My first taste of Tarte Tatin was at a bistro in Paris in the late 90’s. I remember being thankful that sunny fall afternoon- thankful to have that moment sitting outside sipping an espresso and savoring warm caramel-soaked apples on buttery French pastry dough.
During the recent holidays I made Tarte Tatin. Lots of it. Five times in fact.
This relatively easy to make French dessert (you can read the history below) is all about patience. You need patience to wait for the sugar, butter and juice that the apples give off to caramelize.
One thing I’ve gotten away from since living in Bordeaux is writing about food. I adore cooking, baking, creating, and trying new things. So with this article I share information about, and a recipe for a super easy Tarte Tatin. Even if you aren’t a dessert person, it’s a fabulous item to learn for purposes of making and giving to someone who likes dessert!
But like dessert or not, if afternoon tea or coffee is your thing, it will fit right in.
With that, let’s dig into perfecting a Tarte Tatin.
Apple Type Does Matter!
The apple is the star of Tarte Tatin so finding the freshest fruit possible is très important. Look for similar sized apples, which makes it easier to place them in the pan.
As far as type, Honey Crisp, Cox, Cortland, and Golden Delicious are all crisp, with varying degrees of sweetness and tartness. Another key feature of these varieties is they don’t breakdown and get mushy when cooked. If you can’t find these, other common apples that will work are Jonagold, Fuji, or Pink Lady.
Prepping Apples The Day Before?
Some recipes recommended preparing the apples (peeling and coring) a day or two before you plan to cook the tart. This step reduces the amount of moisture in the apples so they don’t get too juicy when they bake. I have never followed this step because I don’t buy juicy apples. Feel free to try this. It’s nice to know you can do this apple prep step ahead of when you want to bake your tart.
I use a 10-inch (26cm) All-Clad, stainless steel fry pan (skillet) as an example. It heats evenly and can be popped into the oven. Any stainless steel fry pan works, just make sure the handle is ovenproof.
Oxidation Doesn’t Matter
When you peel and core the apples, they’ll begin to turn brown, that’s what oxygen does to fruit. Since you’ll cook them to a golden brown, it doesn’t matter so save your lemon!
The Trial Run
I like to put the cut apples into the pan for sizing purposes after I peel, core, and cut them. You’ll use one whole apple (two halves) as the centerpiece. Place them in the center of the skillet. Then arrange the remaining apple halves, each one standing on its flat end (the directions below will tell you about this), in a concentric circle around the center apple. Keep the pieces close together so that they support one another, standing upright. Bottom line, place them in a circular fashion as snugly as possible.
You might have to cut extra apples into a few pieces to fill in here and there and to help make the fit the snug. It’s ok if an extra, wedged piece looks funny because what you are looking at will be the bottom of the tart. The pastry dough goes on top of the apples and becomes the bottom once cooked and inverted.
When you’re happy with your design, take the apples out, keeping them in the circular formation with which they best fit into the pan. This way, once you put the sugar and butter in the pan it’s easier to put the apples back in such that they look nice.
I admit I’ve gotten lazy when it comes to making dough. Pastry dough in French grocery stores is plentiful- it’s like buying salad dressing in the states- many varieties always available. If you can find pre-made dough (Whole Foods and Trader Joes has it) it makes things easier. If not, use your favorite pastry dough recipe. I also share one below.
Perfect? I’m not sure such a thing exists. My hope is this information and recipe will help you to successfully make a Tarte Tatin!
- 10 medium apples
- 6 tablespoons (80 grams) unsalted butter, set out to soften
- ¾ cup sugar
- 1 sheet of butter pastry dough (store bought is easier, or you can make your own dough, recipe below)
- Prepare the apples: slice off the bottom of each apple so it has a flat base. Peel then halve them. Use a small sharp knife to trim cores from the center of each half. If you have a melon baller, that will work too. If preparing the day before, transfer to a bowl and refrigerate, lightly covered.
