A funny thing happened a couple of years ago while I was listening to NPR in the car. I learned how to make a dessert from the radio. It was an interview with cookbook author Dorie Greenspan on the NPR program All Things Considered. In the course of the story, she actually made a tarte Tatin, from peeling the apples to flipping the nuclear-hot tarte onto a serving plate. I could almost smell the apples caramelizing. It sounded good. It sounded like something I could do. I had a cast iron skillet. Clearly, it was meant to be.
I am not a baker. Aside from the fact that I’m not a dessert aficionado, I’ve just never been very good at the whole finicky process. I like to throw a bunch of things in and taste and throw in some more, and see what happens, and that DOES NOT work when baking. And unlike my talented sister, I don’t have a good hand with dough, either.
But even we dessert skeptics need one foolproof, go-to recipe for a crowd pleasing dessert. Tarte Tatin became mine.
Last Sunday, the Amazing Race dinner parties started up again for the season. When the crew began arriving at Michael’s place, the puff pastry was already rolled out and waiting, quiescent under its waxed paper. I was monitoring a skillet of butter, sugar, and apples that were in the process of caramelizing.
There was a lot of stopping just inside the door and sniffing, and oohing and aahing over the heady rich brown smell of the apples bubbling away in their sugary bath. I draped the pastry on top and put the tarte in the oven to bake while we watched the first episode. It came out perfectly browned and puffed, and oozing with dark brown caramelized juices.
I had to ask Michael to do the all-important flipping of the tarte onto the serving plate because this large version, made in a 12-inch cast iron skillet, is heavy. And very hot. A quick, efficient flip is vitally important and you don’t want to drop this baby.
Once flipped onto the plate, it is best to let the tarte cool for a few minutes, then serve warm with unsweetened crème fraiche–the perfect foil for the sweetness of the apples.
This is a very forgiving recipe that can be increased or decreased as needed to suit the size of your pans or the number of people you are serving. When I make it in a 9-inch skillet, I use only one sheet of puff pastry.
(adapted from Baking: From My Home to Yours, by Dorie Greenspan)
Makes 12 servings
- 2 sheets frozen puff pastry, thawed
- 10 tbsp butter
- 1 cup sugar
- About 12 sweet firm apples (I like Fuji), peeled, cored and quartered
Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Use an 11- or 12-inch cast iron pan or a tarte Tatin pan. You’ll also need a large, rimmed serving plate for the tart.
On a floured surface, place one sheet of puff pastry on top of the other, and roll out the dough. Using a paring knife, cut the dough into a circle 1 inch larger than the diameter of the pan you’re using. Prick the dough all over with the tines of a fork and transfer it to a baking sheet. Cover the dough and refrigerate it while you work on the apples.
Put the skillet over medium heat and add the butter. When it melts, tilt the pan so that the sides have a thin coating of melted butter. Sprinkle the sugar over the butter. Remove from the heat.
Fit a layer of apples into the skillet, putting the apples into the pan rounded side down and making concentric circles. Pack the apples tightly. Because they will shrink as they cook, you want to make sure they are snug in the pan. When you’ve got a tight single layer, slice the remaining apple quarters in half and strew them over the first layer.
Put the pan over medium heat and cook until the sugar thickens and turns a deep caramel color. You’ll see it bubbling up the sides of the pan, but if you need a clearer view, you can gently push an apple aside. To get the color you want without burning the sugar, you may have to lower the heat after a while. This could take anywhere from 15 to 45 minutes.
Center the pastry over the fruit, loosely tucking in any overhang. Bake for 30 to 40 minutes, or until the pastry is baked through and puffed.
Cover the skillet with the large, rimmed serving plate and (making sure you’re wearing good oven mitts) quickly turn the tart out onto the platter and remove the pan. If any of the apples have stuck to the pan, lift them off the pan and press them gently back onto the tart.
Let cool for at least 10 minutes before serving. Top with crème fraiche.