Friday, September 28th, 2012

Perfect Tarte Tatin in 10 Easy Steps

The mornings have turned chilly quite suddenly and so it is apple season! And so it is also tarte tatin season. Let's talk about this.

It is the easiest of all desserts, and yet the instructions for tarte tatin are always intimidating. Witness the struggles of our pal Deb over at the wonderful Smitten Kitchen. Back in 2008, she endorsed a friend's recipe, which is very good, because she'd ruined too many herself. Finally, last spring, Deb engineered a recipe of her own, based off Julia Child's. I disagree with both of them, somewhat! Maybe even with Julia Child! (Waits for lightning bolt to strike me down.) Where we all do agree is that tarte tatin is a little unpredictable, and therefore, I think, it should be treated as casually as possible. If a dish is going to turn against you half the time, why fight with it? So here's how to whip one out casually. It's extremely easy and fast and satisfying and you feel like a pretty, full-hipped French lady in a chic blouse in some wonderful country farmhouse while you make it. (So, basically, like David Sedaris.)

1. Peel and core a bunch of firm and preferably tart apples. I like to use a big pan for all this, so it's often like 7 or 8 or even 9 smallish apples. (I tend to crowd the tart, and I use a 12" pan with 2" sides. Most other people use a 9" pan or smaller. Don't use a 12" pan unless you have someone with good upper-body strength around for the flipping at the end! I am weak.) Dump the apples in a bowl with lemon juice and a sprinkling of sugar and let them sit there and dehydrate a bit.

2. While that is happening, you are going to make the easiest pate brisée ever. That's "dough" to you Americans. Here is my latest iteration, and it's what I'm sticking with. This is my only talent, so listen to me.

• Put 1 ½ cups of cold or at least not-hot flour in a bowl with a little salt and a little sugar.

• Cut up a stick, or a little more than a stick, of good cold butter into like 10 pieces. (This replaces my last enthusiasm: grating frozen butter into flour. That's a great technique, but I want even bigger butter chunks.)

• Kinda rub the butter chunks in the flour for a short while. It's not really supposed to integrate! Just a little light melting and engagement. The flour should get a little greasy.

• Turn this mess around a bit while you drip a bit of cold water into the bowl, until it sorta hangs together a bit. You should have big and small clumps of butter in this mixture. What do I mean?

• Shove this bowl as-is in the freezer for a few minutes, then the fridge. Because it's APPLE-COOKING TIME.

3. Dump a stick of really good salted butter (YES SALTED BUTTER) in your big pan that is oven-safe. Melt it. This can be a skillet, or any big ol' pan with sides of a couple inches that can go in the oven. This is not a terrible time to preheat your oven to 400°F.

4. Throw a cup of really good sugar in the melted butter. Stir, stir, stir. Sometimes I even add like a tiny bit of salt, but that might be crazy. The sugar is not really going to integrate either, particularly if your sugar is chunky instead of fine. (I like a fancy golden Hawaiian sugar.) That's okay. Just keep it hot and stir and do this for, hmm, five or so minutes. Could be ten! It should darken or at least golden a little. But don't go too far. The real cooking comes with the apples.

5. Scoop your apples out of the bowl (not pour; you don't want the extra liquid) and into the caramel you're making. Do it willy-nilly. Everyone else "arranges the apples" in circles or whatever. If I had time to arrange apples in pretty shapes, I wouldn't have time to do anything else. I put them in there and stir till they're coated and I don't worry about it.

6. So! Stir! And release. And stir! And the apples release their foul juices in the caramel. So this comes into a bubbly soup-mess for a while. The pan needs to be hot enough to be evaporating liquid. Sorta sub-boiling. I tend to let it cool a bit then heat it hot then cool it a little. And over the next 10 to really more like 15 but maybe even 20 minutes, it'll boil down. The apples will soften. At a certain point, it'll become sticky, not soupy. Then the apples will be very soft. Here is where you enter danger period. You can both panic and yank it too soon, and then also you can easily burn the whole thing to grossness. Aim for a slightly browned syrup—but err on the side of undercooking—you can fix that later! If there is "smoking" things have gone wrong and you have not been paying attention.

7. Take out your chilly crust, and sorta roll it out. It won't roll well! Just Frankenstein that thing together, use your fingers, and pop it on top the apples as best you can and shove it into the oven—fast! Your crust is melllttttinnnng!

8. The crust will look disgusting in the first five minutes of cooking. It'll be a pool of butter. That's good.

Anyway, everyone says "20 minutes." It's never really 20 minutes. (And no one really agrees on temperature: people range from 375 to 425. I think 400 is best.) Basically you want the crust to get tanned. Check it at 15 minutes, then set a timer for every 5 minutes. If you tap it, it should be hard. (Yup.)

9. Julia Child has a great thing in The Way to Cook on this part. When you take it out of the oven, you enter the stage of "Verification." To wit: "Tilt the pan, and if the juices are runny rather than a thick syrup, boil down rapidly on top of the stove, but be sure not to evaporate them completely." See? This is where you save your mess if you undercooked.

10. Take it out (CAUTIOUSLY) and run a knife around the edge of everything and then have someone fearless turn the burning hot skillet with its terrifying sugar-juices upside down onto a plate. Then unstick the apples that got a little stuck to the bottom of the pan and you're gold. Actually with any luck you're a delicious brown-gold, not actually gold. Actual "gold" means you didn't cook the apples hard enough. Who cares? It'll still taste good, I mean, it's apples and butter and sugar, the worse-case scenario is you could be like, "Oh it could actually be better I guess." You'll know when you've gotten it right. Make another in a few days.

38 Comments / Post A Comment

The Lady of Shalott (#233,017)

This is in no way the easiest dessert ever.

