Whenever I play the name-the-best-meals-of-your-life game, I always include the lunch my mother took me to at La Brasserie. At age 13, I thought the restaurant, housed in a townhouse on Capitol Hill, an impossibly elegant desination. I felt very grown up as I dipped my spoon into the bowl of cold pepper soup that was divided, as if by magic, into a red half and a yellow half. But the real wizardry came when the waiter arrived with my tarte Tatin. The caramelized upside-down apple dessert was the size of a large dinner plate.
To this day I make no apologies for eating all of the buttery pastry and soft, sweet apples, and scraping up the burnt sugar still stuck to the plate. I was already in middle school, that swamp of romantic notions and raging hormones, so tarte Tatin was not my first love. But it was one of my most enduring.
I’m not alone in my obsession with tarte Tatin. There is a Web site dedicated to it, of course, TarteTatin.org, which is maintained by the Friends of the Tarte Tatin. French culinary historian Henri Delétang published a book, “La Tarte Tatin: Histoire et Légendes,” in 2011. One popular origin myth is that one of the Tatin sisters forgot to line a pie plate with pastry before pouring in apples that had been cooked in butter and sugar. Rather than start again, she laid the pastry on top and flipped the tart over to serve. The truth is that upside-down tarts, or tartes renversées, had been around long before they were branded tartes Tatins.
Food writers have made pilgrimages to the presumptive birthplace of the dessert, the Hotel Tatin in France’s Loire Valley, in search of the very best expression of the dish. But the only thing these writers agree on is that it is not found at the Hotel Tatin.
I must admit it was years before the idea of actually making a tarte Tatin crossed my mind. So revered was the dish to me that it seemed arrogant to think that I could make one, the equivalent of setting out to paint a Picasso or, in my case, to become the next M.F.K. Fisher.
In fact, despite the endless discussions of how to make the perfect tarte Tatin, it’s remarkably simple. The recipe is one for the digital age, easily written in 140 characters with some to spare: Make caramel. Add peeled apples. Top with pastry. Bake till bubbling. Flip onto plate to serve. Even better, I discovered, is that the dessert can be made in advance. Which means, as with the now-trite molten chocolate cake, you can wow your dinner guests and still enjoy your party.
A classic tarte Tatin uses a flaky pâte brisée. Inspired by Washington pastry chef David Guas’s sweet potato version, I have switched to store-bought puff pastry, which cuts my prep time to 20 minutes. The morning I plan to serve it, I heat sugar until it is a bubbling, dark butterscotch brown, then pour it into a cast-iron skillet. I top it with a fan of peeled pears (or apples or peaches, depending on the season), then sprinkle it with crystallized ginger. A round of puff pastry goes on top, and the whole thing goes into the fridge. The only thing left to do is pop it into the oven as the guests sit down to dinner. Unveiled at the table, the tart of sticky caramelized fruit is guaranteed to elicit wows and sometimes, as it deserves, applause.
Black, a former Food section staffer, is a writer living in Brooklyn.