Oh, how I love these bright autumn days! Everything around me is crisp and sweet—the fall air, brisk and redolent of colorful falling leaves; and the earth, still warmly baked by the elegant slanted rays of the sun. And what is the best culinary way to capture this poignant warmth and sweetness that Mother Nature gives up before the first frosts and snow?
Why, with a Tarte Tatin, of course. You may know that Ondine, the French heroine of my novel, COOKING FOR PICASSO, baked this special apple pastry when she first arrived in the United States and discovered all the great apples we have in the USA! (Chapter 22, Page 227 of the novel.)
A bit of culinary history: This apple pastry became known as a Tarte Tatin in France, where, in the early 20th century, the two Tatin sisters, who ran a countryside hotel/restaurant, made an especially wonderful version of the local legendary treat, which was so fabulous that Maxim’s in Paris served it forever afterward, naming it in honor of the two sisters. It’s basically an apple upside-down pastry pie. The butter and sugar caramelizes the apples, and it’s like the best candied apple you ever ate!
In the traditional Tarte Tatin you are supposed to first cook the apples with the sugar and butter in the pan to caramelize, then set aside to cool while you make the crust, then bake. But when I’m in a hurry, I just cook the apples once with the crust, and it still caramelizes beautifully. You are also supposed to use a puff pastry, which takes time to make from scratch. But I have a quick way of making the crust that doesn’t require any waiting time.
So, here is my version of the fabled Tarte Tatin. You can use a store-bought pastry, but my recipe for the crust below is quick and easy. Remember, I always prefer to use organic everything—flour, sugar, butter, apples—because they have a natural sweetness and require less sugar. The recipe below serves 4-6 people.
Okay, let’s bake it:
1. Wash, peel and core three large apples or four medium ones (they should all be the same kind, so they’ll cook uniformly. Note: it’s best to avoid MacIntosh or McCoun because they have higher water content and can be soggy). Slice the apples into lovely quarter moons, not too thin.
2. For the apples, you will need a total of 4-6 tablespoons of sweet (unsalted) butter, slightly softened. First, take only half of the butter and rub it thickly all over the bottom and sides of a shallow pan (9 inches or smaller) preferably one that can be put on a stove-top as well as popped into the oven. I prefer enamel-coated cast iron, but any good pan or pie tin will work. (I don’t like Teflon.)
3. Arrange the apples in attractive concentric circles in the buttered pan.
4. Mix 1/3 cup sugar with a few grains of nutmeg (if you can get a real nutmeg and grate it yourself, it’s fantastic). Sprinkle this all over the apples.
5. Break up the remaining butter into little pieces with your hands, and dot the butter all over the apples.
Make the pastry:
6. Set aside 3/4 cup of ice-cold water (keep in refrigerator until you’re ready for it).
7. Put 1 and 1/4 cups of flour into a food processor fitted with a dough blade (or you can do this in a mixing bowl with beater or a fork).
8. Take 5 tablespoons of COLD sweet butter that’s been chopped up into 1/4 inch pieces and scatter it into the flour.
9. Add a pinch of sea salt, and a splash of the cold water, and pulse the blender so that everything blends. Gradually add more water as you go, stopping when the mixture resembles nice, slightly moist dough.
10. Prepare a floured surface on a cooking board, and then pick up your dough, shape it quickly into a ball in your hands, and then put it on the floured board.
11. Gently punch the dough with one had, then fold it over with the other; and repeat this 4-6 times until it feels fluffy and ready. The trick is to move quickly—don’t let the butter inside it get too warm or melty.
12. With a rolling pin, roll out the dough into a circle of about 10 inches in diameter.
13. Cover the apples with the pastry, taking care to tuck in the edges so that the apples stay contained and don’t spill over as the tarte bakes.
14. Bake the tarte at 400F degrees for 20-30 minutes or until the pastry is nice and browned.
15. When the tarte is done, place a pretty serving dish on top of the pastry, then carefully invert the tarte (turn it upside down) so that the pastry is on the bottom, and the caramelized apple mixture is now on top.
16. Serve with a little scoop of vanilla ice cream, or crème fraîche, or sour cream, or homemade whipped cream.
NOTE: A nice sauternes wine, or armagnac, or sherry is wonderful with this, but so is a good cup of tea or coffee.
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