Not Just Apple Pie: Tarte Tatin - No. 49
The story of the famous caramelized apple French tart, two sisters, and a gardener
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IT’S FALL, THE COMFORT SEASON OF WARM BLANKETS and cozy foods. I am sorry, dear pumpkin, but you’ve gotten enough first-Thanksgiving attention and been showered with all those Starbuck’s spices, so it’s time to talk apples.
And apple pie.
In other places, especially Europe, and specifically in France, autumn is about apples. They were cooking with apples before Johnny Appleseed sprinkled seeds from Pennsylvania to Ohio. And the French are known for a legendary apple confection baked with pastry upstairs and caramelized apples below then flipped over to wild applause.
That would be Tarte Tatin, or more correctly, “la tarte des Demoiselles Tatin,” an upside-down apple skillet pie. And I am going to skate on thin ice here as an American food writer - but someone who has baked Tarte Tatin for years but never, ever figured it out - and tell you the story and how I just baked the best tart ever.
This enormously famous tart that has been written about in The New York Times, chronicled by Julia in her 1960s TV series, and included in Patricia Wells’ Food Lover’s Guide to France, is simply a timeless regional pie that has much to do with good local apples, an old oven, two sisters, and if you believe what you read online, a gardener.
The story begins more than a century and a half ago in France’s Sologne region, in the Loire Valley, just southwest of Paris, a land of castles, rivers, romance, and deep oak forests lush with wild game.
Although I’ve been to this region twice, I have never traveled to the village of LaMotte-Beuvron where two sisters, Stéphanie and Caroline Tatin, opened a hotel for travelers and hunters in the 1850s and baked a rustic, caramelized apple pie.
According to Patricia Wells, “One day Caroline, the cook and the younger of the sisters, was preparing an apple tart. She had cooked the apples in butter and sugar, and in haste, turned the mixture into a pastryless pie tin. Choosing not to retrace her steps, she improvised by placing the dough on top of the cooked apples. She baked the pie, removed it from the oven, and turned the tart over, creating, voila, tarte renversée.”
Not to diminish the sister’s fame, but Patricia Wells goes on to say that French cooks had been making apple pie this way for generations. It was known to them simply as “tarte Solognote,” an upside-down apple tart in the style of the region where a wonderful cooking apple, Reine de Reinettes, grew.
If you look at this recipe you see nothing more than apples, sugar, butter, and pastry. So you have to ask, what is it about this pie that we obsess so?
The short answer - apples.
The long answer is apples that hold their shape and get soft and jammy once they’re caramelized with sugar.
Necessity is the mother of pie invention
Today, I see recipes for Tarte Tatin calling for copper, iron, steel, even non-stick pans. But that first recipe - what was used? My guess is cast iron.
If you’ve ever cooked on a wood-burning stove or oven, you know that the heat varies. In the beginning, it will be hot and fast. But you have to let the fire die down to a constant temperature for longer roasting.
Cast iron is valued as a material for cooking because it not only withstands high heat but retains that heat to evenly bake cakes, breads, and pies. If the Tatin kitchen was using a wood-fired oven as would have been the case in 1880s, pre-thermostat rural France, it makes sense that the apples were cooked on top of the stove or in the oven first, and then the pastry was laid on top and the pie was slid into the hot oven long enough to brown. Otherwise, the pastry on the bottom of the pan would have burned before the apples inside were cooked.
Necessity is how many great recipes are born. Which makes me think this recipe is less a fluke and more of a work-around.
And what about the gardener?
There’s more to the story… Perhaps if a French gastronome named Maurice Edmund Caillard who wrote under the pen name “Curnonsky” had heard of your grandmother’s apple pie and traveled to her kitchen to taste it for himself, her pie might have had the lasting fame of Tarte Tatin. Curnonsky was the early version of Anthony Bourdain, and his discoveries went viral. He took the train to the Tatin sisters’ hotel, tasted the tart, wrote about it, and the rest is history.
While the sisters sold the hotel in 1907, the pie lived on. In fact, it wound up on the menu of Maxim’s restaurant in Paris in the late 1930s.
According to legend, the owner of Maxim’s, Louis Vaudable, said he used to hunt in the region of Lamotte-Beuvron when he was younger and went back to find the hotel known for its tart. He got hired as the hotel gardener and three days later had discovered enough secrets of the kitchen to bring the recipe to Maxim’s.
I know this sounds like a Peter Sellers movie, and I seriously doubt there’s truth to it, but the idea of a French gardener snooping about in the kitchen is just irresistible…
How do you bake apple pie?
Now, about those apples…
I was unable to get into the Hotel Tatin kitchen to sleuth secrets or have my apples flown in from France, but I did find a fascinating website called Tartetatin.org created by Bernard Munos who arrived in the birthplace of Tarte Tatin when he was a teen and felt compelled to keep the apple tart’s story alive. He lives in Indianapolis today.
There is so much history here and wonderful links to others who have written about this famed pie, including Edward Schneider who wrote about the Wonders of Tarte Tatin for the New York Times and not only changed the way I baked it but, best yet, allowed me to understand it.
