Tarte Tatin was invented, so we are told, late in the 19th century by one of the two Tatin sisters, les demoiselles Tatin, who kept a restaurant, the Hotel-Terminus Tatin, in the Loire valley town of Lamotte-Beuvron. Yeah, right, I used to say, and Marco Polo brought back pasta from China. But it turns out the legend is credible: We actually know the names of the sisters. Mlle. Caroline (1847-1911) ran the dining room of the establishment, while her older sister Stephanie (1838-1917) was the chef and, presumably, inventor of this seductive dessert. “Invention,” however, is something of stretch, for the famous tarte is really nothing but a classically simple French tarte renversee like those found in every farmhouse kitchen, then and now.
The combination of caramelized butter, sugar and apples melting together under an equally buttery, sugary shortcrust pastry lid (pate brisee or pate sucree) is extraordinary, a sum that is much, much greater than its parts, an exaltation of apples and the epitome of all the world’s apple pies. Down through the decades, cooks have tinkered with the original, adding rum or armagnac, cinnamon or vanilla, serving it with ice cream, even substituting pears, mangoes, plums or tomatoes for the apples that form the heart of the dish. But as with a Shakespearean tragedy turned into opera or ballet, the tinkering only serves to remind us of the indisputable greatness of the original.
Reine des reinettes
As that wonderful writer John Updike noted, September is apple season when throughout northern regions “the breezes taste of apple peel.” A fine time, then, to commemorate this great version of apple pie.
A tarte Tatin is a little tricky but not difficult, provided you have certain critical ingredients. The major one is apples, and not just any apples. Every French recipe for this classic calls for a very special apple called reine des reinettes, an old-fashioned apple variety that is hard to find in the United States, though perhaps a little easier in Canada. Crisp and crunchy, nicely tart but with a high sugar content, firm enough to maintain its texture when cooked, this is an apple that deserves to be better known. Some say it’s related to English pippins (e.g., Cox’s orange pippin, the most popular British apple) but John Bunker, Maine’s apple guru, doesn’t think so. When I called Bunker for information — he knows more about apples all over the world than anyone else I know — he offered to graft a reine des reinettes scion onto another apple tree so that one of these years, with luck and attention, I will harvest my own reinettes and make an authentic tarte Tatin.
But for now I’ll make do with Julia Child’s advice. Back in 1971, she attempted a true Tatin on camera (it didn’t work very well) using golden delicious apples. But she recommended others too: Rome beauties, York imperials, Baldwins, northern spies and Cortlands. Amazingly, just 40 years ago, American cooks had access to all those different apples. No longer. Golden delicious is the only one still widely available — too widely if you ask me. And in apple country — Maine, Michigan, or upstate New York — you can find Cortlands. But the rest of them? Happy the cook who lives near an heirloom apple farm and can have the pick of the orchard!
Butter, sugar and apples
Whatever the variety used, the fruit must be fully ripe and flavorful. You’ll add sugar but not much — this is not a jam tart but a tart of apples that have been thickly sliced and braised in butter and sugar until they have absorbed the buttery caramel flavor but still retain their shape, and their distinctive appley characteristics. The butter should be the best and densest you can obtain.
The beauty of tarte Tatin for diners is obvious, as there are few aromas more enticing than the combination of butter, sugar and apples. For cooks, it has added advantages, first of all in the way it makes a pie but without the fiddly business of pie crust, rolling it out, fitting it to a pan, crimping the edges, making the whole thing look beautiful and homely at one and the same time. With tarte Tatin, you just roll out the pastry; if it’s misshapen, it doesn’t matter because it simply gets plunked down on top of the apples and if it doesn’t quite fit, you trim off the ragged edges. French cooks traditionally use pate brisee, which is close to what we conventionally call pie crust or shortcrust pastry.
For the pie dish, ideally you use a heavy, tinned-copper tarte renversee pan, and that alone is sufficient excuse to make a trip to Paris to visit Dehillerin, the great French kitchen supply store deep in the bowels of what was once les Halles where a tarte Tatin pan currently is listed for €71 , or a larger one for €77.50, or about $125.
But if you don’t have time to get to Paris and back before supper, use your favorite deep black-iron skillet, the one with sloping sides that is about 11 inches across and three or four inches deep. But first plant that apple tree and wait for it to grow.
La Tarte des Demoiselles Tatin
For the pate brisee:
Place the flour, salt and sugar in the bowl of a food processor and process very briefly, then add the butter, cut into inch-long chunks and process again, briefly, just until the ingredients are combined and have the texture of coarse cornmeal. With the processor running, add a few tablespoons of water through the feed tube and continue adding ice water until the dough just holds together. Be careful not to over-process — the whole procedure should take less than a minute start to finish.
Turn the dough out onto a very lightly floured pastry board and pull it quickly into a ball, then flatten it to a circle about an inch thick. Cover it with plastic wrap and set in the refrigerator while you proceed with the rest of the recipe.
For the tarte:
- Take a 10-inch round pan, a tarte Tatin pan or a deep, heavy ovenproof skillet such as a black-iron skillet. Generously butter the bottom and sides, using all the butter to make a thick layer, especially on the bottom. Sprinkle the sugar all over the bottom and sides, turning the pan to coat it evenly with sugar.
- Now, beginning at the edges, arrange the apple quarters, peeled side down, in concentric circles (large quarters may be cut in half), covering the entire bottom of the pan. Fit extra slices of apple in and around the slices so that the bottom is completely covered with apple slices and you can’t see through. Set the pan over low heat just until the butter melts, then turn the heat up to medium or medium-high and continue cooking until the sugar starts to brown. Do not stir the apples. This may take as much as 20 or 30 minutes. When the sugar is browned and caramelized, remove the pan from the heat.
- Preheat the oven to 350 F. Roll out a disc of pastry to fit over the apples with enough of an overhang to tuck down gently around the edges. Set in the preheated oven and bake 30 minutes, or until the pastry is golden. Remove from the oven and let rest about 15 minutes, then run a knife around the edge of the pan. Set a round serving platter over the top and carefully, using pot holders to hold the pan, turn it over. Some of the apples may stick to the bottom of the pan but just pry them up with a spatula or palette knife and add to the tart. The tart should be served warm with vanilla ice cream or vanilla-flavored whipped cream.
Nancy Harmon Jenkins is the author of several books, the latest of which is her newly revised “The New Mediterranean Diet Cookbook.” Her other food books include, “Cucina del Sole: A Celebration of the Cuisines of Southern Italy” and “The Essential Mediterranean,” which looks at a dozen foods key to understanding Mediterranean cuisines. She also wrote “Flavors of Tuscany,” “Flavors of Puglia” and “The Mediterranean Diet Cookbook.” She is working on a book on Atlantic salmon. A former staff writer with The New York Times, Nancy continues to contribute to the Times in addition to writing for The Washington Post, Saveur, Food & Wine and other national publications. She currently divides her time between a Tuscan farmhouse and a home on the coast of Maine where she was born and raised. She has lived and worked throughout the countries of the Mediterranean, at various times making a home in Spain, France, Italy, Lebanon, and Cyprus as well as in Hong Kong and England. You can read more of her food writing on her site, NancyHarmonJenkins.com.