Today’s culinary history lesson (and listen up, there will be a quiz): Invented by the demoiselles Tatin over 100 years ago in their hotel-restaurant in the Lamotte Beuvron region near the Loire River, this rich upside down apple tart is a lesson in simplicity. As with many simple dishes, the quality of ingredients is tres importante. Since it isn’t possible to find French apples at the local Stop and Shop, we’ve had to experiment with local varieties. We find the Granny Smiths to be the best apples for Tarte Tatin since they keep their shape and their tartness is a nice counterpoint to the sweet buttery caramel.
Once baked, the caramelized apples are flipped so that the crispy crust is on the bottom revealing the beautiful glazed fruit. Constructed of nothing more than apples, butter and sugar in a pastry-topped skillet, this tour de force is sure to become one of your family’s favorite desserts.
For the pastry
1-1/2 cups unbleached all purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup (1 stick) plus 2 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1/3 cup ice water
Additional flour for rolling
16 Granny Smith apples (12 if they are large)
1/2 cup (1 stick) plus 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
1-1/2 cups granulated sugar
Crème fraîche or crème anglaise as garnish
To make the pastry in a stand mixer: Combine the flour, salt and butter in the bowl of a stand mixer. Using the paddle attachment, mix for 30 seconds on low speed. Turn the mixer to medium and mix until the butter is cut into the flour and only small lumps of butter remain, about 1 minute. Quickly add the ice water and when the dough begins to come together stop the machine. Remove it from the bowl and compress it into a disk with your hands. Wrap it in plastic and refrigerate for about 30 minutes to chill for easier rolling.
To make the pastry in a food processor: Combine the flour, salt and butter in the work bowl of a food processor. Pulse the mixture 10 times until the butter is cut into the flour and only small lumps of butter remain. Quickly pulse in the ice water through the feed tube (about 4 pulses) and stop the machine. The dough will not have come together. Dump the pastry onto a counter top and using the heel of your hand, smear the dough out and away from you until it forms a cohesive mass. (A pastry scraper, dough knife or bench knife makes it easy to scrape it all together.) Shape and compress the dough into a disk, wrap it in plastic and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes to chill for easier rolling.
While the dough is chilling, cut a thin slice from the bottom of each apple so that they will sit straight in the pan. Halve the apples lengthwise then core and peel them.
In a 10-or 11-inch skillet (about 3 qt.) with straight sides add the butter and heat over medium-high heat until melted. Sprinkle the sugar and salt over the butter and cook, stirring occasionally until the sugar begins to brown, about 4 minutes. Lower the heat and cook for 3 minutes after the sugar begins to brown stirring every now and then to ensure even caramelization. When the mixture becomes a deep golden caramel, remove it from the heat.
Carefully stand the apples flat side down around the outside of the pan (cut sides facing in) then fill in the center with the remaining apples so that the apples are as snug as possible. It may be necessary to cut some of the apples in half (quarters) so that they fit. Return the pan to medium-low heat and cook for about 3 minutes. The apples will begin to give off some of their liquid, thinning the hard caramel. Using a turkey baster, baste the apples with the caramel. It will be thick at first, but will thin as the apples cook. Baste for about 10 minutes and add leftover apples cut into quarters to fill in spaces that open up as the apples soften.. Remove the pan from the heat.
Preheat an oven to 400 degrees F.
To roll out the pastry: Lightly flour a work surface with about 1 tablespoon of flour. Place the unwrapped disk of dough on top of the flour and dust the top of the disk with an additional tablespoon or so of flour. Roll the dough gently but firmly, picking it up after each roll and rotating it a quarter turn from 12 o’clock to 3 o’clock. This rotation keeps the dough from sticking and also helps to keep a round shape.
Roll the dough to about 14-inches in diameter and trim the round so that it is 2-inches larger than your cooking pan. Fold the dough in half and then into a quarter and transfer it to the skillet placing the folded point in the center of the apples. Quickly open the dough and fold the sides down between the apples and the pan. Cut vent holes in the top and bake on a sheet pan with sides (to catch any drips) in the preheated oven for 25 to 30 minutes or until the pastry is brown and crisp.
Remove from the oven and let cool for at least 20 minutes before carefully inverting onto a large serving platter. Cut the tart at the table and serve warm with crème fraîche or crème anglaise.
Make-ahead: If you make the tart earlier in the day, it should be warmed in a 350 degree F. oven for about 20 minutes before serving. Turn the tart out right before service onto a serving platter.
Note: French apple pie or Tarte Tatin is so revered that there is actually a brotherhood founded to protect the dish from adaptations and promote its consumption. La Confrerie des Lichonneux de Tarte Tatin is dedicated to protect the original dish from being perverted by persons who want to put a dollop of ice cream on top of it. Their website is www.tarte-tatin.com/.
Tip: Though a simple dessert, this French apple pie is not uncomplicated. Browning the sugar and butter to the perfect color caramel is key. If you are using a dark skillet, spoon some of the caramel as it is cooking to get an idea of how dark it is. Too dark and your tart will be bitter. Too light and it will lack depth and richness.
Tip: The correct size skillet is important. We think a 10- or 11-inch skillet with straight sides works best. If you use a skillet with sloping sides (like a fry pan) the tart may not hold together when unmolded and look a bit messy on the sides but it will still taste great. Traditionally tarte tatin was made in cast iron pans. If you find an old seasoned cast iron pan with straight sides, by all means use it. It will cook your tarte tatin to perfection. Le Creuset also makes special tarte tatin pans that can be found in some cookware stores.