I grabbed some Winesaps and Granny Smiths from my local farm stand. (Forgo the Rome Beautys and MacIntosh - those fall-aparts make better applesauce.) Just get the best firm, tart cooking apples and buy a pound more than you think is sufficient. Three pounds wound up in my pie. And let those peeled and quartered apples slowly caramelize in sugar in a cast iron skillet, adding only a little butter during the cooking process, not at the beginning. That’s revelation number one. It’s less about butter and more about the sugar and apples.
The second a ha moment was letting those apples caramelize in a larger 12-inch skillet and then turning them into a smaller 10-inch skillet, blanketing with pie crust, and baking in a hot oven until the pastry turned golden brown.
Readers asked Edward Schneider why the two pans, and I never saw his reply, but as I read their comments, I knew the answer, which has to do with science.
You employ the larger 12-inch skillet for its surface area and that lets the apples have room to let go of their juices through evaporation and also trickle down into the skillet to caramelize. You will wind up with fewer apples than you started because they cook down, and this is something I read in all the Tarte Tatin recipes, and I will repeat - don’t skimp on apples. Get more than you think you will need!
Arrange your beautifully caramelized apples rounded-side down in the 10-inch skillet in a sort of concentric circle pattern or no pattern at all! And pack them tightly because they will shrink further as the pie cooks.
The pastry is laid on top of the apples before baking, and here’s another reason you use the smaller 10-inch pan: This pan is easier to flip. Once it comes out of the oven, run a knife around the sides to loosen any bits, place a baking sheet over the skillet, and using two pot holders, one at 9 and the other at 3, flip the skillet and pan over. Carefully lift off the skillet, and stick back any apples that stayed in the pan.
You can absolutely bake this in the same 12-inch skillet that you use to caramelize the apples, which is what I did in my recipe in Skillet Love, but things get a little sticky in the apple department when you flip the tart. Do allow a little less time to bake than the recipe I share.
Slice and serve warm. The French don’t gussy up Tarte Tatin, and I’m sure they’ve got some phrase for people who do… If you must, add a scoop of vanilla ice cream or real whipped cream. In the end, this tart is all about the flavor of those apples. Use frozen pie crust if you like, but just don’t make this with tasteless supermarket apples.
And a blend of apples might be best. As each imparts it’s own sweetness, acidic tones, texture, and complexity, they mingle into one and make for a much more interesting pie than pumpkin could ever imagine.
Coming Thursday for Subscribers: Secretly Simple Apple Tarts
Using one of my favorite conveniences, frozen puff pastry! This is something my friend Beth served recently, and I begged her for the recipe. Some people do laundry on Thursday, but I do shortcuts along with great recipes from family and friends in the Thursday newsletter. So join us!
A New Take on Cake Countdown…
Missed my QVC appearance last week? Saved it for you!
My A New Take on Cake publishes Nov. 16, which means the Cake Mix Doctor embarks on her book tour, or as my publicist said, “your mini-Covid tour is turning out pretty well!” Stay tuned as I will share the stops along the way.
And speaking of limited, preorder your holiday books! Publishers don’t know what to expect this year what with supply chain and printer delays, so be prepared and purchase ahead! And if you preorder mine, you get those 7 bonus recipes to be baking right now!
And now, that Tarte Tatin recipe…
This is one of those recipes you get better at with practice. Everyone you bake it for will delight in your progress, but they might selfishly tell you that you haven’t quite gotten it right and to bake them another. I, frankly, have never tasted a bad Tarte Tatin.
Makes 8 to 10 servings
Prep: 40 to 45 minutes
Bake: 25 to 30 minutes
3 pounds tart apples such as Granny Smith, peeled, quartered, and cored
3/4 cup granulated sugar
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 9-inch pie crust, frozen and thawed or see recipe below
Place the apples in a 12-inch cast iron skillet over low heat. Gradually add the sugar, and let the apples cook, stirring every so often, until they are caramelized, about 20 to 25 minutes. About 5 minutes into the cooking, add 2 tablespoons of the butter. Add the rest of the butter after 10 minutes of cooking. The apples should develop a golden brown color. Turn off the heat and set the apples aside.
Place a rack in the center of the oven, and preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Roll out the pie crust to a 1/3-inch thickness, and cut it into a 10-inch circle.
Arrange the apples in the bottom of a 10-inch cast iron skillet, placing the apples rounded-side down in a concentric circle. Lay the circle of dough on top of the apples, tucking the edges under so the pastry fits in the skillet. Prick the top of the pastry all over with a fork.
Place the skillet in the oven, and bake until the pastry turns lightly browned, about 25 to 30 minutes. Remove the skillet from the oven. Run a knife around the edges. Immediately place a large, flat platter or baking sheet on top of the skillet. Invert the hot skillet and let the tart fall onto the pan, and replace any stuck apples. Slice and serve warm.
Easy Food Processor Pie Crust: Place 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, a pinch of salt, and a pinch of sugar in the processor and pulse to combine. Cut a stick (4 ounces) of cold unsalted butter into 1/2-inch cubes and distribute them on top of the flour. Pulse until the mixture looks like peas. Add 3 tablespoons ice water and pulse again until the dough forms a ball. Press the dough flat and chill briefly, then roll on a floured surface as the recipe instructs. Makes one 9-inch crust.