Several formulas for an apple tart appear in the great canon of French pastry, but only one provokes fear: the tarte tatin, a caramelized apple upside-down pastry. “People think you have to start with a caramel, and that seems to scare them off,” says Renée Senne, a private chef. I used to work for Senne, at the eponymous restaurant she ran for 16 years in Ithaca, N.Y., and that’s where I learned how to make her tatin — a recipe so marvelously dependable I quickly memorized it. But like almost every other recipe ever invented, there’s more than one way to make a tatin.
According to common lore, the tart is the result of a happy accident at the Hotel Tatin in Lamotte-Beuvron, two hours south of Paris by train. The two sisters who owned the hotel in the 1850s, Stéphanie and Caroline Tatin, were busy one Sunday preparing for a glut of guests. In the kitchen, Stéphanie, in a rush, fitted apples into a pan for an apple tart, forgetting to put the crust in first. She decided to go with it, allegedly caramelizing the apples with butter and sugar on the stove, topping them with the forgotten pastry, baking it to set the crust, and then inverting the newly created tarte tatin onto a plate to the delight of all.
Tourists still travel to the Hotel Tatin for its famous tart, which is now made around the world — and at pastry shops up and down the street from the hotel. But almost no one believes this origin story, noting that French recipes for upside-down apple tarts date to the late 1700s, and that cooks in the area surrounding Lamotte-Beuvron, Sologne, have long made an almost identical dish, the tarte solognote. Two separate regional associations exist solely to promote and protect the tarte tatin, but the Tatin sisters never wrote their recipe down, and probably never gave it its name: That honor goes to the famous French food writer, Curnonsky, who discovered the tart in the 1920s and wrote about le Tarte des Demoiselles Tatin in “Larousse Gastronomique,” first published in 1938.
Nevertheless, the tart’s unique preparation and flavor have turned it into a lasting sensation. If you’ve never had a good one, prepare to be impressed. This is not hyperbole. I served the tart last Thanksgiving, and a guest dropped his fork after one bite, put his hands up to stop the conversation, and said, “What is this amazing thing, and how did you make it?”
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First impressions, in France or at home, are of a dessert that is more than meets the eye: It’s a brown lump — though pastry chefs try to dress it up by cutting the apples decoratively or glazing it so it glistens. But a taste of a good tatin makes the mouth water and puzzles the brain momentarily. You’ve had apples and sugar and butter before, you think, but you’ve never had this. Made from just a handful of ingredients, it gives nothing away because it’s all in the technique — and one that’s easily mastered at home.
Here are some keys to success:
Keep the heat low. Some chefs, such as Greg Lloyd at Washington’s Le Diplomate and Anne Specker at Kinship and Métier, start with a ripping hot caramel. But when you make caramel out of molten sugar and then add cold apples, the hot sugar can sputter angrily. There is an easier way. “We always started with a pan of butter and sugar,” Senne recalls. “You melt unsalted butter in a pan over low heat, and then add sugar, just enough so it absorbs into the melted butter until the mixture looks like wet sand.” Then, you stand peeled and cored apple halves in the pan, packing them tightly, and cook it all on a low flame until the apples are deeply caramelized. “The low flame is important, because it allows the apples to slowly dehydrate and release their moisture into the caramel,” Senne notes.
I asked Francisco Migoya, head chef at Modernist Cuisine in Seattle, to break it down for me. “What’s happening, chemically, when you cook apples in sugar and butter very slowly is that the water in the apple is evaporating and being replaced by sugar, causing it to become translucent. Then, the pectin the apples contain is being activated as they heat up, creating a gel-like texture, which is enhanced when the sugar interacts with the apple’s malic acid,” he says. Butter helps form a soft caramel and adds flavor.
Longtime pastry chef Jacques Torres, co-host of the Netflix hit “Nailed It!,” said he considered every factor when he developed his recipe for tarte tatin, published in his first cookbook, “Dessert Circus” (1997). It’s a lot like Senne’s version. “You don’t need to start with a caramel,” he said. “Apples contain so much pectin that if you cook them with sugar they will caramelize and set. They don’t need much help.”
Pick the right apple. Torres likes Golden Delicious, as does Senne, who learned the recipe when she studied at Anne Willan’s French cooking school, La Varenne. “Chef Fernand Chambrette was my teacher, and he always talked about ‘les Goldens,’ ” Senne recalls. “That was the only apple we used because it held its shape and had an interesting, not-too-candy-sweet flavor.”
In Sologne, the Reine de Reinette is the old favorite for upside-down apple tarts, but Gala and Golden Delicious are also used. Migoya likes Granny Smiths, but Senne and Torres wrinkle their noses at this suggestion. Pastry chef Pichet Ong of Brothers and Sisters at the Line Hotel in Washington says any apple can be employed. In short, if you’re a seasoned chef, it’s a matter of preference. But for the home cook, I always strongly suggest Golden Delicious or Gala for the highest chance for success.
