There are plenty of reasons to enjoy apples this season. For me it's because they make the best desserts. With apples so plentiful at farmers' markets and supermarkets this time of year, I love to make tarts. There's just something special about an apple tart particularly apple tarte Tatin, one of the most classic of the French tarts. It's a dessert that can be called both comforting and elegant. Supposedly, as the story goes, the Tatin sisters invented the dessert by accident while attempting to make an apple tart to serve their hotel guests. The dish became so popular that its fame spread throughout the Sologne region. It's now known throughout the world. It seems that the best things are almost always invented accidentally.
Traditionally tarte Tatin starts out by melting butter in a skillet and adding sugar to make a caramel. Then apple quarters are added and cooked until tender. A round of pastry dough tops the apples and the whole skillet is placed in the oven. In my adaptation, I use brown sugar for its fullness of flavor, and add a pinch of cinnamon and a dash of brandy for that extra bit of goodness. Instead of cooking the apples in the caramel, which either tends to overcook them or burn the caramel, I just place the apples in the pan, cover with pastry, and bake. Serve a slice warm with a dollop of crème fraîche or a scoop of vanilla ice cream and it's the perfect dessert after a cozy dinner or any time when the caving hits.
For this recipe I made my own puff pastry, which is a feat in itself. The French call it mille-feuille, or a thousand layers. Puff pastry practically has that many layers. The recipe would also work very well with store-bought puff pastry or a regular pie crust recipe. But I think the tart is that much more decadent with puff pastry. For me the tender flaky and buttery pastry was worth making for the sheer pleasure of eating it. The secret to making puff pastry is folding it six times and refrigerating in between steps. The dough and butter must be cold. If things start to warm up, just stick the dough back in the refrigerator. This video of Michel Richard and Julia Child is a great primer on making puff pastry.
Apple Tarte Tatin
Note: Firm, eating apples work better in this recipe than do cooking apples, which become mushy.
4 large or 6 medium apples
1 lemon, juiced
4 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1 tablespoon brandy
1/2 pound puff pastry, recipe follows
Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
Peel, core, and quarter apples. Toss with lemon juice.
Melt butter in an 11- or 12-inch oven-proof skillet over medium-high heat. Add sugar and cinnamon, stirring until melted and bubbling. Remove from heat and add brandy. Arrange apple quarters cut side up.
On a well-floured work surface, roll out puff pastry to 1/4-inch thick. Cut a disc a bit larger than skillet. Slash a few vent holes in the dough. Place dough over apples, tucking in edges. Bake tart until apples are tender and puff pastry is golden, about 25 to 30 minutes. Let cool 5 to 10 minutes, then carefully invert onto a plate. Yield: 8 slices.
Adapted from a recipe by Michel Richard in Baking with Julia by Dorie Greenspan.
2-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1-1/4 cups cake flour
1-1/2 teaspoons salt
1-1/4 cups ice water
2 cups (4 sticks) chilled unsalted butter
Combine flours and salt in a food processor. Pulse to aerate. Add the water and pulse until a ball forms. Remove and form into a disc. Slash the top in a tic-tac-toe pattern. Wrap in a damp towel and refrigerate for about 5 minutes.
Meanwhile, place the butter between two sheets of plastic wrap and beat with a rolling pin until about 1-inch thick. Refrigerate until ready to use.
Unwrap the dough and place on a well-floured work surface, preferably marble or granite. Flatten and roll the dough into a large square. Roll the edges thin while keeping the center thicker. Place the butter in the middle of the dough and fold over the corners overlapping like an envelope. Press the rolling pin against the edges, making sure the package is square.
Make sure the work surface, dough, and rolling pin are well-floured. Roll the package of dough into a rectangle, three times as long as it is wide. Brush off any excess flour. Fold the dough in thirds, up from the bottom and down from the top, like a business letter. Rotate the dough counter-clockwise so that the closed fold is to the left.
Roll the dough into a rectangle again, and fold into thirds again. The second turn is now complete. Wrap the dough in plastic and refrigerate for 30 minutes to 1 hour.
Repeat again twice, wrap, and refrigerate. Then repeat again twice to equal six folds. Wrap the dough in plastic and refrigerate until ready to use. Leftover dough can be wrapped in plastic and frozen. Defrost before using. Yield: 2-1/2 pounds pastry.