Those who know me well, know that I have spent the last six months attempting to perfect Tarte Tatin, an upsidown apple tart developed by accident in 1889 at the Hotel Tatin in Lamotte-Beuvron, France. Back in the 70’s when French food ruled, Tarte Tatin was a must have dessert on chic restaurant menus! It disappeared for awhile but is now making a significant return as up to the minute French bistros rush to put retro style French rustic comfort foods back on their menu to feed the grown up baby boomers who used to make it in sync with Julia Child back in the early 70’s.
I began this mission (I didn’t know in the beginning that it would actually be a mission) using a seemingly simple recipe found online. Six months, twelve attempts and 100 apples of mixed variety later I still had not perfected this dish! It was not until just a few weeks ago on 10/31 that I finally was able to master the dessert! However, before I give away the answers, it’s important to know the original questions and research that evolved from this experience.
When anyone digs deep into the root basics of a recipe, there are always questions, issues, and hopefully solutions. As a food scientist and chef, I attempted to investigate this dish scientifically, creatively and of course, logically. During the process, chefs and scientists were interviewed and a homogenized mix of fact, fiction, and folklore emerged! Starting with the mythical photographed facts, an ideal Tarte Tatin supposedly looks like this: Untouched by the food photographer, not tampered with by a food stylist and fairly difficult to create. My first prototypes looked more like the one I documented here on Flicker. The caramel was soupy, the apples were soft and despite my attempts to take the picture at a photographers angle, my tarte was not fit to be served at the next “I love 70’s French Desserts” party!
Internet research reveals that I am not the only person in the world who has struggled with this dish. This food blogger also was on a mission to master the Tarte Tatin-She pointed out that even Julia Child made a mess out of her Tatin in the 1971 episode of “The French Chef”. In the episode entitled “La Tarte Tatin” Julia pulled a messy juice soaked uncaramelized tart tatin out of the oven and then provides several excuses about how the apples were not the right variety and were exuding way to much juice-Luckily she had a pre baked perfect one that she was able to pull out of the oven and eat during the episode finale. The point here, even Julia , the queen of French food, was not able to easily make this dish!
My MAIN issue could almost be summed up in one paragraph- If the apples are still desirably firm at the end of the stovetop cooking process, then during the oven bake, the excess moisture seeps out of the apples and into the caramel, diluting the caramel and resulting in a very viscous Tarte Tatin. If all of the liquid is cooked out of the apples, then the caramel is perfect but the apples are soft and mushy.
The MAIN Question- How can one balance the texture of the apple with the viscosity of the caramel to create the perfect Tarte Tatin-which in my opinion is a firm apple that is saturated with a caramel solution that has reached a viscosity that is runny enough to loosely coat the apples but firm enough to not run over the crust and onto the plate. It also looks somewhat like the beautiful Tarte Tatins I saw on the internet.
Factors To Consider:
1- Apple freshness
2- Apple Firmness
3- Size/Shape/Alignment of apple pieces
4- Type of pastry dough used
1. Apple Freshness: Apples used in the summer have been stored since last October are way passed their peak freshness. As apples are stored, their puncture pressure drops and they become softer internally as the starch converts into sugar, and apple dehydration occurs. The sugar: acid ratio becomes compromised, and as the ratios change, so does the osmosis of liquids between the apple and caramel solution that takes place during the cooking process. Turns out, Cooks Illustrated agrees with me, as they described in their Sept/Oct 2008 article on Apple Pandowdy-Yvonne Ruperti says;
While Developing my Skillet Apple Pie recipe, I noticed that the apple filling occasionally turned mushy. After a chat with our science editor, I learned that the apples that aren’t going to be sold with in a few weeks of harvest are placed in refrigerated “controlled atmosphere” (CA) storage with regulated levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide. Because apples continue to ripen after harvest, these conditions are designed to halt the ripening process. The problem is that once the apples are removed from CA storage and put on display at the grocery store, they begin an accelerated ripening process. The apples structure will then quickly break down upon cooking. The longer the apples are kept in CA storage (and they may be stored as long as 10 months) the faster they ripen once removed, and the more likely they are to turn mushy during baking. Because it is impossible to know how long and under what conditions supermarket apples have been stored, your best bet is to use fresh local apples whenever possible. If you purchase fresh apples, refrigerate and use them as fast as you can!
Apple Variety: Some chefs swear by Golden Delicious, others insisted on Granny Smith, stating that the crispy nature of the apple meant it would be firmer and hold up better during the cooking process. Other suggested options included Pink Lady, Northern Spy, and a variety called Court Pendu Plat, a possible staple of the 1889 French Kitchen known for storing well! While many chefs provided me with their favorite Tarte Tatin apple, none of them were able to provide me with a logical “why”. I finally got my answer from a “Post Harvest Pomologist Specialist” at U.C. Davis. Dr. Beth Mitcham, she said ;
The degree of firmness of an apple is related to the size of the cells within the apple and its density initially. During ripening, some apples soften more than others. The softening process is due to changes in cell wall structure that make the walls less rigid and therefore the fruit softer. Some of the differences in cell wall softening are due to the amount of various enzymes involved in this process. In addition, the amount of ethylene gas influences the degree of softening by controlling production of these enzymes. Some apples such as Granny Smith and Fuji produce low levels of ethylene and remain firm while others such as Gala produce a lot of ethylene and tend to be soft.
Apple Cut Size/Shape/Alignment-Most recipes seem to suggest a peeled, quartered and cored apple. Some suggest a single layer with the round side down, other recipes suggest a double layer with the thin side down. Claims were made about size shape and placement and how it affects the final caramelization and apple texture. Cooks Illustrated states that “The trick to perfect caramelization is standing apple quarters on edge”. It is important to start with a large quarter because after cooking and water loss, you want to end up with a decent size chunk with some al dente left to it! Its also important to tightly pack the apples in even rows, just like a can of sardines, around the Tarte Tatin pan. This will actually ensure that the caramel evenly coats all the apples and does not just ooze out of apple-void spots after the flip.
Pastry Used: I suppose a real chef would probably take the time to make their own pate brisee but a food scientist with very little time is going to use either Pepperidge Farm puff pastry (shortening based, least expensive), Dufond Puff Pastry (butter based , most expensive) or the just out on the market Trader Joe Artisan Puff pastry (butter based, less expensive then Dufond, great reviews). It is possible that a pate brisee might result in a slightly more absorbent dough, catching on to any extra viscous liquid. But seriously, who has time for that!
Conclusion-Thus to recap what I have written above, the key to a great Tarte Tatin are fresh Granny Smith, Golden Delicious or Court Pendu Plat apples that have just been picked from the tree (or at least not stored for six months), the apple should be peeled and quartered and very tightly packed/aligned into the pan-don’t leave lots of space between the apples because that will only allow the caramel to seep out after the Tatin flip. Puff Pastry is fine although it is possible that rolling ones own Pate Brisee might result in a slightly more absorbent dough, catching any viscous caramel liquid. When cooking the caramel, keep your heat on medium to high and pay attention to what is going on in the pan, you don’t want to burn your caramel, which can ruin the final flavor. Lastly, after you take the Tarte Tatin out of the oven, let it rest for about ten minutes before the grande “flip”-that way your caramel will cool, firm up and not have an undesirable too viscous texture.
Serve with real whip cream or ice-cream
Pair with a late German harvest wine, Sauternes, Madeira, or 75 year old Sherry