TATIN AND OTHER TARTS
You do not have to be Escoffier to produce desserts on the satisfaction level of a genius.
Apples cooked in butter and sugar, and eaten with a glass of dessert wine, as suggested by Elizabeth David in her French Provincial Cooking, are truly as close to one’s heart as any simple dessert can get. And one I would cook whenever Richard Olney. Elizabeth, and I would have lunch in London.
I remember also my mother’s pineapple upside-down cake, and scooping out with my fingers, no matter how hot it was or how bad the burns, the brown sugar-butter mixture that had stuck to the black cast-iron skillet.
I remember Indian pudding at Boston’s Durgin-Park restaurant, with the crusty old waitresses, refusing to take no for an answer, setting the pudding down in front of you, about a gallon of it, and insisting that you have vanilla ice cream as well.
Even after the pound of roast beef they had just served you it tasted wonderful, mollifying the pains of a stomach extended well beyond its biological limits.
But nothing beats a perfect Tarte Tatin.
One morning, rushing through Normandy trying to get to the Hovercraft to cross the Channel to Dover, I saw storm clouds gathering and told the other increasingly hungry people in the car that if the crossing was rough, I had to either stay in France or stop for lunch and drink enough so that I could pass out on the ferry.
In a few seconds, agreement was reached and we stopped at Chez Georges, where we proceeded to eat our way through lobsters, Corton Charlemagne, Normandy veal, and other wonderful things, trying as always to get in as many tastes of France before leaving and going on to less civilized places. With a burst of inspiration someone said, “What about a tarte Tatin, since we are in Normandy?”
The proprietor suavely agreed, and called also for an array of Calvados. Apple brandy carved a niche in my necessities-of-life file that day, as the very smooth gentleman proceeded to offer several bottles, each representing a different decade.
In the time it took him to clear the main course, lecture us on the merits of the apple, fail to mention the price of the Calvados, and generally distract us with huge snifters and stories of his cellar, the tarte Tatin arrived. It was just as I had always dreamed of making.
The principle of the tarte Tatin is very simple: The apples must give out lots of juices that then blend with the sugar-white, not brown- and butter. You must then reduce and caramelize the juices in the oven and finish off on top of the stove to get just the right consistency and caramelization. Never making caramel and pouring it in the pan to start with.
Golden brown, faintly steaming, just barely oozing apple and caramelized sugar juices, its crust dry but moist, and its heady perfume of orchards and apple cellars invading the room, the tart was cut and placed on plates mounded with crème fraiche, which immediately melted to form a circular puddle of warm cream within the surrounding cold and still mounded cream, and mingled with the juices of the apples.
One taste of the warm cream, the chilled cream, and the tart, followed by a quaff of forty-year-old apple brandy, blew just about every circuit in my brain. I can remember the taste of the brandy to this day.
Two years later, in a much-anticipated return visit to Chez Georges to repeat the experience, it turned out that the proprietor had forgotten how to make tarte Tatin.
So it goes.
Caramelized Apple Tart
8 large Green apples, Newtown Pippins or Granny Smiths
1 cup Sugar
4 tablespoons Butter
1 9-inch circle Tart pastry, rolled ¼ inch thick, chilled
1 cup Chantilly cream
Heat the oven to 375°F.
Peel and core the apples and cut them in sixths. Toss them in a bowl with the sugar and salt.
Spread 2 tablespoons butter in a heavy nonstick 10-inch skillet. Place the apples side by side in the skillet and dot with the remaining butter. Place the pastry over the apples, leaving a ½-inch gap all around between the pastry and the edge of the pan.
Bake until the apples are tender and the crust golden and cooked through, about 45 minutes. Look along the sides of the tart to see if the juices have started to caramelize. If they are deep golden brown, the tart can be left to cool for 5 minutes and then turned over onto a plate. If they are not, put the pan over medium heat and cook, moving the pan slowly around the burner, for 5 to 10 minutes to let the juices caramelize. Then let cool for 5 minutes and turn it out onto a platter.
Serve warm with the Chantilly cream.