A day or two before I arrived at my new home in Toulouse, my roommates purchased a huge supply of potatoes (white- and red-skinned), onions, shallots, and two kinds of apples. Apparently there had been a vendor going door-to-door through the neighborhood, selling bulk produce at low prices. I didn't know this type of thing still happened, but I think it's great. Needless to say, we've been eating our fair share of the haul, and we've still barely made a dent in it:
I, personally, have been focusing my culinary attentions on the apples, because they're a ready-made excuse to bake. As I've discussed many times on the blog, I really prefer to cooking to baking, but that said, there's definitely something soothing about the latter. Since I'm in a new place and don't really have a set schedule yet, baking is both a) something to do with an otherwise free afternoon and b) a centering exercise in the face of so much change. I'm also loving baking for a 4-person household, because it means that my creations actually get eaten in a timely fashion. At home, when I lived with just one other roommate, most of my desserts inevitably ended up in the freezer after a few days.
So far I've made three apple desserts and I'm still going strong. So get ready, folks, for a 3-part series on Apple Desserts. I figure I should start out by talking about the most quintessentially French pastry I've made: tarte Tatin. I think tarte Tatin is well-known in the U.S., but I'd wager that American cooks hesitate to make it, and I believe I know why: it's the caramel. Yes, tarte Tatin involves making a caramel, but it's not the fussy sugar-and-water kind that's unpredictable, prone to scorching and sticking to your favorite pot; rather, it's a butter-and-sugar mixture that doesn't burn but turns a rich, dark amber color and fills your entire kitchen with an unbelievably enticing aroma.
There are two ways to make this simple dessert. The traditional, and easier, way to make it is a one-pot affair: you cook the sliced apples together with the caramel in an ovenproof skillet; when the caramel gets dark and the apples slightly soft, you cover the whole thing with a layer of pastry and pop it in the oven. That's it! Unfortunately for me, there wasn't an ovenproof skillet to be found in my new abode (a kitchen without a slick, seasoned cast iron skillet is something of an abomination in my opinion, but I digress). Fortunately, though, the backup method of making tarte Tatin is also a piece of cake (so to speak), and you also get more control over the color (and therefore the flavor) of the caramel you'll make. All you do is cook the butter and sugar together in a saucepan, stirring frequently, until it reaches the shade you desire. I let my caramel get pretty dark, because I like the bitter notes that come out in a dark caramel; they help offset its sugary sweetness. Once that happens, you pour the caramel out into the dish you'll bake the tart in:
Then, while the caramel is still soft, arrange the cut apples over it, fitting them in tightly. You can quarter the apples, but I like to leave them in halves, because I think the result is prettier. I put the round sides down, so that they'll be face up when the tart gets inverted after baking:
At this point you'll want to pop the dish into the oven and bake it until the apples soften. They won't cook that much longer once the pastry lid goes on, so make sure they're about 75% cooked. Then place the round of pastry on top (if you didn't trim it beforehand, like me, you can just fold the excess back):
Then the tart goes back in the oven, and bakes until the pastry is nice and brown:
At this point the tart will have to cool in the pan for 10 to 30 minutes, so that the caramel sets somewhat. Otherwise, it would all just run out all over the plate you'll turn invert it onto. It won't be easy to wait, but it will be worth it in the end, when you present your friends with this thing of beauty:
The classic French way of serving this dessert is with a dollop of créme fraiche, and it's easy to understand why: the sour tang of the cream cuts through the sweetness of the apples, and it's also cool against the warmth of the just-out-of-the-oven tart. If for some reason you can't find créme fraiche, you can fold some whipped cream into some sour cream. Et voilà! An easy, delicious and oh-so-French dessert:
Apple Tarte Tatin
Adapted from epicurious.com
1 package (usually 17 1/4 oz.) frozen puff pastry, preferably all-butter, thawed
1/4 c. (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, softened
1/2 c. sugar
6 or 7 firm, tart apples, such as Granny Smith, peeled and halved or quartered, and cored
Preparation (skillet method):
1. Preheat the oven to 400°.
2. Roll out puff pastry and trim to size of the skillet you'll be using. Prick pastry all over with a fork. Set aside, preferably in the fridge or freezer to keep cold.
3. Spread butter over the bottom of a 10" or 12" seasoned cast iron skillet, then sprinkle sugar all over the butter. Add the apples, fitting them into the pan tightly, round sides facing down. Cook mixture, undisturbed, over medium-high heat for about 20 minutes, until juices are a dark golden color.
4. Place the skillet in the oven and bake for about 20 minutes, until apples are about 75% cooked. Remove skillet from oven and lay the pastry round over the apples. Place skillet back in the oven and bake for about 20 more minutes, until pastry is browned. Remove tart from the oven and allow to cool for 10 to 30 minutes.
5. Invert pastry onto a serving plate. Apples should come free easily; if any of them stick, just put unstick them and fit them onto the tart. Cut into 8 wedges and serve with créme fraiche (or alternatively, some sour cream lightened with whipped cream).
Preparation (alternative method): If you don't have an oven-safe skillet, you can make the dessert like this.
1. Preheat the oven to 400°.
2. Roll out puff pastry and trim to size of the baking dish you'll be using. Prick pastry all over with a fork. Set aside, preferably in the fridge or freezer to keep cold.
3. In a medium suacepan, cook the butter and sugar together over medium-high heat, stirring frequently, until caramel reaches a dark golden color, about 10 to 12 minutes. Pour caramel into a 10" or 12" round baking dish.
4. While caramel is still warm, arrange the apples over it, fitting them into the dish tightly, round sides facing down. Place the dish in the oven and bake for about 40 minutes, or until apples are about 75% cooked.
5. Remove dish from oven and lay pastry round over the top. Place tart back in the oven and bake until pastry is browned, about 20 more minutes. Remove tart from the oven and allow to cool for 10 to 30 minutes.
6. Invert pastry onto a serving plate. Apples should come free easily; if any of them stick, just unstick them and fit them onto the tart. Cut into 8 wedges and serve with créme fraiche (or alternatively, some sour cream lightened with whipped cream).