The first time I had tarte Tatin, Kathy and I were on the coast of France, in a heartbreakingly beautiful fishing village just a scooter ride from Nice. Unlike Nice, whose imported sand beaches are plastered with sun-bathing tourists, we loved Villefranche-sur-Mer because it was beachless, and real.
It was a place where you could jump off a black boulder jetty into the sparkling harbor, and gaze up at the kaleidoscope of houses that are the town’s steep ascent from sea.
You could find a simple hotel room for thirty francs, and fling open its tall shutters to air and sun. And from that window, gaze down at a verdant garden, and follow its lush rows of fat tomatoes and peppers rambling toward a house, to discover it belonged to a neighborhood bistro, La Trinquette. It would have been closed earlier, when you checked in to the friendly hotel, eking out the transaction in painstaking French.
Setting out for dinner, you would walk past its chalkboard announcing grilled sardines, toward the restaurants with a sea view, candles blinking prettily atop tables set in straight rows. Tuxedoed waiters worked in tight formation, attending to a rising tide of diners.
On instinct you would turn away from your guide book and back toward the neighborhood restaurant that does not have a view of the sea. The owners have been cooking there since one of them was thin and both of them were young. Their clientele knew them when they were this way, and will tell you of jolly stories of the old times.
According to french tradition, the late 19th century originators of tarte tatin are the Tatin sisters, proprietors of Hotel Tatin in Lamotte-Beuvron. Legend holds that Stephanie Tatin rescued overcooked apple tart filling by throwing pastry over the top and baking the tart upside down. Others claim that Stephanie was a fine cook, but “not the brightest of people” and one day accidentally put the tart in the oven “wrong way round”. I find this hard to believe. I prefer the former story, featuring the smart, resourceful Stephanie Tatin.
To be sure, tarte Tatin is the smartest apple pie I have ever known. The filling is nothing but a skilletful of apples, butter, and sugar, caramelized by a long stint on top of the stove. The pan goes into the oven with unfussy pastry laid on top of the fruit, where it has no chance of becoming soggy. The tart is turned ‘right side up’ once out of the oven, flipping the crisp crust to the bottom, topped by a gorgeous swirl of meltingly tender apples.
I first attempted tarte Tatin working at Restaurant Jennifer James, four skillet’s worth at a time. The result was lovely, golden wedges served with whipped creme fraiche, but the process was painstaking, all that tending of apples caramelizing over high heat on the stove. The fine line between caramelized and burnt does not forgive the multi-tasker.
It wasn’t until I found Edward Schneider’s piece in the New York Times that I had my ‘aha’ moment about tarte Tatin. The method he outlines, paired with this kernel of wisdom is all you need to see your way clear to excellent tarte Tatin.
Many things called tarte Tatin are merely brown and sweet. To be sure, a tarte Tatin should be brown and sweet, but it needs to be more: the apples need to be cooked in sugar and butter long enough that they are not only coated in buttery caramel but also permeated with sweetness. Like what happens in jam-making, where some of the water in the fruit is replaced by sugar.
While many insist that high starch apples like Golden Delicious are the only acceptable option, Schneider allows for whatever apples, and whatever pastry, giving more importance to the method.
Peel and quarter a bunch of apples, enough to tightly pack into a twelve inch skillet. (Schneider warns that this is many more apples than you would expect, and he is right.) Sprinkle them with 2/3 to 3/4 cup sugar, and saute over MEDIUM heat. Once the juices start to run, throw in two tablespoons of butter and continue sauteing, tossing or gently moving the apples around every so often. The goal is for the apples to become ‘candied’ and translucent – this will take 15 to 20 minutes – before the appley syrup begins to caramelize. When everything is deep golden and the apples are browned in some spots, you’re done. Add a little more butter to the pan and turn off the heat.
Now pack the cooked apples from the 12 inch skillet into a 10 inch skillet. (It’s at this point that Schneider’s method gets a little controversial, but I think it works. The apples will have lost considerable volume from when they started. The tarte Tatin I recall from France is one whole apple tall, and packing apples from the larger skillet into the smaller helps achieve this result.)
Then, drape pastry over the apples and tuck it down around the sides. I think that this galette dough works perfectly here, but as Schneider points out, the crust has no structural role, so it can be almost any variation on pie crust. Cut a few steam vents, and into the 400 degree oven it goes, until the pastry is well-browned and done, probably 20 to 30 minutes.
You need to turn the tart out of the pan when it is hot out of the oven, or the cooling caramel won’t release. Give the pan a shake to loosen things, put a large plate over the top, and grasping the plate and the pan with two oven mitts, turn the whole thing upside down. If a few pieces of apple stick to the pan, use a spatula to put them back in place. Be careful – everything is very, very hot.
Serve the tart when it is room temperature, or barely warm. Creme fraiche is traditional, but plain old whipped cream is just as nice.