In search of the perfect tarte tatin
tarte tatin, the upside-down apple tart that was created by accident at the Hotel Tatin in Lamotte-Beuvron by Stéphanie and Caroline Tatin. Unlike most tarts, you caramelise the fruits (usually apples) first and leave them at the bottom of the pan. You then put the pastry on top of the fruits and bake it like that in the oven. You take the tart out and invert it to serve so that it's fruits up, pastry down.
This method of preparation is meant to avoid a soggy pastry because the pastry is placed on top of rather than beneath the fruits. After years of continuous frustration, whether at home or at restaurant, I am convinced that it is a myth. The baking process extracts so much juice from the fruits that, more often than not, the juice drowns the hard-won pastry into a sad, soggy mess when you invert the tart, and all your naive hopes for a crisp tart are ruthlessly crushed. Apples tend to be more forgiving, but with a juicy fruit like pears or peaches, you're almost guaranteed that your finished tart will be swamped with fruit juices. It's in moments like this that I curse myself for bothering to put a pastry crust there in the first place. Incidentally, I used to have two friends in London who, believe or not, preferred a swamped, soggy pastry (and croissants) to a dry, crisp one. I am gratified to know that one of them has repented and changed his mind since then.
Despite these pitfalls, I was convinced that there must be ways one could undertake to preserve the glory of a tarte tatin with beautifully caramelised fruits and divinely crisp pastry. Water is the sworn enemy of a proper tarte tatin, I have tried various ways to eliminate it as far as I can. Here's how I go about it.
|Beautifully fragrant pears from Xinjiang, China (庫爾勒香梨) that have a crunchy texture perfect for baking, but they're also extremely juicy. If you use a 'normal' pear, make sure they're under-ripe.|
Tarte tatin aux poires
I do much prefer pears to apples for tarte tatin for they don't turn sour in the way that apples do when cooked. Use a lot more fruits than you think could fit the pan: the fruits will shrink considerably after cooking, and you want as much fruits as you can. For this reason, I've eschewed the whole thing about caramelising the fruits in the pan you plan to bake it in. It makes much more sense to pre-cook the fruits in a roomier saucepan and then transfer the fruits (which are now much reduced in volume) to the baking pan.
7-8 pears (or apples), under-ripe and crisp
125g (1/2 cup plus 2 tbsp) sugar
Pinch of salt
30g (2 tbsp) butter
300g puff pastry, homemade or store-bought
A 20cm/8-inch cake pan, not springform
Set a rack in the centre of the oven and preheat to 170C/325F.
Roll the pastry to a circle about an inch or two bigger than the baking pan. Set aside in the fridge.
Peel, core and cut the fruits to your liking at least a day before you plan to bake the tart. I like to have quarters save a half slice for the centre of the tart. Leave the slices in a single layer on plates and leave to dry out in the fridge. I first read about this technique in Gordon Ramsay's cookbooks. It does help a little but not very noticeably. It's certainly an extra something you could do.
Once I read about the technique of mixing fruits destined for a fruit tart with sugar and a pinch of salt to extract some of the juices and make the fruits preserve their shapes better during baking, I decided I had to try the same approach for tarte tatin. I found that it helped enormously. After a few hours or macerating the fruits, you'd see a considerable amount of syrup running. I'd then drain the juices to a roomy saucepan and start reducing the syrup until it forms a light caramel.
At this stage, add the macerated fruits, and cook them on medium-high heat to partially cook them and make them release more juices, turning from time to time. Do this until the fruits amalgamate beautifully with the caramel, at which point you add a small knob of butter. I find that most recipes use far too much butter for the filling and usually the butter doesn't emulsify with the caramel, leaving a greasing feel on the mouth. Don't forget that a copious amount of butter will drip onto the fruits from the puff pastry during baking anyway!
No, it's not quite done yet. Let the fruits cool in the pan for at least an hour. You'll notice that the stubborn fruit slices would have yielded even more liquid. Despair not: remove the fruits and arrange them in the pan you plan to bake the tarte tatin in. Whack the heat up and reduce the caramel sauce-turned-liquid in the pan again until you see a golden caramel sauce again, not a pool. Pour this lovely elixir onto the fruits - they'll even out during baking. (I like my caramel quite dark, but it's up to you)
Put your pre-rolled pastry - I do believe that puff pastry is best - on top of the fruits. Prick the pastry a few times and bake in the oven for much longer than conventional wisdom tells you. If you bake the pastry for a mere 30-45 minutes, the underneath of the pastry where the it touches the fruits would not have baked fully and wouldn't reach its potential flakiness. Bake it for an hour half and a half at 170C/325F so that it has ample time to attain its maximum crispiness. This prolonged baking time also gives the fruits more time to be candied. This is an idea I read in Bruce Poole's recipe for tarte tatin.
Recipes usually tell you to wait for five minutes before inverting the tart to serve. Don't. The caramel is still liquidy when it's hot, so you'd want to wait for it to cool a little bit for it to harden slightly before inverting. I'd give it at least half an hour. As a precaution - and I do think that this is an awfully important step for guaranteeing a crisp crust - with your gloves on, hold the crust with one hand and tilt the pan with your other hand and let any excessive liquid drip on to a saucepan. Reduce the liquid again if there's any until it's of a saucy consistency. Invert the tart onto a serving plate and pour the caramel reduction all over the tart. You should see a beautifully baked crust and equally beautiful caramelised fruits candied by caramel.
It is of course imperative that you serve this with some sort of cream: vanilla or tea-flavoured ice cream, or crème fraîche for purists. I have to agree with Rick Stein that this is one of the greatest puddings in the world.