COOKING THE CLASSICS: TARTE TATIN
A closer look at the Tarte Tatin, the traditional French upside down caramelized apple tart very easy to prepare.
I remember Tarte Tatin from youthful summers in France, where my mother was teaching, while my father and I did a lot of eating. This is perhaps the most ubiquitous of French desserts, along with chocolate mousse, to be found at restaurants grand and humble, from Brittany to the Languedoc. I remember having eaten Tarte Tatin flambéed in calvados, an apple brandy that brings out the inherent apple-ness of the dish, and topped with vanilla ice cream, which runs down the edges of the still-warm tart.
I’ll state this straight from the start: Tarte Tatin is the easiest recipe I believe I’ve made over the many years of this column. I am a fool in the kitchen, so I can safely say that this is fool-proof. Normally, this column is studded with dashes of comedy relief - my burning this, or setting fire to that, or grumbling about having to clean too many dishes after. This one I got right the first time, and every time, and it’s always been a hit with guests and family.
THE HISTORY OF TARTE TATIN
The name of Tarte Tatin comes from the Hotel Tatin, which is just south of Paris, in Lamotte-Beuvron. A pair of sisters, Caroline and Stephanie Tatin, ran the hotel in the early 1880s. Stephanie, the story goes, was baking for the day’s meal, and had intended to make a traditional apple pie (with crust on top and on the side, not just the bottom). Distracted that day, she left the sliced apples (two regional varieties, Calville and Reine des Reinettes) to sauté in butter and sugar too long, and they began to burn. To avoid them browning further and to turn the sauté into steaming, she tossed a round of pie dough atop the apples, and then slid the whole thing, pan and all, into a hot oven. The result, a tarte (with crust only on the bottom) rather than pie, was a big hit and word traveled, making it a draw for guests, who would journey to the Hotel Tatin to taste the unusual delicacy.
The historians who are suspicious of cute origin stories like this one say that a tart like this was already traditional in this region of Sologne, but I’m the sort of historian who, given a split opinion, tends to prefer the cute origin story, to the murkier, more open-ended one.
The fame of the Tarte Tatin was sealed when the fabled chef of Maxim’s, Louis Vaudable, wrote about it with such glowing praise, in a quote worth quoting in full:
“I used to hunt around Lamotte-Beuvron as a young man, and one day discovered, in a tiny hotel run by a pair of old ladies, a marvelous dessert, referred to as Tarte Solgnote on the menu. I asked the staff about the recipe, but they would not tell me. Not easily dissuaded, I came back and managed to get myself hired as a gardener for the hotel. I was fired in just three days later, as it was clear that I was incapable of even planting cabbage, but that was enough time for me to infiltrate the kitchen and extract its secrets. I brought the recipe back to Paris and put it on my menu as Tarte des Demoiselles Tatin.”
A great story, but the stuff of legend. The Tatin sisters died in 1911 and 1917, and the Vaudable family only bought Maxim’s in 1932. But the glitter of the story survived and helped make this tasty, super easy dessert omnipresent throughout France.
TARTE TATIN: THE RECIPE
The recipe of Tarte Tatin is so concise that, unusually, I can actually include the recipe here.
Behold: Preheat oven to 180/375. Peel and slice apples into 1-2 cm thick slices. Rub butter all over the bottom of a sauté pan (preferably a cast-iron one). Scatter brown sugar atop the buttered pan. Lay apple slices flat inside the buttery, sugar pan, in a pattern if you like, and as tightly as possible. Put on the burner. The butter and sugar will start to bubble around the apple slices, browning them. Scatter some cinnamon and a splash of brandy, rum or calvados (if you’re being authentic) atop the apple slices as they bubble.
Then lay pie dough over the apple slices, so they are covered, tucking the edges of the dough around the edges of the apples on the extremities of the pan. Let it cook a few minutes longer, now tented in dough. Then transfer the pan directly to the oven and cook until the top of the dough is nicely golden-browned. When it’s ready, remove from the oven and place an inverted plate over the tart. Then flip the whole thing over, so the tart ends up falling out of the pan, right-side-up, onto the plate. Voilà, you’re done!
This is one I’ve now made with my daughters, aged 2.5 and 4.5, which is a testament to how simple it is. I even make my own alternative varieties, caramelizing bananas and pears along with the apples. I call it Tart Charney. If only I can get a famous chef to write about going undercover to steal my recipe, we’ll really be onto something!