my preference.  It can be used to bake apples, butter, and sugar on top of the stove until the steam is gone and the caramel formed, which usually takes 20 to 30 minutes, and then inside the oven after the dough has been laid on top.  Cast iron is also inexpensive, does not stick, and, will last a lifetime if well-cared for. 

Picking the right apples
is essential.  They should not turn into apple sauce, and should not release excessive amounts of water, which greatly complicates the baking.  Two varieties, the Reine des Reinettes (King of the Pippins), and the Calville have been preferred from the start.  Sadly, they are seldom seen outside France, and are increasingly hard to find there.  As a result, cooks, even in Lamotte-Beuvron, use Gala, Golden, Granny Smith, and sometimes Belle de Boskoop, a Dutch variety.  My own preference is for native apples.  Each region has them, and they are well worth seeking.  Check farmers' markets, local orchards, and food coops.  They don't need to be organic. They just need to be good. Experiment. You might discover a unique savor that will set your Tarte Tatin apart, while helping keep alive prized fruit that might otherwise disappear.  Barring local gems, my next pick is the plebeian Golden that is sometimes derided by food snobs, who object to its omnipresence.  There are undoubtedly some Golden that fail to live up to their name, but the variety possesses great finesse that rivals the best. 

To peel or not to peel?  Oddly enough, most contemporary cookbooks and chefs recommend peeling, though none of the early recipes say anything about it.  My own experimentation suggests peeling is unnecessary, and actually deleterious to the quality of the tarte.  Apple peel is rich in pectin, a mucilaginous compound that makes marmalade jammy.  When the peel is left on, the pectin combines with caramel to give a richer, smoother texture.  It also keeps it from running.  Peeling could be a hang-over from the past.  Some authors used to recommend it to rid apples of chemical residues.  Perhaps, this might have been wise advice decades ago, but is no longer true.  Modern crop protection products act systemically, through the sap, and cannot be washed off or peeled off.  Nor do they need to, as they quickly metabolize into innocuous derivatives that makes them safer than barbecue smoke or sunshine.

Just apples?  It should be noted that, although apples are the most common garnish for tarte Tatin, they are by no means the only one.  There is strong evidence that the sisters baked their tarte with pears, peaches and probably other fruits as well.  After all, cooks love to experiment, and the Sologne produced enough fruit to entice them.  Beside apples and pears, one might suggest apricots and quinces as well as pineapple or mangoes for the more adventurous. Whether the result should still be called a tarte Tatin is a personal decision.  I would be cautious, but the sisters might have loved it.

The dough.  When it comes to food I am a purist.  I like mine little processed, and cook everything from scratch, unless I establish through experimentation that a canned or frozen item is better.  I have therefore made my own crusts for decades, until recently when I noticed rounds of frozen dough at my favorite grocery store.  Since their quality is usually high, I gave it a try, and was astounded.  I put it side-by-side with my own, and could not tell them apart. I now use their frozen dough, but for those not fortunate to have such supply available, here is a dependable recipe:  "Mix 3 cups (11 oz) unbleached flour with half-a-teaspoon salt.  Cut up 6 oz cold unsalted butter into small cubes.  Add to flour mixture.  Using old-fashioned potato masher such as the one pictured to right, mash flour-butter mixture until butter lumps have disappeared, and mixture has homogeneous sandy texture (3 to 5 minutes).  Add 3.5 to 4.5 oz iced water to mix.  Stir gently with spoon.  Sandy mixture should start aggregating.  Press it into a ball with your hands. Add more (or less) water as required to get ball to form.  If too sticky dust with flour. At that stage, place dough on floured board, and with palm of hand press small amounts of dough forward (away from you), about 2 to 3 oz at a time. (This operation, called 'fraisage', homogenizes the dough). Bring dough back into a ball and repeat once. Put dough ball into 1-gallon Ziploc bag and roll it out to get a disk that fills bag.  Chill for 30 to 60 minutes.  Bring back to floured board. Free dough by cutting Ziploc bag away and roll out to a 12-inch disk. Trim off excess dough. The disk is ready.  Notes:  the use of a potato masher is a tip that greatly improves the quality of your dough and simplifies its preparation. The use of a Ziploc bag, and the 'pre-rolling' of the dough will make the final rollout a cinch. 

The ingredients

For a 12-inch cast iron skillet:

  • 8 medium-sized Golden apples (about 3 Ibs)
  • 3.5 oz (100 g) of sugar (preferably turbinado or brown)
  • 2 oz (60 g) of unsalted butter, some of which will be used to butter skillet
  • A 12" (30 cm) round of dough about 1/16th-inch (1.5mm) thick

Putting it together

  • Butter skillet generously
  • Pour sugar into buttered skillet and shake to distribute evenly
  • Rinse apples to remove dust; dry, quarter, and remove pips
  • Lay quartered apples in single layer into skillet. Use smaller wedges to fill gaps so that dough rests on flat bed
  • Dot skillet with rest of butter
  • Preheat oven to 400 F (200 C)
  • Put skillet over lively fire on top of stove.  Within minutes, contents will be bubbling, and steam billowing out.  Watch as color of syrupy liquid inside skillet slowly turns to golden.  take off fire when it reaches a nice hazel hue, somewhere between caramel and chocolate.  Typically takes 20 to 30 minutes.  By then, volume of steam should be down considerably.
  • Overlay round of dough.  Tuck in edge slightly with wooden spoon.
  • Put in warm oven until crust reaches nice golden color, about 25 to 30 minutes
  • Remove from oven, cover with inverted dish, and flip over right away
  • If any apple chunks remains stuck to pan, remove with tongs and put back on tarte
  • Let cool for a moment and serve warm, by itself

 Bon Appétit!