Skip the puff pastry. So many great chefs, including Lloyd, Torres and Daniel Skurnick at Le Coucou in New York, swear by puff pastry. “It offers this crisp counterpoint to the soft apples,” Skurnick says. Torres and Skurnick bake the pastry separately — not on top of the apples, as is traditional — to ensure it stays crisp, before inverting the apples onto it just before serving. This textural contrast can indeed be nice — if you’re at a restaurant and someone else is doing all the work. Puff pastry is an incredible dough, but unless it’s made properly, baked perfectly and kept at the right humidity, it has a tendency to get slightly damp and tough. That means a slice on the plate will require the use of a knife.
“You should be able to eat any dessert with a fork or a spoon,” says Senne, and I tend to agree. She specifies a pâte sablée, a traditional French tart crust, for her tatin. I often go another route and use a round of pie dough. It’s flaky but not as flaky as puff pastry; soft, but sturdy enough to hold its own against the caramel-drenched apple pillows, the real star of the show.
I think the Tatin sisters would approve.
Galarza is a writer, reporter and former pastry chef. She is based in New York City.
1 recipe pie dough, homemade or store-bought (see related recipe, link below)
8 large Golden Delicious apples (about 1800 grams or 4 pounds)
7 tablespoons (100 grams) unsalted butter, cut into pieces
1 cup (200 grams) granulated sugar
Vanilla ice cream, creme fraiche, creme anglaise or caramel sauce for serving (optional)
Using a lightly floured rolling pin, roll out the pie dough on a lightly floured surface to about 1/8- to 1/4-inch thick. Take the skillet you will cook the apples in and place it upside down on the pastry, then use a sharp knife to cut around the perimeter of the skillet. Refrigerate the circle of dough until ready to use.
Use a vegetable peeler to peel the apples. Cut the apples in half from top to bottom through their core. Using a melon baller, scoop out the seeds from each half. Using a small sharp knife, trim away any core or stem.
In a ovenproof 10-inch, stainless steel — nonstick or not — high-sided skillet, over medium-low heat, melt the butter. Turn off the heat and sprinkle the sugar over the melted butter, letting it completely absorb, until it looks like wet sand.
Arrange 13 apple halves, stem side down, atop the sugar and butter in a circle at the perimeter of the pan. Apples should be nestled very tightly together. Fit the remaining three apple halves into the center. (If you can’t fit all the apple pieces in, continue with the recipe; you’ll be able to add additional halves as the fruit cooks and starts to shrink.)
Over medium-low heat, bring the mixture to a rapid simmer for about 5 minutes. Turn the heat to very low, and cook, rotating the pan occasionally, for 60 to 70 minutes. (Within the first 10 minutes of cooking, the apples will begin to shrink. This is when you can wiggle any additional pieces into the pan.) Keep an eye on the apples as they cook. They will release their juices as the sugar begins to caramelize. Lower the heat further if the juices start to bubble up over the side of the pan. As the apples shrink, with a spoon or spatula, coax them to lean on one another, as this will produce a prettier tart once inverted.
After about 1 hour, the apples will have shrunk significantly. Using a fork or tongs, gently pluck one out to check the color. The parts of the apples that were in contact with the pan should be between toasted hazelnut and deep chestnut in color. Turn off the heat, and cool slightly, at least 30 minutes. (At this point, the apples may be cooled, covered and refrigerated in the pan for up to 2 days. Rewarm over low heat before proceeding with the recipe.)
Place the rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 400 degrees.
Retrieve the dough from the refrigerator and gently lay it over the apples.
Place the skillet on a large, rimmed baking sheet and put it in the oven. Bake the tart 35 to 40 minutes, until the pastry is the color of almond skin.
Let the tart cool in the pan for 1 to 2 minutes. Place a plate that’s slightly larger than the skillet on top, ensuring that the rim clears the edge of the skillet on all sides. Using oven mitts, grip the pan in one hand and plate in the other and, over a sink, quickly and carefully flip the hot skillet — away from you — so the tart inverts onto the plate.
The tart may have shifted in its descent; use a spoon to nudge the apples back into formation. Let cool for at least 20 minutes, then serve as is, or with vanilla ice cream, creme fraiche, creme anglaise or caramel sauce.
Adapted by Daniela Galarza from recipes created by Jacques Torres, Fernand Chambrette and Renée Senne.
Tested by Ann Maloney; email questions to email@example.com.
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Calories: 420; Total Fat: 21 g; Saturated Fat: 14 g; Cholesterol: 55 mg; Sodium: 140 mg; Carbohydrates: 56 g; Dietary Fiber: 4 g; Sugars: 38 g; Protein: 3 g.