Tender apples, sweet caramelized sugar and a buttery crust are always a killer trio, but what’s really great about a tarte tatin is how much it impresses with how little effort. Set this classic French dessert in the center of a table, and those who recognize it will wiggle with pleasure and those who’ve never seen it will be intrigued and impressed.
In fact, I think it’s easier than pie. Instead of fussing around with blind-baking, dealing with two layers of crust, and worrying about finding Auntie Mildred’s pie dough recipe, all you really have to do for a tarte Tatin is whirl together a simple dough in a food processor, cook the apples in a pan with some caramel, and bake the crust right on top. Then you flip it back out of the pan and collect your oohs and aahs.
Here a few of my notes (many straight from my culinary school notebook!) about turning out the perfect Tatin:
Use tart, firm apples….and plenty of them!
You want apples tart enough to stand up to the sweetness of the caramel and firm enough not to turn to mush as they cook. Pick apples like Cox or Braeburn or even Granny Smith. Most recipes today instruct you to peel the apples, but that’s up to you. And don’t be shy about using lots of apples. You want a single layer that is packed to the max. They’ll shrink in size once they cook and you want the finished tart to have loads of apple in every bite. If you want to get fancy, you can arrange the apples in a pattern on the bottom of the pan.
Don’t fuss with the crust
Unlike a pie, the crust of a tarte Tatin is not the main event. Its purpose, really, is to hold all the juicy apples and sweet caramel together while you’re shoveling a piece into your mouth. Whip the crust together quickly by whirling the ingredients in a food processor. Or use store-bought frozen puff pastry. And don’t be upset if your crust doesn’t look beautiful when you lay it on top of the apples since you won’t see it in the end.
Flip with confidence
The hardest part about making a tarte Tatin is mustering the courage to flip the warm dessert out of the pan. You must flip with conviction. If you hesitate, the tarte will sense your trepidation and become a sloppy heap of apples and crust (which can easily be disguised as apple cobbler, so really you’ve got nothing to worry about). Be sure to let the tarte cool for about 10 minutes after you pull it from the oven since flipping a hot tart with burbling caramel would make anyone nervous.
Makes 1 9” tarte; serves 6
For the crust:
1¼ cups all purpose flour
6 tablespoons butter, cold and cut into small cubes
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon sugar
¼ cup cold water
For the apples:
6 tablespoons butter
½ cup sugar
6 – 8 tart, firm apples
1 cinnamon stick
Mix the crust: Put the all of the crust ingredients except the water into a food processor and pulse until pea-sized. Turn on the processor and add the water all at once. Turn it off as soon as the water is incorporated, almost immediately. Turn the dough out onto a large piece of plastic wrap and flatten into a disc. Wrap tightly and chill in the refrigerator. Preheat the oven to 350° F.
Prepare the apples: Peel (or not), core and quarter the apples. Don’t worry if they start to brown; you won’t be able to tell once they’ve sopped up all the caramel sauce.
Start the caramel: In a heavy 9” oven-safe skillet melt the butter for the apples over medium heat. Once it’s melted, sprinkle the sugar over the butter in an even layer. Add the cinnamon stick. Shake and swirl around the pan so that the sauce is evenly distributed in the pan. Let the sauce cook and bubble until it’s light brown in color.
Cook the apples: Prettily arrange (or not) as many apples as will fit in the pan in a single layer. Pack ‘em in! Turn the heat up to medium-high and let the apples cook for about 15 minutes. The apples will seep out their juice as they cook and you should have a caramel colored, syrupy liquid bubbling up around the apples.
Maybe add apples? If the apples shrink as they cook and you have space for more, tuck them in. (You still want all the apples in one layer, though.) If you add them near the end of the cooking time, they might not soften as much as the other apples, but who cares?
Roll the crust: While the apples are cooking, remove the dough from the refrigerator and roll it into a sheet about ¼” thick or less. Return to the refrigerator to chill for about 15 minutes. This will make it easier to handle when you’re putting it on top of the apples.
Top with the crust: After about 15 minutes in the pan, the apples should be soft, but not fully cooked. Remove the bubbly apples from the stove and let them cool for 5 minutes. Lay the rolled dough over the pan and quickly trim the overhang to fit.
Tuck the crust: Using a fork, tuck the edges of the crust underneath the apples.
Bake until golden: Put the entire tarte into the oven and bake for about 30 minutes or until the crust is golden brown. The crust should shrink away from the pan and you should see bubbly caramel on the edges when you remove the tart from the oven.
Cool: Let the tart cool for at least 10 minutes. Before you flip, make sure the entire thing wiggles when you shake it (otherwise the caramel may have stiffened too much and you need to gently re-heat over the stove to loosen the tart.
Flip and serve: Place a large plate or platter on top of the skillet, lift the whole thing (be sure to use a potholder as the handle is probably still hot) and quickly and confidently turn it upside down so the tarte sits on the plate. Remove the cinnamon stick. Serve the tarte warm or at room temperature. You can add ice cream, but it’s delicious on its own.