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Tarte Tatin

French Tarte Tatin is caramelized "upside-down" pie, and is a signature French dish most typically made with apples.

According to legend, the Tarte Tatin was invented at the end of the 19th century in the town of Lamotte-Beuvron in central France. There are actually several competing stories about how the dessert was first created, but the most popular version claims it was first served by the the Tatin sisters, who managed a well known hotel in Lamotte-Beuvron that still exists today under the name of Hotel Tatin. Stephanie Tatin, the sister who did most of the cooking for the hotel's restaurant, was preparing an apple pie one day. As the story goes, she let the apples, sugar and butter cook unwatched for too long and the mixture started to caramelize and burn. Wishing to save the dish, she covered it with a pie crust and then baked it in the oven. According to this story, the hotel guests were delighted by the results, and tarte tatin was born. The story probably owes more to good marketing than historical fact, as "upside down" pies (either apple or pear) were previously known in the Sologne region where Lamotte-Beuvron is located.

The recipe gained fame due to the efforts of food critic Maurice Edmond Sailland, who wrote under the pen name of Curnonsky. Although the two sisters never named the dish, Curnonsky wrote many books dedicated to regional and provincial cuisine as well as the best restaurants in France. In 1926, in a book covering the region of Orleans, he published a recipe which he named Tarte Tatin. The dish really took off when it became a featured dish in the 1930's as "tarte des demoiselles Tatin" (Tatin sister's tarte). Louis Vaudable, the owner of Maxims, claims to have learned about the recipe directly from the Tatin sisters themselves; however Vaudable, who was born in 1902, was only 4 years old when the sisters retired from working in the hotel, and the Vaudable family didn't acquire Maxims until 1932, casting a more than a dollop of doubt on his story.

Nowadays this pie is a classic French dish served in many restaurants. It differs in taste and consistency from either standard apple pies or other sorts of tartes where the fruit is less well-cooked. Felicity Cloake of the Guardian described Tarte Tatin as "a glorious sticky sweet toffee-topped French treat and one of the things apples most want to be when they grow up." Choosing the right apples is extremely important. You need apples that are firm and will stand up to prolonged cooking without breaking apart. Granny Smith, Braeburn, Pink Lady, McIntosh, Pippin, Winesap (the editor's all-time favorite apple!), and Golden Delicious are all good choices. Some cooks use more than one kind. As having too much juice in the resulting tarte will make the pastry soggy, Gordon Ramsay suggests peeling and slicing the apples a day before and storing them in your refrigerator uncovered.

Tarte Tatin is usually served with some whipped cream or a scoop of vanilla ice cream. French tarte purists, however, see such complements as abominations. In 1979, an association called the Confrérie des Lichonneux de Tarte Tatin de Lamotte-Beuvron was founded. Its aim is to have the traditional recipe of the famous dessert of the Tatin sisters upheld with the utmost respect. For the members, the pie is always served plain, without cream. Some purists also forgo any sort of additional flavoring such as cinnamon, vanilla, or brandy.

Although there are only a handful of ingredients in Tarte Tatin, there is wide disagreement as to the optimal way to prepare the dish. Julia Child says to mix all the ingredients in a pie pan, top with a crust and bake it in an oven. Unfortunately this method does not result in as much caramelization as might be desirable. Other cooks suggest assembling the dish in the way Child recommends, but then simmering it on a stove top before it is baked in the oven. Larousse recommends cooking everything (without the crust) on the stove-top until it turns a golden brown. Martha Stewart's recipe calls for caramelizing the sugar and water first, then adding the butter, followed by arranging the apples in the skillet and cooking on low for 20 minutes.

There is also a large variation in the way different recipes say you should cut the apples. Many recipes call for simply cutting them in half and arranging them in a single layer. Others call for quartering the apples, and yet other recipes call for slicing the apples thinner. Some suggest a mixture of halves and quarters. Some recipes are arithmetically challenged, showing pictures of completed tartes that have far more halves than twice the number of apples called for in the list of ingredients!

Most recipes call for using a cast iron skillet for preparing the tarte. It is important that the filling comes as close to the top rim of the pan as possible before the crust is laid on to prevent everything becoming a big mess when the tarte is flipped over on its crust.

Most often, a normal pie crust (aka pate brisee or shortcut pastry) is used, while some versions use filo dough.

Ingredients:

Preparation:

  1. Peel the apples and cut them in half. Cut out the apple cores with a spoon. Cut half of the halves once again to make quarters. Set aside. If time permits, store the apples uncovered in your refrigerator for a day.
  2. In a skillet, simmer the water and sugar until it turns golden brown.
  3. Stir in the butter.
  4. Place the apple halves in the skillet, packing them tightly with cut side up. Fill in the cracks on top until the apples crown the skillet.
  5. Cook on medium low until the apples turn golden brown. From time to time, flatten down with a spatula. Try not to burn the filling.
  6. Dust the apples with vanilla sugar and cinnamon.
  7. Remove from the heat and cover with a pie crust. Press well and tuck in the edges of the crust.
  8. Cook in the oven at 350F for 35 to 40 minutes.
  9. Eat lukewarm with some whipping cream, vanilla ice cream, or if you are a Tarte Tatin purist, plain.

Bon Appétit!

Recipe and photo by Manon Nectoux

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