So it’s about time I update this baby. I’m partly motivated to write more because my friend Ryan tweeted about me! I am honored, Ryan. To those few faithful followers, I’m sorry I have not posted sooner. I actually had this pre-cooked post waiting to be finished, but I’ve been traveling for work in Maine and had not had the time until now! Look out for my next post about the food in Maine. Preview: Probably something about lobsters.
But I digress. Around late July, I committed myself to baking a tarte tatin, a French-style apple tart that really is, for better words, an upside-down apple pie. I saw them everywhere in Paris and I love myself a nice apple pastry when I see one. But even before I embarked on my tarte tatin adventure, I had attempted a chocolate eclair adventure, in which I failed horribly. Let’s just say I could not make a proper pastry cream. I blame the “Joy of Cooking” recipe that calls for the use of cornstarch, an ingredient that I am discovering is one of the worst things to use in cooking.
In order to avoid another pastry failure, I consulted my dad’s trusty “Jacques Pepin’s Complete Techniques.” Pepin is one of my favorite chefs and a renown master of French cooking. He even cooked for Charles de Gaulle. I was bound to succeed using Pepin’s recipe if I follow his instructions. Another source of inspiration was the abundance of Gala apples that kept falling off the trees in my backyard. They were such nice fruit and I thought it would be good to use them for a dessert. Aren’t they gorgeous? Check out that beautiful blush.
The recipe seemed easy enough. I rejoiced at the recipe for the crust, which contains no shortening. See, my man Jacques Pepin knows you don’t need hydrogenated oils to create a flaky crust. The trick is to work the dough as least as possible and keep it cold. To do this, I used a food processor.
What using a food processor allows you to do is to essentially “cut” the butter into the flour, or incorporate the flour and the butter together without kneading it and handling it too much, which could lead to a tough crust. After a few pulses, the butter and flour turn into what look like a bunch of crumbs and after adding a few tablespoons of ice water between pulses, the crumbs pack together and transform into a beautiful ball of buttery dough. What I like to do is take the ball of dough, wrap it in plastic and put it in the fridge to keep it cold. Keeping it cold prevents the butter layers within the dough from melting, thus ensuring a flaky crust.
[A note about pastry dough: Ever since I was in high school when I made my first apple pie out of scratch, I have been obsessed with making a proper dough. I think this comes from an LA Times Food article I read when I was young, which discussed the insanity of baking pies during summertime when it may be more difficult to make a cold dough. But if one has summer peaches, peach pie will surely beckon. The entire article seemed to drill the reader into thinking that making your own pie crust is a very crazy but rewarding endeavor. I had to try it and once I got the crust perfect, it stays with you.]
The next step is actually one of the most exciting parts of the recipe but I was so busy paying attention to it, I didn’t take any pictures — sorry. It would have made a spectacular photo. This elusive step was making the caramel coating. Boil sugar and water together and stir with a wooden spoon until it turns brown. For caramel novices out there (formerly me), keep stirring the sugar and remain patient. I thought it would never brown but once it started to darken — first straw-colored, then golden, then the coveted brown — it turns very quickly. Take it out of the heat immediately before it burns. Pour the caramel onto the pie pan and swirl it around to evenly coat the bottom.
Then, peel and slice your apples and cook ’em up in butter, grated lemon peel and sugar. Toss the cooked apples on the pie dish like so. By now the caramel should have hardened like candy. You are now ready to assemble the crust!
Roll out the dough and with a rolling pin, slowly put the blanket of dough over the crust and press over the rim. With a knife, carve the excess dough that hangs over the edge of the pie pan. Poke with a fork to let the crust vent out while it bakes. If you want, you can brush the top with a beaten egg for a glazed look.
Bake in the oven for about an hour. The aroma that permeates the kitchen is really something else. It is also an encouraging sign that you have not failed (so far) in making this dessert. What is also amazing, is the hard caramel shell eventually melts with the apples as everything bakes, and colors the apples into a russet-brown.
But it does not end here. As I mentioned, tarte tatin is meant to be flipped over so that the apples will be on top, and the crust will be on the bottom. The flip moment is the moment of truth, if you will. You don’t know if it’s going to work or not. Failure is imminent but you’re also at the point of no return. Flip you must. Luckily, when I made the big flip (place a large plate over the crust then flip the pan over), none of the apples fell out, thank goodness…nor did the crust break off.
The result: A not-so-pretty tarte tatin, but one that was thoroughly tasty and wonderful! As a caveat, Gala apples are not ideal for this dessert because they are softer, spongier apples. It is recommended to use Granny Smith, which are sturdier and will hold better after a baking. What I also should have done was slice the apples into bigger pieces and arrange them uniformly so that the apple slices look better and more tightly packed. The last step that I skipped was the glaze. Melt some apricot jam with water and brush the top of the apples with the syrup for a shiny gloss. It is great served with fresh whipped cream and it also makes a nice breakfast food with tea.
With these tips I hope you too embark on a tarte tatin adventure. It will be work, but it’s as fun to make as it is delicious to eat.