When I was in my 20s, studying wine and living on very little money in Paris, I couldn’t afford to eat in real restaurants very often. But I’d stop at a favorite wine bar a couple of times a week. I can remember looking longingly at the end of the zinc bar where a tarte Tatin would inevitably be set out in all its glory, the apples satiny and glistening with caramel. I could imagine the slightly jelled texture of the apples, the warm buttery taste of the caramel against a dollop of thick ivory creme fraiche. Most of the time, though, I couldn’t afford it.
So when I did finally get my tarte des demoiselles Tatin, referring to the two spinster sisters who invented it at their family hotel in the Loire Valley of France, it tasted all the sweeter.
Years later, I bought two tarte pans and I’ve been happily making tarte Tatin ever since.
I’ve tried lots of recipes and eventually worked out the simplest. Not for me the usual puff pastry. I make mine with a classic pate brise, which takes just minutes to make. Credit New York chef Jean-George Vongerichten’s version (detailed in his book “Home Cooking With Jean-Georges”) with eliminating the need to make the caramel first.
Pate brisee (flaky pastry)
1 cup flour
Pinch of salt
6 tablespoons chilled butter
3 tablespoons ice water, more if needed
In a bowl, combine the flour and salt. Dice the butter. Using a pastry blender or two knives, cut the butter into the flour until the butter is the size of peas. Sprinkle with the ice water, a tablespoon at a time, fluffing with a fork, until the dough sticks together when you try to form a ball. Form into a flat disk and cover with plastic wrap. Refrigerate for at least a half hour.
6 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup sugar
8 to 10 (5 pounds) Golden Delicious or similar apples, peeled, cored and halved
Prepared pate brisee
Creme fraiche or crema Mexicana
In a copper tarte Tatin pan or cast-iron skillet, mix the butter into the sugar with your fingers. Spread it out in an even layer over the pan. Starting at the outside, place the apple halves standing up in the butter-sugar mixture, each fitting into the next as if they were spooning. Fit as many halves as you can into the center. And don’t worry about the fact that the apples are taller than the pan; they’ll shrink as they cook.
Place the pan or skillet on a burner turned to high and cook until the butter-sugar mixture bubbles up between the apples and turns a medium amber (15 to 25 minutes). Don’t be afraid. The only mistake you can make is keeping the flame too low so the juice exudes from the apples before the sugar is caramelized. As the bottoms of the apples soften, press down with a wooden spoon or spatula.
Heat the oven to 400 degrees.
Remove the pan from the heat and set aside to cool slightly while you roll out the dough.
On a floured board, roll out the pastry to about 12 inches in diameter. Carefully place on top of the caramelized apples, trimming so there’s just an inch or so as border. Tuck the border in around the apples.
Place the pan on the middle rack of the oven and bake for 35 to 40 minutes until the pastry is set and browned.
Cool the tart in the pan. Just before serving, warm the tart on the stovetop. Place a serving plate on top and invert the tart onto the plate. Serve in wedges with a big dollop of creme fraiche or crema Mexicana. (If you use crema Mexicana, add a pinch of sugar to counterbalance its tartness.)