“One does not sit at a table to create a new masterpiece from scratch. Such an approach seldom produces anything memorable. Food innovation results instead from the alchemy between ancestral knowledge, local produce, and the cook’s talent.”
An unrecorded cook of the Count of Chateauvillard, passed on a remarkable tarte to Fanny Tatin, in the region of Lamotte-Beavron in the late 1880′s. She and her sister Caroline, ran a modest Hotel in Sologne and the Tart Sologne was their signature dessert. It became affectionately known to travelers as the Tarte Tatin, from Hotel Tatin. There is much discussion about the original recipe and which pot one should use, as well as which apples. It seems the King of Pippins, the Carville, (France and England) or the Gala, Pink Lady or Granny Smith in the US, would be preferred. The original recipe calls surprisingly for unpeeled apples. Some prefer a cast iron skillet, others prefer a heavy-bottomed copper or stainless steel pan to caramelize the apples or other fruit such as peaches or pears. One thing is for sure, this dessert is a well loved classic whose story should be told.
Growing up in the south, I am a lover of cobblers. Fruit is collected, usually blackberries from back roads or fresh peaches off the tree, sliced and tossed with sugar and placed into a baking dish and covered with biscuit dough. Summers were long and a cobbler hit the spot at Sunday dinners.
I’m sure that my aunt Sarah had observed my grandmother, as she had observed her mother make such cobblers in the early 1900′s. The berries were ripe, sugar was a coveted commodity, butter was made on the farm, and I am not quite sure where the flour came from. The General Store, I believe. Luckily, I do not have a sweet tooth, but I have a passion for making pies and a Tart Tatin is as close to a cobbler, far from Paris, here out west.
In Colorado this winter, I was inspired to cook French. My boyfriend and I, were having some friends over for dinner and I was in the mood for cooking something other than Italian or Moroccan. I thought to make a Coq Au Vin and a Tart Tatin; two dishes I had never made, to be served French-countryside-style in from of the fireplace. It was impressive to use so much butter! A die hard extra-virgin olive oil fan, butter hardly makes an appearance in the house, but I was curious to try it. I actually loved cooking and seasoning every ingredient of the Coq Au Vin, the mushrooms, the baby onions, the chicken, reducing the sauce with even more butter. And then came time for making a butter crust for my Tart Tatin. I made it ahead to sit in the fridge for at least a half hour, while I assembled the rest of the ingredients together and preheated the oven to 375F.
I peeled and quartered my apples, a combination of pink lady and gala. I melted a beautiful organic butter and added an organic cane sugar and carefully arranged the apples on their side in a heavy-bottomed stainless steel frying pan, 10″ across. I highly recommend turning the burner on high, keeping a good watch for 10-12 minutes while the apples caramelize. Turn them over carefully in the same direction and let them caramelize on the other side. A good rule of thumb is to keep a slice or two of apple to wedge in once the apples reduce a bit. Turn off the heat. Roll out your dough immediately and place it on top covering the hot pan, tucking the raw dough inside the lip of the frying pan, hugging the apples. Be careful not to burn yourself, the caramel sauce is extremely hot and so is the pan. Let it bake in the oven for 25-30 minutes.
I took the tart out and let it cool for 10 minutes or so. Then I ran a knife around the edges so nothing would stick or hinder the unmolding. With great hesitation, confidence and caution, I covered the pan with a flat plate and quickly flipped! Voila! I held a classic French delight on a serving plate in my hand. I served it with a dollop of delicious but naughty cream. Everyone loved it. It was to die for! Since that night, I have made six tarts in 10 days. Every time I had an occasion to have someone over, I jumped right to it. My boyfriend has taken to peeling the apples and loves to take his French pocket knife to turn them in the browning butter and sugar, as if he were a tart artisan. Soon he will be. An expert flipper as well, pushing me out of the way. What could be so bad?
“Tarte des Demoiselles Tatin”
8 apples of your choice. Must be firm, and full flavored. Gala, Granny Smith, Pink Lady.
1 stick of organic butter
1 cup of organic cane sugar
1 heavy bottomed cast iron skillet, or stainless steel frying pan, 10 inches wide.
1 stick plus 2 T of cold salted organic butter
1 1/2 cup unbleached white flour
3-6 T ice water
Prepare the crust in a food processor, or cube and cut the cold butter into the cold flour with a knife or use your fingers, until it becomes sandy. Add 3-6 tablespoons of ice water a little at the time, just enough to bring the dough together. Pat together into a rough ball. Cover it and let it rest in the fridge while you prepare the apples.
Peel, core and quarter apples. Melt one stick of butter in your cast iron skillet or the stainless steel pan. Take it off the burner to stir in the cup of sugar, evening it out on the bottom of the pan. Arrange slices of apples on their sides all around the pan and into the inside circle. Turn flame on high for 10-12 minutes, letting the apples caramelize in the butter and sugar. It should go from golden to dark amber, don’t worry. With a sharp knife, carefully turn the apples over in their place. If necessary, add an extra slice of apple to keep your arrangement intact, if they have shrunken a bit. Let the apples continue cooking on high for another 5 minutes. Take off the heat.
Roll out your dough to just over the diameter of the pan and place it carefully on top. Trim and tuck the crust inside the pan, hugging the apples. Place in a pre-heated 375F for 25-30 minutes, until the crust is golden. Take out and let cool. Run a knife around the side to make sure nothing is sticking. Get ready to place a plate on top of the pan and quickly flip over. The tart will fall “upside down” on the serving dish. If anything goes amiss, just rearrange. It is an exciting accomplishment and worthy of eating!
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Editor: Rachel Nussbaum
Photo: Author’s own