I can’t help, but cheat on summer a little. I’m just so tired of being so hot all the time, of dreading to turn my oven on, of running air conditioner non-stop. I’m even sick of tank tops (gasp!), and white wine (blasphemy). I’ve been sweating for three whole months, and now I just want it to stop, you know? This heat thing is getting old. East coast folks, are you with me?
What I want are things that belong firmly to autumn. I want to take a walk in the rain in my jeans and a sweater with a scarf around my neck while holding hot cider in my hand. I want to stand over a huge pot of simmering apple sauce and smell the cinnamon. I can’t wait for that morning chill in the air, and that first red leaf I spot on the ground. Fall is full of such good things, it’s no wonder I’m more than ready for it.
I have been long entertaining visions of tarte Tatin, but someway or another it always eluded me. I first had it when I was backpacking through France right after graduating college. A friend and I found ourselves in Nantes and after speaking with a few locals about where they like to have dinner, managed to find our way to the restaurant. I don’t remember much of the meal other than it was very good, rustic French home-cooking. There was little pretense and the focus was on making real, honest food that people might want to eat at the end of a long week. I remember thinking it was delicious.
When we got to dessert, I ordered a tarte Tatin. I didn’t really know what it was, but I knew I liked tarts, and after our waiter said something about apples, which my limited French picked up, I was sold. I thought what I was ordering was a tradition French apple tart, a favorite pastry of mine. What arrived on a plate (accompanied by a glass of Sancerre) was something altogether different. The apples were not splayed out in a meticulously thinly sliced array, but instead sat atop a pastry – quartered, brown, and caramelized. At their bottom was this thick amber-colored syrup. The puff pastry had soaked a bit of that syrup where the two met. It was a strange and unexpected sight, and before I gave myself a chance to analyze this unfamiliar pastry, I grabbed a fork and dug in. I can still taste that first, revelatory bite. I even remember the plate the tart arrived on – white, with tiny blue flowers around the border.
You would think that this would have been the first thing I would have made upon returning to the United States. You wouldn’t think that nine whole years would pass before I’d actually get around to making it. Well, embarrassing as this is, nine years did pass. And I finally got my act together and made the tart for my book club dinner. I can’t tell you why it took so long, but I am sometimes horribly disorganized, and, well, there it is. I have no excuse, just some lost time I need to make up. And so should you. Perhaps this weekend, as you welcome fall, this could be just the dessert to bring to your Labor Day barbecues. Summer won’t mind, I don’t think. It’s had three whole months to reign over us and I think it needs to move over and give fall a chance. I’m only trying to be fair.
Adapted from Orangette (Thank you, Molly! This is now a staple!)
Though this looks like it involves many steps, it’s a pretty simple, straight-forward recipe – something you can pull off on a weeknight with little preparation ahead. I cheated a little (but not as much as some Top Chef contestant, given the stakes), and used Dufour brand puff pastry. You can make your own traditional puff pastry, or go with a quick puff recipe, or cheat, like me, and go with a pre-made pastry dough.
5-6 large apples, preferably Golden Delicious or Ginger Gold
Juice of 1 lemon
1 ½ cups granulated sugar
6 Tbs unsalted butter, divided
About 14 ounces puff pastry (I recommend Dufour, if you go with store-bought; be sure to let it thaw for about an hour before using if frozen)
Peel apples and and quarter them. Remove the cores so that each quarter has a flat inner side. In a large bowl, combine the the apple quarters with the lemon juice and ½ cup of the sugar – toss both together to evenly coat, and set aside for 30 minutes to macerate. The apples, combined with lemon juice and sugar, will give some juice.
Set a 9-inch cast-iron skillet over medium heat (think Lodge or Le Creuset) and melt 4 tablespoons of butter. To the melted butter (be careful not to burn) add the remaining 1 cup sugar, along with a few tablespoons of the apple-lemon juice. Stir to mix until combined. Cook the mixture over medium-low heat, stirring regularly with a wooden spoon, about 15 minutes, or until the mixture is a smooth, bubbly, pale caramel color. [What is pale caramel color? Think the color of light-colored honey – and you got it!]
Once your caramel reaches the desired color, immediately remove the pan from the heat. Carefully, as not to burn yourself, place the apple quarters rounded side facing down in a pretty, circular pattern. Arrange a second layer of apples on top wherever they fit and don’t worry if this second layer isn’t the prettiest – it’ll be under the top layer (no one will ever know!). Dot the apples with the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter, cut into tiny dice.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.
Cook the apples over medium-low heat for about 20 minutes, and from time to time, spoon a bit of the caramel over them. Also, press the apples down gently using a spoon. Just be sure that the caramel and apples cook pretty evenly throughout – you might need to shift the pan as necessary. When the caramel turns dark amber and grows thick, remove the pan from heat. Your apples should still be slightly firm, but showing some softness about the sides. You don’t want your apples entirely soft, or your liquid to go too brown – this means you’ve overcooked your apples and caramel.
On a lightly floured surface, roll out the puff pasty – should be about 3/16 inches thick. With a knife and a parchment paper circle (about 10 inches in diameter), cut out your pastry shell. [For an easy-peasy tip on how to cut your parchment circles out, Michael Ruhlman has a genius suggestion for you.]
Carefully, as not to burn yourself, lay your pastry circle over the apples, and tuck the overlap between the apples and the inside of the pan. I found that using a fork to help me tuck the ends in was very helpful.
Bake your the tart for 30-35 minutes. Before placing in the oven, aide a rimmed baking sheet under your skillet to catch any drips. After the allotted time, remove the skillet from the oven and allow the tart to rest for a couple of minutes. Once rested, take a look at the bottom of the pan (tilt it to see better). If you see a lot of juice, pour most of it out. Allow some of the juice to remain or your apples might attach themselves to the pan and thus yield a rather messy plating.
Put on your oven mitts. Place a serving platter over the skillet. You want to do the following over a counter that you can get messy and wipe clean. With a decisive motion, both hands placed firmly on the 9 o’clock and the 3 o’clock holding down the plate to the pan, flip the pan over so that the plate is now on the bottom. Gently set the plate down and remove the skillet off. Your tart should have easily separated from the pan and now sitting pretty on the serving plate.
Serve warm or at room temperature.
Supposedly serves 8, but really (let’s be honest here), 6.