With all the celebrated TV chefs demonstrating their culinary skills and fancy food styling these days, my heart still lies with good old Ms Child. Especially with the film Julie and Julia, the world has rediscovered the delight of her distinctive style of French cooking made available to aspiring cooks.
The film was studded with glorious images of ripe, juicy tomatoes, buttery sauces, decadent desserts, and every other form of eye candy you can imagine. And of course the wonderful light blue-green kitchen where she filmed 3 of her TV cooking shows, which in itself was enough of a motivation for everyone to dive into their own kitchens.
Out of all the recipes featured I picked Tarte Tatin, the classic French upside-down apple tart which was famously created by accident at the Hotel Tatin in Lamotte-Beuvron by the sisters Stéphanie and Caroline Tatin.
One of the most reassuring things about The French Chef was that Julia wasn’t afraid to make mistakes – which is good, cause they happened, and she didn’t have some perfect pre-made version waiting intimidatingly in the wings.
So, when this Tarte Tatin turns out, not a perfect mahogany orb, but, “very badly,” a sad-looking pile of pallid applesauce, well, that’s when the powdered sugar came in handy! But even more important than a ready supply of the white stuff is Julia’s intrepid attitude: life goes on, and sugar and butter always taste good.
(Please note I have adapted Julia’s recipe based on my preference for the apples and the pastry)
Ingredients (Serves 8-10)
3/4 cups sugar
2 to 3 tablespoons water
4 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut up
All-butter piecrust or all-butter frozen puff pastry*
* Julia Child and Larousse Gastronomique leading the shortcrust charge vs. Raymond Blanc and Claire Clark, in the puff camp – but the crust is relatively unimportant in Gallic cuisine so it’s down to personal preference. I prefer the puff pastry as it crisps up sensationally well, which makes a lovely contrast to the butter-soft fruit above *
1. Choose a pan: Copper Tarte Tatin mould will be best but any pan 10″ across at the top and have an oven-proof handle will do the job
2. Peel the apples, quarter them, and cut the cores out. Squeeze half a lemon over them if not using right away.
3. Preheat the oven to 400C. Pour the sugar into the pan and set over medium heat. Add the water, just enough to be absorbed by the sugar. Cook the sugar over medium to medium-high heat, gently swirling the pan to keep it cooking evenly, until it turns a medium-dark amber colour. The very moment it looks dark enough, remove the pan from the heat and gently add the cold butter.
4. Off the heat, add the apples, rounded sides down, in concentric circles, starting on the outside edge of the pan.
5. Return the pan to the stove, and cook the apple mixture, undisturbed, until the apples are softened, and the caramel liquid is starting to thicken. (15-20 minutes)
6. Roll the chilled pastry out until it is 1-2 inches larger than the pan you are using. Place the rolled dough on top of the apples, and tuck it in around the apples. Cut a small vent in the center, place on a baking sheet to catch any drips, and place in the lower third of the oven.
7. Bake for 25-30 minutes, or until the pastry is nicely browned and the caramel is bubbling up around the edges. Let cool slightly, at least 10 minutes, or until you are ready to serve the tart.
8. Run a butter knife around the edges to loosen them, and then place a flat plate on top of the tart. Holding the two firmly together (wear oven mitts if it’s hot), quickly and carefully flip the unit over and place on the counter. Remove the pan.
9. Serve warm, with crème fråiche, if desired.
Making a good Tarte Tatinis all in the technique. The ingredients are simple – apples, butter, and sugar – but the trick is to get a good dark caramel colour and flavour into the apples without overcooking them into a mush.
This French classic turns the Puritan plain apple pie on its head. Instead of soft clouds of sweetly sour apples tucked beneath a comforting blanket of biscuity pastry, the Tatin brazenly displays its wares, stickily caramelised and decadently buttery, on the outside – the humble base reduced to a vehicle for the apples in their sugary finery.
In a Tarte Tatin, however, one wants a simple, clear taste and lookduct. Firmer, eating apples rather than cooking ones would be more suitable for this dish, since softer flesh apples simply won’t hold up to the intense cooking. Half-and-half ratio of Cox’s, which are spicier and more interesting than Braeburns, and Granny Smiths, which help to balance the extreme sweetness of the caramel coating, have been the best combination I have tried so far.
Although a tarte tatin shouldn’t be dry, too much liquid spoils the pastry. Therefore I am delighted to find a tip from the great Gordon Ramsay: peel the apples the day before, and then leave it uncovered in the fridge overnight to dry out.
Traditionally the apples are arranged upright in concentric circles, but, pretty as this looks, it means that only a small section of each piece of fruit is caramelised. The lazier method of using apple halves arranged round-side down to cover the base of the dish is much easier, and gives a greater surface area for toffee coverage.
Toffee apples for grown-ups, the Tarte Tatin is all about the flavour of the fruit – crisp pastry, firm, juicy apples and that sweet, buttery caramel topping, holding everything together.
Learning to cook is a lifelong process that happens to be great fun. Bon appétit!