I baked my first Tarte Tatin late last fall.
I had come across the recipe in Kitchen Wisdom (Knopf, $29.95), Julia Child’s latest cookbook and a nifty, compact collection of her favourite recipes.
Little did I know at the time that this famous French dessert – a luscious caramelized, upside-down apple pie created more than 100 years ago by the Tatin sisters at their hotel in Lamotte Beuvron in the Loire Valley – was about to become a sweet obsession that would consume many weeks of my life.
My first stab at the wondrous Ms. Child’s recipe was as easy as pie. The result: an attractive, tasty tart that was a hit when I served glossy wedges of it crowned with crème fraiche to friends that night at dinner.
But my second attempt – using the same recipe, the same ingredients and the same utensils – was a complete bust.
On this occasion, I failed to make it past the initial stage prescribed in Child’s recipe: melting the butter and sugar in a skillet to produce Tarte Tatin’s most crucial element – caramelization. And things did not improve. Three batches of butter and sugar later, I had experienced these three culinary disasters: crystallization, separation and, finally, incineration.
The last – and definitely worst – of these had me wondering whether to laugh or cry as I abandoned the kitchen and stood on my back deck holding in my oven-mitted, outstretched hand a charred skillet from which was emanating pitch-black smoke.
I was a damsel in distress, a victim of botched baking, a cook with a conundrum – but help was imminent.
The next day, I bumped into Joanne Yolles at the downtown Y. Well-known locally for her excellent work as a pastry chef of long-standing at Scaramouche, Yolles has taken time out for the past few years to raise her two young children. When I mentioned Tarte Tatin, her eyes lit up.
In no time, the two of us were eagerly making plans to share recipes, pool pie info and meet for a joint Tarte Tatin baking session.
Yolles has fond memories of her first encounter with the dessert she first saw demonstrated at Tante Marie’s Cooking School in San Francisco about 20 years ago
“I had no idea what Tarte Tatin was until then,” Yolles confessed a few days later as we peeled apples in her bright, airy kitchen. “The person making it – her name was Jean Brady – was using an incredible amount of apples that were cut in halves and a huge amount of butter and sugar.” The result, she recalled, was “outstanding. The tart turned out looking like a golden crown and tasted delicious.”
The tart Yolles and I made that day was good – but good is not enough for two cooks on a quest for the best.
In the following weeks, we baked a plethora of pies, alone and together, at her house and mine. We experimented with apples: Red Delicious, Mutsu, Golden Delicious, Courtland and, finally, the winner – Royal Gala, a fruit with full-bodied flavour and ideal texture that remains firm but not hard after lengthy cooking. Instead of halves, we found the apples cooked best when quartered.
We tried different skillets: cast-iron, stainless steel and then, on the e-mailed advice of Julia Child, a 10-inch/25-cm non-stick skillet. I discovered the Martha Stewart version sold at Zeller’s and simply wrap the handle in foil before placing it in the oven. Yolles splurged and purchased a stainless steel-lined copper Tarte Tatin pan from Nikolaou, 629 Queen St. W., and loves the results.
We played around with pastry. Our final version is a buttery dough that’s just the right amount for one crust. Using the food processor makes it foolproof. Rolling the dough out and chilling it before baking makes the tricky step of placing it on the hot apples much easier.
Then there was the pesky caramel. After many tries, we wound up rating the Tante Marie stovetop method in which the apples are slowly caramelized in a skillet on top of the butter and sugar before baking – a method not used in most recipes – easily tops.
So here’s the fruit of our labour: Yolles’ and my recipe for Tarte Tatin. And yes, Julia, I am forwarding it to you, as requested.
The Ultimate Tarte Tatin
Royal Gala apples are sold in some supermarkets. I prefer the Ontario-grown variety. Try Barraca das Frutas, 186 Augusta Ave., and some other grocery stores in Kensington Market; also the St. Lawrence Market. Northern Spy and Mutsu apples also work well. Serve tart soon after baking, preferably still warm, with crème fraiche, vanilla ice cream or sweetened plain yogurt. If making pastry by hand, use a wire pastry blender to cut butter into flour in bowl.
1 cup all-purpose flour
½ tsp salt
1 tsp granulated sugar
½ cup cold unsalted butter, cut in pieces
¼ cup ice-cold water
About 7 medium (3 lb/1.5 kg) tart, firm apples, peeled, cored, quartered
Juice of half a lemon
½ cup unsalted butter, softened
1 cup granulated sugar
For pastry, add flour, salt, sugar and butter to food processor. Process, pulsing about 6 times, until mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Transfer to bowl; add water and stir with fork until combined. Shape dough into ball with hands. Cover in plastic wrap; chill 1 hour or until needed.
About 1 hour before baking, roll dough into circle about 11 inches in diameter; transfer to round baking pan or flat metal disc (the bottom of a quiche pan works well), crimp edges and pierce all over with fork. Chill.
Meanwhile, for Apple Layer, in large bowl, toss apples with lemon juice. Preheat oven to 400F.
Smear butter evenly in heavy-bottomed, 10-inch/25 cm non-stick skillet that’s at least 2 inches deep. Sprinkle evenly with sugar. Arrange apple quarters on their sides on sugar in concentric circles, wedging together tightly. You will have a few quarters left; place on top of first layer. Cook, uncovered, over medium-low heat about 45 minutes or until syrup thickens and turns a rich, toffee brown. (Mixture should bubble steadily but not vigorously during caramelization. If syrup threatens to bubble over, remove some with bulb turkey baster. Be careful not to burn caramel by cooking too long or over too high a heat.) Remove skillet from heat; let stand about 10 min.
Carefully slide chilled dough on top of apples in skillet. Place skillet on cookie sheet to catch drips. Bake in oven about 30 minutes or until pastry is golden brown. Remove from oven; let stand 10 min. Place large plate (preferably with lip around edge) over skillet; invert.
Makes 8 to 10 servings.