- When ready to cook, preheat oven to 375F / 190C (350F if using convection). Sprinkle sugar evenly on the bottom of the pan. Lay the cut butter evenly over the sugar.
- Take two halves and place them in the center of the skillet. This serves as the center. Arrange the remaining apple halves, each one standing on its flat end, in concentric circles around the center apple. Keep the pieces close together so that they support one another, standing upright. Bottom line, place them as snugly as possible however they fit well. You might have to cut a few pieces of extra apples into pieces to fill in and help the snug fit.
- Place the fry pan over medium-low to low heat and cook the apples in the butter and sugar, uncovered, until the sugar turns golden brown and the apples get a little softer and turn light golden; this will take about 45 minutes to 1 hour. Watch the apples closely to make sure they don’t stick; adjust the heat now and then, to slow down or speed up the cooking. As the apples give up some of their juices into the liquid sugar and butter mixture you can baste them occasionally with a baster if you want- optional. The sugar will slowly caramelize the apples almost all the way, but they’ll remain less cooked on top.
- Timing? When the cooking liquid thickens and is deep golden and the apples are nearly cooked through, remove the pastry sheet from the refrigerator; quickly and evenly place it over the apples, gently tucking it down the sides of the pan around them.
- ⇒If your store-bought pastry dough is round, you may have to cut it to be ¾- to 1-inch larger than the top of the fry pay you use to cook the apples. Drape it gently over the apples, tucking it down the sides of the fry pan. It’s OK if it seems you are tucking more dough on one side than another.
- ⇒If your store-bought pastry dough is square, put an upside-down bowl or another 10-inch fry pan on the dough and use the tip of a sharp knife to cut out a circle ¾- to 1-inch larger than the top of the fry pay you use to cook the apples. Lift the circle and drape gently over the apples per above instructions.
- Cut two small slits in the dough for the air to escape while baking.
- Place the fry pan on a baking sheet; bake in the center of the oven until the pastry is golden- check at 20 minutes, it may take up to 30 minutes. It’s OK if the juices bubble over. Depending on the apple variety, the tart will be more juicy or less juicy.
- Let cool 10 to 15 minutes; carefully run a spatula around the pan too loosen any stuck parts; place a serving plate over the top then carefully flip the pan over. If any apples remain stuck in the pan, use your fingers or a spatula to retrieve them and place on the pastry. Cut as you would a pie, and serve warm with vanilla ice cream or in a shallow bowl on top of Crème Anglaise (recipe link below). A few pieces of mint placed on the ice cream or next to the tart is a nice flavor addition.
If you like apples, it really is to die for served warm with a glass of wine. Dessert wine, yes but nothing cloyingly sweet. I reach for Jurançon semi-sweet or sweet because these wines have such high acidity and brightness they work great with Tarte Tatin. Moscato d’Asti if you like bubbles or your favorite sparkling wine or Champagne (yes!).
For Those Interested in the History, The Story of Tarte Tatin – Truth or Historical Fiction?
The most viable story about the dessert, nicknamed “tarte des demoiselles Tatin” (Tatin sister’s tarte) comes from the Loire Valley town Lamotte-Beuvron in Sologne, at the end of the 19th century. The Tatin sisters ran a hotel-restaurant where Caroline welcomed clientele while Stéphanie was the cook. Her specialty was apple pie served softly caramelized. Apparently she was clumsy and put the apples in the pie tin first. Being busy she put the dough on top and popped the tin into the oven. When browned, she inverted it, served it, and had praises from guests.
The question is whether this inverted pie was a mistake.
It was shared in Paris under the name of “tarte des demoiselles Tatin” by the famous critic, author and ambassador of provincial cuisines Maurice-Edmond Sailland, known as Curnonsky. He was the first gastronome to combine regional cuisine and travel. It’s said he invented the story about the Stéphanie’s clumsiness to amuse his fans. Believable? Sure! I’m sticking with this rendition!
In Paris, Maxim’s restaurant was the first to serve dessert. It remains a classic of French tables today, often served with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream.