The first time. The butter puddles on top of the sugar. Is that normal? Is it??? The apple pieces are a mess. Was I supposed to cut them differently? Caramel splatters my arm.The puff pastry is rising unevenly.
When I flip the tart, caramel runs all over the plate, all over the counter. The dough is instantly soaked. Two pieces of fruit cling to the pan. And the apples are cloyingly, inedible-y sweet.
The second time. I have decided not to melt the butter and sugar first. I have reduced the amounts of both, too. I cut the apples differently. Make my own dough. The process is simpler, and when I flip the tart, it comes out almost perfectly. No caramel rushes out, and only one apple is stuck to the pan. The taste is near perfect; the dough is flaky, it stays so, and the apples are sweet and toasty.
But whereas the first tart had a glut of butter, a surplus of sugar, my attempt at cutting down on the excess has yielded apples that aren’t as dark as I’d like them to be. In fact, they are rather… austere. And I know that is wrong. Because if there is one thing a tarte tatin should never, ever be, it is austere.
The third time. I add back in some of the butter and sugar. Melt them together first, let them combine into the palest of sauces. I hope this will facilitate a deeper, darker caramel. I cut the apples into lobes, conscious of how they will look when flipped. Once in the caramel, they bubble steadily away, reducing and filling the kitchen with the most heavenly scent.
When it is time to flip the tart, I am nervous. Moment of truth! One, two, three- FLIP! It is perfect. No apples are stuck in the pan. Caramel has infused the fruit and clings solidly to their vanilla bean flecked tops. I taste it. It is fudgy, rich, borderline luxurious, but held in check by salted butter and the tart apples. The crust is flaky and cuts wonderfully. I offer pieces to everyone standing around. When they taste it, they close their eyes and sigh. This is something to savor. We break out the ice cream, we sneak more pieces. Someone tells me, “this is perfect. The best dessert you have ever made.”
And I, with the knowledge of a job well done, am inclined to agree.
Yields: one 9″ tart
Why I love this recipe: with salted butter to keep the richness in check and vanilla bean seeds for flavor, a wonderfully toasty caramel cooks the apples (Granny Smiths for tart flavor and sweeter Cortlands for balance) into melt-in-your-mouth submission. My favorite galette dough, folded like puff pastry, yields a flaky crust that’s much tastier than store bought and more hardy against the juice and caramel than a traditional shortcrust pastry is. The result is a tarte tatin that is classic and borderline luxurious.
Notes: in order to achieve apples that are perfectly cooked (not fall-apart mushy and not too raw or burnt, either) it’s important that you keep the flame relatively high when the apples are cooking in the caramel. Heat that’s too low will turn them mushy and cause them to lose their shape. If some apples are cooking quicker than others, you can switch their places around. Be sure to keep basting the apples in the caramel so they soften and cook through.
With the crust, it’s important to keep the dough really cold, as that keeps the flaky layers distinct and helps them puff up in the oven.
When I flipped my tart, it all came out in one piece. However, if a few pieces of apples remain stuck to your pan, simply remove them with a spatula and put them back where they belong.
For the dough:
- 3/4 cup all purpose flour
- 1 tablespoon granulated sugar
- 1 teaspoon fine sea salt
- 1/2 stick butter, cold
- 1/2 stick butter, frozen
- 3 tablespoons ice water
- 1/2 teaspoon apple cider vinegar
For the apples:
- 3 Granny Smith apples
- 3 Cortland or Golden Delicious apples
- 5 tablespoons salted butter
- 10 tablespoons granulated sugar
- 1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise and seeds scraped out
- To make the crust, combine the flour, sugar and salt in a bowl. Use your fingers to cut in the stick of cold butter until it is the size of peas. Then cut in the frozen butter, leaving it in bigger, visible pieces.
- Add the apple cider vinegar to the water and make a well in the center of the flour and butter mixture. Using a wooden spoon, mix the water into the flour until just combined.
- If the dough seems dry, add more water a couple of teaspoons at a time. Press the dough together, form into a disc and wrap in plastic wrap.
- Chill the dough overnight or for a few hours in the freezer. The dough needs to be very cold when it’s rolled out. Once almost frozen solid, thaw on the countertop for an hour or two.
- Peel the apples. Cut apples as close to core as possible into three lobes; set aside.
- Melt the butter in your skillet over medium heat. Sprinkle in the sugar and vanilla bean seeds (save the pod for another use) and whisk it over the heat until it becomes a light, almost butterscotch colored caramel. (There may be a thin layer of melted butter sitting prettily atop the sugar- don’t worry if it doesn’t seem to combine right away. It will when you add the apples!)
- Off the heat, add the apples to the skillet, arranging them rounded sides down in concentric circles.
- Return the pan to the stove and cook in the caramel for another 20 to 25 minutes over moderately high heat. It will bubble and glurp heartily, and the scent of caramel will fill the kitchen.
- With a spoon, regularly baste the apples with caramel juices from the pan. If it looks like some apples are cooking unevenly, you can nudge them with a spoon and have them switch places with another apple, if needed. After the time is up, remove the apples from the heat.
- Preheat oven to 375. On a lightly floured surface, flour the disk of dough and compact it into a little rectangle. Fold it over 3 times, like a business letter. Then roll it out into a rectangle again. Repeat this process 3 times in total.
- Now, roll the rectangle into a 9″ circle and trim the edges neatly. Arrange pastry round over the apples. Tuck it in around the apples. Bake until the pastry is puffed and golden brown, about 25-30 minutes.
- Once baked, remove from oven. Set a timer for 3 minutes to give the caramel time to set slightly, so it doesn’t leak all over the plate when you flip it.
- Place a plate or serving dish that is large in diameter than the pan over the pastry and flip the whole thing over, unmolding the pastry and apples all at once onto the plate. If any apples stubbornly remain behind in the pan, nudge them out with a spatula.
- Serve with a dollop of crème fraîche, lightly sweetened whipped cream or ice cream and eat immediately.