@The Lady of Shalott I mean, right after like "spraying whipped cream in your open mouth," it's pretty close! I mean you shove some apples around in some sugar and butter, blammo.


jolie (#16)

@Choire Sicha@facebook I have to agree with Shalott. Not hard, but not "the easiest ever." Clafoutis, for example, is easier than this. No terror involved even!

Still though, glad you posted this, someone with excellent taste in editorial content must have suggested you do so!

@jolie I thought we were never supposed to talk about Clafoutis ever again…?

CaptBackslap (#10,313)

@Choire Sicha@facebook

Also easier: crushing up Emerald Nuts' Dark Chocolate Almonds over coconut gelato. And that's so good that you take a bite and you're like "what? how can this be so good without me about it before now?" TRY IT.

snacky (#238,331)

@Choire Sicha@facebook Choire, you're on to a good thing with your chunky faux-puff. I do a similar thing. But, listen – there is a better, easy way. And greasy flour shouldn't be involved. Seriously. Watch this, and you will have an absolutely perfect, tender dough. It changed my pastry life and so I keep preaching it.

slutberry (#238,351)

@The Lady of Shalott I'm in a lecture on "the Lady of Shalott" right now. But it's also a lecture on "Mariana in the Moated Grange", and I hate Mariana. Lady of Shalott is a BAMF; Mariana is a whiny wimp.

Roxy@twitter (#236,121)

Have you ever made this with nuts? I feel like some crushed walnuts would not go amiss here.

jfruh (#713)

Jesus Christ, and you made fun of my simple nine-step tax estimation technique.


OMG I owe so much money in taxes, all because I paid so much taxes. It's like LOOPER but without hot guys.

I posted a comment and it disappeared, so I posted it again, and then it was there twice, so I deleted the second one and then both of them disappeared again.

Is it because I put URLs in the comment, maybe? Is there some kind of anti-spam filter on the comments?

Matt (#26)


@MisterHippity : There is indeed some kind of thing that hates URLs in comments. At least, it really hates when I actually use markup to make them into hyperlinks, because then my comment is basically cast into oblivion, never to return.

Granger Danger (#2,831)

Which browser do you guys use? It sounds like that may be what's causing your troubles.

mishaps (#5,779)

I will admit to an irrational fear of the flipping part of this recipe.

pretzels! (#238,289)

@mishaps I think we could all skip this part by just walking ourselves over to the sofa with a spoon and digging in. No shame in that, right?

mishaps (#5,779)

@pretzels! GENIUS.

@mishaps It's terrifying. I won't do it. I won't flip anything, I won't even like, flip an omelette.

Faire Vanity (#236,359)

@Choire Sicha@facebook
oh fiddlesticks! It's not that bad, you just have to make sure that you have a firm hold on the pan and the plate and that you're quick about it. No hesitation, like pulling off a band-aid. A bit of practice with the empty pan & plate before it gets all hot and precious also helps, just to get the right flicking motion and timing into your wrist muscle memory.

David Cho (#3)

Choire loves pie.

iwantyrskull (#1,706)


KimO (#10,765)

This is by far the most entertaining recipe I've ever read, only in part because I thought "really good sugar" was an Ina Garten parody up until the fancy golden Hawaiian rec.

BadUncle (#153)

Hmmmm. I think I'd rather make calvados.

Faire Vanity (#236,359)

actually, calvados-infused ice cream or whipped cream is DIVINE with a tatin.

s. (#775)

My grandfather ran a dairy, and my dad, who grew up around all that stuff, says never to buy salted butter, because less scrupulous dairies would use salt to mask rancid butter. I have no idea if this is some sort of dairy industry urban legend, but if I'm baking, it's cultured unsalted butter all the way, not least because I can control the salt myself.

s. (#775)

Also, is there any reason why I couldn't hit the bubbly soup-mess stage with a good slug or two of Maker's Mark?

Bittersweet (#765)


JennyBeans (#7,034)

I think I liked it better when the recipes involved lots of swearing
(though, seriously, this is very helpful! I do not understand how it is easier than, say, any kind of cake — ANY KIND — or a basic pie, or a berry crumble, but still seems delicious).

Cathy G.@twitter (#11,155)

Seconded, S! I made this once and the pastry ended up tasting like drywall because I overrolled it. No one cared since I threw a jigger of good French cognac in with the apples.

Charlotte Flax (#234,743)

I love the idea of just tossing the apples in without worrying about placing them prissily in concentric circles, but real puff pastry makes this so much better! And it's easy to make, too! (OK, it's not as fast, but most of the time you're just chilling it while watching TV or doing whatever you want, so it's not actually active time.)

laurel (#4,035)

This post needs a post flip picture to show the tarte in all its golden glory.

Ophelia (#75,576)

@laurel Yes! I am very curious as to the fact that the caramel must somehow solidify (so it doesn't all fall apart) and yet not stick to the pan?

R0samond@twitter (#238,333)

I have an easier crust, and it's pretty. Just remember 1-1-1. 1 cup of flour, 1 stick of butter, 1 little package of Philly cream cheese (the three ounce size). Let these sit in a bowl and come to room temp. Knead it until smooth. Chill. Use as per the above instructions and you're golden.

Runcible Goose (#238,369)

@R0samond@twitter -mmm, that sounds tasty! I will definitely try it- but you may not want it for this recipe. The reason for the cold, not room temp butter, is that the oven's heat melts it into the dough and leaves little "pockets" behind…this is how you get that flaky, tender, buttery deliciousness. Think croissant or scone style. That's why our intrepid chef worked so hard to keep it cold, and why she left some butter pieces bigger than others- different sized pockets, is all. :)

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