April in Paris: Tiny Tarte Tain
There are few things quite as decadent as French pastries and desserts. As someone who does not really bake, there are also few things quite as intimidating to make.
And then there’s the tarte tatin.
It’s intimidating in its own right, but not for the same reasons as most baking. There is ample room to muddle through (except for the crust, but trust me, if I can make this crust, anyone can; the key to to keep everything really, really cold), but the rest is much more like cooking — slightly haphazard with room for mistakes and adjustments — than baking. You can eyeball the caramel and apples, go with your gut. In fact, it’s so much more like cooking than baking that technically, the first time I posted (a version of) this recipe on line was in a series of Facebook comments.
Sure, it’s still a little bit intimidating, but the intimidation will come for some in the timing (you can get over that) and for others in the flipping (that’s what husbands, boyfriends, girlfriends, wives or otherwise more coordinated friends are for). And that’s all going to dissolve after the first time you do it.
If you plan ahead a little on the crust, it’s the perfect for a little bit of weeknight decadence, low on intimidation.
Tiny Tarte Tatin
Serves 2 to 4
For the crust:
4 Tablespoons (1/2 stick) butter, cubed
1 Tablespoon vegetable shortening
1 Tablespoon sugar
6 ounces all-purpose flour
3 to 6 tablespoons ice water
For the filling:
1 large or two small tart apples (Granny Smith, Gala, McIntosh, whatever floats your boat)
4 Tablespoons butter (the other half of the stick), cubed
1/2 cup sugar
For the crust: Mix flour and sugar in the food processor container. Add the cubed butter and shortening and without processing it or anything, put the whole thing (ingredients, container, blade) in the freezer for 15 to 20 minutes to chill. After it’s all cold, process until the biggest pieces of butter are about the size of a pea.
Add ice water about a tablespoon at a time, processing in between until the dough comes together as a crumbly mass (it won’t quite be a smooth ball like pie crust; don’t overprocess or it won’t get flaky). Turn out into a well-floured surface and smoosh together into a ball, then quickly roll out into a 10-ish-inch circle (slightly larger than your pan). Move onto a piece of parchment paper, cookie sheet or plate, cover with plastic wrap and chill in the ‘fridge while you do make the rest of it.
Peel, core and quarter the apples. Cut them into eighths if it’s a particularly large apple (but don’t go any smaller than that as the apple piece will shrink quite a bit as they cook).
Over low heat in a heavy, ovenproof skillet (I like an 8- or 9-inch cast iron frying pan), melt the remaining butter. Add the sugar and stir until combined and golden. Shake the pan so the buttery sugar is spread as evenly as possible across the bottom of the pan.
Off heat, arrange the apple pieces in a pretty circle on their sides like flower petals and a chunk in the middle; really pack ’em in. Put the pan back on high heat and try not to touch it until the sugar is bubbling and turning amber. Take it off the heat and carefully flip over the apples with chopsticks, a sharp knife of the handle of a wooden spoon, keeping them in their same places. Wedge in a fresh slice if they have shrunk considerably and opened up more space (no one will be able to tell, it will get cooked all the way through).
Put it back on high heat until the sugar is even deeper amber, like caramel, and smells awesome — I wish I could give you a time but every pan and stove is different so you have to go by vibe here. Once you hit caramel-but-not-burnt (in The Kitchenette, it’s just under 5 minutes), take the pan off the heat, get the crust out of the ‘fridge and slide it on top. Tuck edges under slightly, being careful not to burn your fingers.
Bake until the top of the crust is golden-brown, about 30-45 minutes. Remove from oven and allow to cool on a rack about 30 minutes.
Run a knife along the edge of the pan to set your tarte tatin free. Put a plate or platter bigger than the pan on top of the pan. Now quickly flip it over and viola! Pretty caramel apple tarte-ness!
Clearly, the flipping is the hard part. The pan will still be hot, so use pot holders! Don’t burn yourself and don’t drop stuff! If you are feeling weak or spazzy, get someone strong and coordinated to do this part; other poeple are generally happy to help make dessert happen in any way they can. If apples stick to the pan, don’t be embarrassed, just carefully pull them off and replace in the flipped tarte. No one will know.