As legend has it, the tarte Tatin was invented in central France more than a hundred years ago, when one day a cook at the Hotel Tatin baked an apple tart in a skillet and then inverted it onto a serving plate.
Of course, there’s more to the story than that, but when you make a tarte Tatin, that’s what you can expect: an upside-down apple tart, the apples bathed in a gooey, sweet-scented caramel, the crust a flaky and browned plate of buttery crispness.
In many tarte Tatin recipes — including Julia Child's — the instructions recommend you precook the apples on the stovetop, as was originally done, before adding the pastry crust on top. Then you bake the tart another 20 or 30 minutes to brown the crust.
Not everyone agrees the effort is worth it.
And there is a simpler way. In her book The Grand Central Baking Book (co-written with Ellen Jackson), Piper Davis — the cuisine manager of Grand Central Baking Company in Portland and Seattle — includes a short essay about baking her first tarte Tatin years ago on her family’s farm.
Looking for a streamlined method to make the dessert, she whipped up an uncomplicated cinnamon-roll-style caramel in a skillet, added plenty of crisp cut-up apples, and topped it all with a rough puff pastry (a recipe for which is in the Grand Central book; another version is available from Martha Holmberg in her book, Puff).
Then Davis baked it for a full hour, like a regular pie, until the apples were baked through and the pastry a dark golden brown. As Davis family legend has it, that first simplified version was stunning.
When we ate a recent version of the tart, we had to agree; it was ethereal, a true taste of autumn.
But don’t take our word for it. Give it a try yourself, with Davis’ coaching:
Start with firm apples that will hold their shape when you bake them; here, Davis used Galas, but Honeycrisp or SweeTango would also be good choices. Estimate the number you’ll need by filling half the pan, and then add one or two more. Set them aside while you make the caramel.
Melt 2 tablespoons butter in a cast-iron or enameled skillet over medium heat.
Stir in 1/2 cup sugar and 1/2 cup brown sugar.
When the sugars melt and begin to bubble together, remove the pan from the heat, and add 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon and 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract.
Now, peel and halve your apples; quarter any that are especially large.
Coring them takes a little practice.
Place the apples, flat side up, into the pan atop the caramelized sugar. You’ll want to press the apples in close together, and fill in any gaps with more chunks of apple.
Finally, slice enough apples to completely shingle slices over the halves.
Roll out the pastry to 1/8-inch thickness. Now, cut the dough in a round to fit over the apples (the pan lid works well for this). Here, Davis used Rough Puff Pastry, but she says you can also use an all-butter puff pastry (like the one Grand Central sells in their freezer case) or a sturdy pie dough.
Lay the crust over the pan, and fit it snugly around the apples, tucking the dough inside the pan.
Don’t bother scoring the crust. Bake the tart for 20 minutes in a preheated 375-degree oven, then lower the temperature to 350 degrees and bake until nicely browned, another 30 or 40 minutes.
Your goal with this tart is a dark brown crust, Davis advises. There’s nothing worse than soggy pastry, she says.
Remove the pan from the oven, and within 5 or 10 minutes, place a platter over the top and carefully flip the pan to invert the whole thing. Again, take care when doing this, so as to avoid a burn from the hot caramel.
Spoon any caramel remaining in the pan over the tart.
Kim Carlson is the co-founder of Culinate.
Culinate’s features address the practical challenges and joys of food.
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