I was so lucky to visit Paris this summer, my first visit in many years. At a little bistro Provencal in the Marais district I ate tarte tatin. I was served in the French way, with crème fraîche and shortcrust pastry. Tarte tatin is the Chanel of the world of desserts. Timeless, elegant and French.
Coco Chanel was born in 1883, the child of an unwed mother. Tarte tatin was invented by accident in the 1880s by the Tatin sisters. If there is a top ten list of the world’s best desserts, tarte tatin is on the list. The list of timeless classics. This is the type of food I like to cook. Food untouched by trends. Or to phrase Coco Chanel: Fashion fades, only style remains the same.
Coco Chanel revolutionized the fashion industry in the 1920s when she invented the little black dress and the Chanel suit. Previously black was the colour of grief and now Chanel even borrowed from men’s wear when she designed her suits. The two sisters Tatin ran a hotel in France in the 1880s. One day Stéphanie was making an apple pie, she was so busy she forgot the apples, and the caramel almost burned. Attempting to save the pie she put the pie dough on top of the apples and placed the pan in the oven. And this is how she turned the pie upside-down and created a classic. Or so the story goes.
What makes tarte tatin so special?
Tarte tatin stands out in the family of pies. The basis is a caramel that is cooked until perfection, not too sweet and dull nor bitter and burnt. In contrast to other pies the pie dough does more than keeping the filling in place. It creates a holy match between the pastry and the caramel. And lastly the tarte tatin pie makes for an adventure where the looks of the pie is not revealed until the last minute when it is turned upside-down.
The baking challenge
In the autumn I make tarte tatin with Norwegian apples. They are frail and delicate and cannot stand heat well, so they must be treated with utmost care. Often apples for the tatin are precooked on the stove before they are baked in the oven, but with Norwegian apples you skip the precooking and bake them maximum 20–25 minutes in the oven to avoid them reduced to mush. With cooking apples such as Granny Smith or Bramley it is much easier as they keep their shape – vital to a tarte tatin.
Many recipes call for puffed pastry, which is easy and delicious but poses a problem. What if you cannot eat gluten? The solution is to make a shortcrust pastry. A shortcrust pastry however requires longer cooking than puffed pastry, and usually this is solved by pre-baking (or blind baking) the dough. But with tarte tatin pre-baking is not possible, so one of the key pillars of a tarte tatin is baking it until the pie crust is slightly crisp while the apples still hold their shape.
Gluten-free tarte tatin (makes 4–6)
For tarte tatin it is convenient to use a tarte tatin dish, a sort of frying pan you can place in the oven. But you could also use a 20cm/8in ovenproof frying pan.
125 g gluten-free flour (or ordinary flour)
60 g cold butter in cubes
1 organic egg
100 g sugar
40 ml water
1 vanilla bean
50 g butter in cubes
60 ml apple juice (or calvados)
about 5 medium-sized cooking apples (Granny Smith or Bramley)
crème fraîche to serve
1. Crumble the butter into the flour with your hands until a texture like coarse bread crumbs. Make a well in the centre, whisk the egg and add it to the flour. Stir quickly with a spatula and make the pastry come together with your hands. Wrap in cling film and let rest in the refrigerator for 30 minutes.
2. Place the pastry between two parchment papers, and roll out with a rolling-pin until thin and the size of a tarte tartin dish (measure by placing the pan on top of the pastry). Let rest once more in the refrigerator for 30 minutes.
3. Usually I would have used the apple corer, but here I want to reveal the “stars” of the apple core. In order to do so, peel the apples and divide them along the “equator”. Remove the seeds, the stem and the blossom end. Rub generously with lemon.
4. Preheat oven to 175C/350F/Gas 4.
5. Make sure the pan is clean as impurities may cause the caramel to crystallize. Split the vanilla lengthwise and scrape out the seeds. Place seeds and pod in the pan with the sugar and water. Let the sugar absorb the water for 2 minutes. Bring to boil and add a few drops of lemon juice.
6. On medium heat cook the caramel until golden brown. Do not stir, just shake the pan once in a while. This may take a while, about 20 minutes, so be patient. But when the caramel starts to change colour, it happens quickly and you should turn down the heat. P.S. If the caramel crystallizes, add a splash of water and continue boiling.
7. Take the caramel off the heat right before it turns golden brown. Now add the butter, which will splutter and stop the caramelization. Add the apple juice and apples and cook for 10 minutes on medium heat while you turn the apples once.
8. Arrange the apples with their round side facing up. What you now see is not the front of the dish. Allow to cool.
9. Take the pastry out of the refrigerator and wait 5 minutes before you place it on top of the apples. Fold it around the edges of the pan. Bake for about 30 minutes until the pastry and apples are golden.
10. Allow to rest for 10 minutes before you invert the tart. Invert the pie by placing the serving plate (wider than the pan) on top of the pan and turn quickly while you hold both plates firmly together. Serve with crème fraîche.