Sing a song of long ago
When things were green
And mornings slow
And people stopped to say "hello"
(Now they say hi to you)
Would you like to come over for tea
With the missus and me?
It's a real nice way to spend a day in Dayton Ohio
On a lazy Sunday afternoon in nineteen hundred and three...
-- Randy Newman, Dayton, OH - 1903
I love having friends over on a Sunday afternoon for tea. It does seem to hearken back to an earlier age. Also, it's a good excuse to bake the kind of sweets that I rarely make for the Critic and myself. (I get enough blame as it is for any weight he puts on...) Last Saturday our friends David and Matina brought over their young son Alexandros, who at eleven weeks was sadly unable to share our tart. (And to be strictly accurate, we drank sparkling wine to celebrate the births of our sons rather than tea.) Still, it was tea-time and a good excuse to light the oven and make a nice slow dessert like tarte tatin.
Tarte Tatin is a good recipe for a lazy Sunday afternoon (in two thousand and five). The timing is fairly relaxed and you shouldn't try to make it under a short deadline. I'm sure it wouldn't work; this is such a lazy pie. If you have the time, though, it's well worth the effort. It only requires the kind of ingredients you are likely to have in your kitchen in the winter: apples, sugar, flour, butter. The recipe I adapted from an epicurious one also used crème fraîche, but, sadly, this fattening item is nearly always in our kitchen too!
For the filling:
3-4 large Golden Delicious apples (or any good baking variety)
1/3 cup butter (about 50 grams)
1/2 cup sugar (about 65 grams)
a sprinkling of cinnamon
For the crust:
1 cup all purpose flour
1 Tbs sugar
pinch of salt
1/2 cup unsalted butter, cut in small pieces
1 heaping tablespoon crème fraîche or 2 Tbs sour cream (it doesn't heap so well)
flour for dusting and rolling and possibly a teaspoon of ice water
For a true tarte tatin, you'll need a pan that can be used on the stovetop as well as in the oven. I used a heavy-bottomed frying pan with a wooden handle; if you have a cast-iron one it's even better. With a thick metal bottom to your pan, you can slowly create a nice even caramel on the apples. Melt the butter in the bottom of your pan and sprinkle the sugar over it. Swish it around a bit once the sugar starts melting into the butter to make sure you have a nice thick even layer. Peel the apples and core them, but keep them in nice large pieces. Ideally, you should just halve them. (As an aside, I recently saw a Delia Smith show where she said the only reason she keeps a melon-baller in her kitchen is to remove the core from the apples neatly when making a tarte tatin. This sounded very clever to me until I reflected that no one SEES the perfectly cored centers of the apples in a tarte tatin. So still no melon baller in our kitchen and I did just fine with a knife.) Why do you want big pieces of apple? Well, aesthetically they look nicer: in restaurants the pie is made up just apple halves. And practically this makes sense as you are going to end up cooking the apples for a long time and don't want to end up with applesauce.
Place the apples rounded side down in the pan with the sugar and butter and turn up the heat under the pan until it starts to bubble up around the apple pieces. Fit the apples in as snugly as you can as they will shrink in the baking process and you want as much apple as possible on each slice of pie. Click here for a picture of my apples, and note the imperfectly-cored-but-soon-to-be-covered apple half in the center!
Leave the apples to cook slowly while you make the pie crust. Put the butter, flour, salt and sugar in a food processor and process on short bursts until the butter is chopped to the size of small peas. Add the crème fraîche or sour cream and process again until just incorporated. At this point, take the lid off the machine and test whether the dough is going to stick together. (It's hard to tell by looking, so pinch a bit with your fingers.) If necessary, add a teaspoon of cold water and mix again. Turn the dough out of the machine and press lightly together. Cover with plastic wrap or tin foil and put in the refrigerator for half an hour.
While the dough is chilling, check the apples from time to time to make sure they are not browning and that the caramel is not getting too dark. If it is, turn down the heat or remove from the heat entirely. Use a small spoon to capture a bit of the sauce bubbling between the apple pieces to taste. If you are a fidgety kind of cook (I am sometimes) give the pan the occasional shake and turn it around so that you make up for your flame being higher on one side or the other of the hob. I also sprinkle a bit of cinnamon on the apples just before they are done; I'm not sure it's strictly necessary but I find it hard to cook apples without cinnamon. It just goes against the grain!
Ten minutes before the dough has finished chilling, turn on the oven to 200c/375f.
When the dough is chilled, turn off the heat under the apples. Unwrap the dough on a floured surface and roll it out to approximately the size of your pan, maybe a little larger. It doesn't have to be perfect because when you lift the dough onto the pan you'll want to tuck the extra bits down and around the apples. If you are missing a bit in one place, tear off some of the excess from elsewhere.
Some recipes call for pricking the dough and/or glazing it with egg. I don't find either necessary really - it doesn't rise much without the pricking and I like the crumbly texture of the dough. Also, I always think glazing is as much for aesthetic reasons as taste ones and no one sees the underside of the dough, right?
Place the pie in the oven for 15-20 minutes, or until the crust is golden and cooked through. What with the 40 minutes or so of stove-top stewing, the apples will already be cooked through anyway and the caramel nearly done.
To turn the pie out of the pan, place a large plate over the pan and use oven mitts to turn over pan and plate together. Do not forget (it is so easy to do!) that the handle of your pan is still hot when you have finished. I escaped with a mild singing of the digits; it could have been worse!
When you remove the pie from the oven, some recipes counsel you to wait five minutes before turning the pie out of its pan. Personally, I would not recommend it because if you do, this might happen:
The same recipes will blithely tell you to just lift any missing apple pieces out and place them back on the pie. (Hm, reconstruct the pie?) Alternatively, they tell you to fit the crust back on the pie (in exactly the same placement) and put the pan over a low heat to remelt the caramel so that it will all come loose at once. My suggestion is: don't wait five minutes but turn out the pie while it's hot and still loose.
Okay, it was my own fault for going against common sense. But the end result once I fished the apple pieces out of the pan wasn't that bad. My only regret is the amount of caramel that remained, hardened, in the bottom of the pan.
In any case, this is not a dessert that is meant to look elegant. To my mind, it speaks of farmhouses and good solid peasant cooking. And the proof being in the tasting of the pudding, it was a complete success: sweet, rich and full of apple goodness. Serve warm (but not hot) with a dollop of crème fraîche or sour cream or plain yogurt to counteract the heavy sweetness of the caramel.