When I was in my 20s, studying wine and living on very little money in Paris, I couldn't afford to eat in real restaurants very often. But I'd stop at a favorite wine bar a couple of times a week. The weather always seemed cold, and the chill crept through the soles of my boots. To warm up, I would nurse a single glass of Chinon or Bourgeuil with a tartine (open-faced sandwich) or dark-flecked Poilane bread with a crottin of goat cheese smashed on top.
I can remember looking longingly at the end of the zinc bar where a tarte tatin would inevitably be set out in all its glory, the apples satiny and glistening with caramel. I could imagine the slightly jelled texture of the apples, the warm buttery taste of the caramel against a dollop of thick, ivory creme fraiche. Essentially an upside-down tarte, the crust is baked on top of the apples and the tarte is inverted to serve.
Most of the time, though, I couldn't afford it. Or even the small cup of coffee I envisioned enjoying after. So when I did finally get my tarte des demoiselles tatin, referring to the two spinster sisters who invented it (on purpose or no) at their family hotel in the Loire Valley of France, it tasted all the sweeter.
I treasure that memory of eating a warm tarte made with new-crop apples, the windows of the bistro steamed up, the blue-gray of November or December outside. And years later, on a subsequent trip to France, when I had more money in my pocket, I marched right into the cookware shop Dehillerin and accosted one of their famously grouchy clerks: "I would like to buy a proper tarte tatin pan."
I ended up splurging on two heavy copper pans, one about the size of a 9-inch tarte pan with 2-inch sides and tiny copper "ears," and the other a generous 13 inches in diameter - I guess because it reminded me of those big tartes I'd longed for.
I've been happily making tarte tatin since, mostly in the smaller pan but occasionally in that grand one, which will serve 10 and counting.
I love standing by the stove, keeping watch as the butter and sugar mixture caramelizes. It sputters up between the apple wedges, sending the smell of burnt sugar and apple through the house.
I've tried lots of recipes and eventually worked out the simplest. Not for me the usual puff pastry. I make mine with a classic pate brisee, which takes just minutes to make.
After I tried New York chef Jean-George Vongerichten's version, I no longer even make the caramel first. His method (detailed in his book Home Cooking With Jean-Georges) works just as well. He basically smooshes the butter together with the sugar and spreads it out in the bottom of the pan and arranges the tightly packed apples on top. Then he turns the fire on high and waits for the butter and sugar to caramelize. Caution: If the flame is too low, the apples will start giving up their juice before the caramelization takes place and it will be hard to get that characteristic deep amber color.
Note also that you don't have to use a copper pan. A cast-iron pan (or any heavy skillet that can go into the oven) works just as well.
Choosing the right apple is important. The usual is Golden Delicious, which are available almost everywhere. Granny Smiths work well, too. Do investigate the old varieties at farmer's markets. Ask the vendors which varieties make great baking apples. Some come into season for only a few weeks, but you should be able to find Braeburn or Cox. I do recall liking a tarte made with black Arkansas apples I found at a farmers' market one year.
It takes close to five pounds of apples to make a 9-inch tarte tatin (the apples shrink as they cook). Even so, I find it pays to use the larger pan. The leftovers are wonderful the next afternoon with a fresh cup of coffee.
Makes 1 (9-inch) tarte (about 8 servings)
For pate brisee (flaky pastry):
1 cup flour
Pinch of salt
6 tablespoons chilled butter
3 tablespoons ice water or more if needed
For tarte tatin:
6 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup sugar
8 to 10 (5 pounds) apples, Golden Deli-
cious or similar, peeled, cored, and halved
Creme fraiche or crema Mexicana
1. To make the pastry: In a bowl, combine the flour and salt. Cut the butter into half-inch pieces. Using a pastry blender or two knives, cut the butter into the flour until the butter is the size of peas. Sprinkle it with the ice water, a tablespoon at a time, fluffing with a fork, until the dough sticks together when you try to form a ball. Form into a flat disk and cover with plastic wrap. Refrigerate for at least a half-hour. 2. To make the tarte: In a copper tarte tatin pan or cast-iron skillet, mix the butter into the sugar with your fingers. Spread it out in an even layer over the pan. Starting at the outside, place the apple halves standing up in the butter-sugar mixture, each fitting into the next as though they're spooning. Fit as many halves as you can into the center. Don't worry that the apples are taller than the pan; they'll shrink as they cook.
3. Place the pan or skillet on a burner turned to high and cook until the butter-sugar mixture bubbles up between the apples and turns medium amber. This can take 15 to 25 minutes. Don't be afraid. The only mistake you can make is keeping the flame too low so the juice exudes from the apples before the sugar is caramelized. As the bottoms of the apples soften, press down with a wooden spoon or spatula.
4. Heat the oven to 400 degrees.
5. Remove the pan from the heat and set aside to cool slightly while you roll out the pastry dough.
6. On a floured board, roll out the pastry to 12 inches in diameter. Carefully place on top of the caramelized apples, trimming so there's just an inch extra as a border. Tuck the border in around the apples.
7. Place the pan on the middle oven rack. Bake for 35 minutes or until the pastry is set and browned.
8. Cool the tarte in the pan. Just before serving, warm the tart on the stovetop. Place a serving plate on top and invert the tarte onto the plate. Serve in wedges with a big dollop of creme fraiche or crema Mexicana. (If you use crema Mexicana, add a pinch of sugar to counterbalance its tartness.)
Each of 8 servings: 374 calories; 2 grams protein; 5 grams carbohydrates; 4 grams fiber; 18 grams fat; 11 grams saturated fat; 46 mg cholesterol; 37 grams sugar; 20 mg sodium.