By S. Irene Virbila, Tribune Newspapers
January 2, 2013
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. It always seemed to be cold weather, and the chill crept through the soles of my boots. To warm up, I would nurse a single glass of Chinon or Bourgeuil with a tartine (open-faced sandwich) or dark-flecked bread with goat cheese smashed on top.
I can remember looking longingly at the end of the zinc bar where a tarte tatin inevitably would 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. Essentially an upside-down tart, the crust is baked on top of the apples and the tart is inverted to serve.
Most of the time, though, I couldn't afford it. So when I finally did get my tarte des demoiselles Tatin, referring to the two spinster sisters who invented it (on purpose or no) at their family hotel in the Loire Valley of France, it tasted all the sweeter.
I treasure that memory of eating a warm tarte, the windows of the wine bar or bistro steamed up, the blue-gray of November or December outside. And years later, on a subsequent trip to France, when I had more money in my pocket, I marched right into the cookware shop Dehillerin and accosted one of their famously grouchy clerks: "I would like to buy a proper tarte tatin pan."
I splurged on two heavy copper pans, one about the size of a 9-inch tart pan with 2-inch sides, and the other a generous 13 inches in diameter. I guess because it reminded me of those big tartes I'd seen at the wine bars.
I've been happily making tarte Tatin ever since. I love standing by the stove, keeping watch as the butter and sugar mixture caramelizes. It sputters up between the wedges, sending the smell of burnt sugar and apple through the entire house.
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 brisee, which takes just minutes.
After I tried New York chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten's version, I no longer even make the caramel first. His method (detailed in "Home Cooking With Jean-Georges") works just as well. He basically smooshes the butter together with the sugar, spreads it out in the pan and arranges the apples on top.
Then he turns the fire on high and waits for butter and sugar to caramelize. Caution: If the flame is too low, the apples will start giving up their juice before the caramelization takes place and it will be hard to get that characteristic deep amber color.
Note too that you don't have to use a copper pan. A cast-iron pan (or any heavy skillet that can go into the oven) works just as well.
Prep: 40 minutes
Chill: 30 minutes
Cook: 50 minutes
Servings: 8, one 9-inch tart
Notes: Golden Delicious is a classic apple for this tart, but you also can use Pippin, Cox, Granny Smith and especially Braeburn.
1 cup flour
Pinch of salt
6 tablespoons chilled unsalted butter, in 1/2-inch pieces
3 tablespoons ice water, more if needed
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 cup sugar
8 to 10 Golden Delicious or similar apples (5 pounds), peeled, cored, halved
1. For the pate brisee, combine the flour and salt in a bowl; cut the butter into the flour with a pastry blender until the butter is the size of peas. Sprinkle over 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; cover with plastic wrap. Refrigerate, 30 minutes.
2. For the tarte tatin, mix the butter into the sugar in a copper tarte tatin pan or cast-iron skillet with your fingers. Spread it out in an even layer. 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. Don't worry that the apples are taller than the pan; they'll shrink down as they cook.
3. Place the pan or skillet over high heat; cook until the butter-sugar mixture bubbles up between the apples and turns a medium amber, 15-25 minutes. As the bottom of the apples soften, press down with a wooden spoon or spatula.
4. Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Remove pan from the heat; set aside to cool slightly.
5. Roll out the pastry on a floured surface to about 12 inches in diameter. Carefully place on top of the apples, trimming so there is a 1-inch border. Tuck the border in around the apples.
6. Bake on the middle rack until the pastry is set and browned, 35-40 minutes. Cool in the pan. Just before serving, warm the tart on the stove top. Place a serving plate on top; invert the tart onto the plate. Serve in wedges with a creme fraiche.
Per serving: 374 calories, 18 g fat, 11 g saturated fat, 46 mg cholesterol, 5 g carbohydrates, 2 g protein, 20 mg sodium, 4 g fiber.