Look, there’s no big secret to a successful Tarte Tatin, the traditional French apple tart baked with the crust on top, and then flipped over to serve. I don’t know why people think there is. Or perhaps, there is a secret, and I’m about to reveal it to you. Ready? Here it is: don’t try too hard. Don’t complicate things. I’ve often heard people bemoan their inability to make a good crust, thinking it’s harder than it is. And, believing they can’t make a good crust, they just give up, and deprive themselves of this heavenly dessert, looking at me as though I were a wizard for being able to conjure one up in my kitchen. Or if they can manage the crust, they then worry about caramelizing the bottom (which becomes the top) of the tart.
I say this: Skip the caramel top. Instead, make a simple brandied caramel sauce to drizzle on afterwards. Then, all you need is a good crust and 6-7 non-mealy, somewhat tart apples.
Here is how to make a crumbly, buttery, delicious crust:
In the bowl of a food processor, put:
1 ¼ cup flour, a pinch of salt and 1/3 cup cold butter, cut into pieces.
Process for a few seconds until the mixture is the consistency of rough sand.
(If you don’t have a food processor, just use a regular, large bowl, and two butter knives to cut the butter into the flour. This is not a big deal. I grew up doing it this way, and it really doesn’t take long. Plus it’s kind of satisfying to criss-cross the knives through the mixture, going after the larger butter clumps until the consistency is right.)
Now add three tablespoons of ice cold water, and process/mix again.
That’s it. Knead the mixture together into a ball, and flatten slightly with your palm. Wrap in Saran wrap and place in fridge for a half hour.
While the crust is chilling, peel and slice about 6-7 apples. I like to use half Granny Smiths, half some other kind like Fuji, Pink Lady, Macintosh, etc. Avoid Red Delicious or Golden Delicious. If you have an 8 year old helping you with measurements, and a two year old puttering around with bowls of flour and sugar and generally making a mess on the floor, you can feed them some of the peels. (Yes, in some respects, these smallish creatures bear a striking resemblance to piglets.) Place the slices in a large bowl and sprinkle with sugar (I use about 2 tbsp, but you can use more for a sweeter experience) and cinnamon (about half as much as the amount of sugar you put). Squeeze half a lemon into the bowl, and toss.
Take out a pie dish and butter it generously. Lay out the apples in it, in several layers. You may want to make the first layer into a pretty pattern, as that will end up being the top of the tart. The pie dish should be very full, a bit higher than the edges of the dish, as the apples will soften and fall in on each other. Put a few (4-5) small pats of butter on top of the apples.
Take out the crust and roll it out on a piece of wax paper. If necessary, dust your rolling pin with flour. The crust will be crumbly, so roll it slowly, taking the time to re-stick any bits that threaten to separate from the main piece. When it is big enough, flip it onto the pie dish. Tuck in any overhanging bits. With a fork, poke a few sets of holes in the crust, to let the steam out.
That’s it. Place in a preheated oven at 350 degrees (Fahrenheit) and bake for about 45 minutes, maybe a bit more, until the edges of the crust start to turn golden. You might want to place a piece of foil below the pie dish, in case apple juices burble out.
When the pie is done, remove from the oven, and let sit for a good hour or so. Then, place a plate over it, and flip the dish over, so that the tart ends up crust down on the plate. You might need to coax some of the apples down from the pie dish with a knife.
I tend to leave it at that, and serve warm with two things: crème fraîche (which is NOT the same as sour cream) and the brandied caramel sauce.
Voilà. Bon appétit. It’s not apple season in most parts of the world now, but apples are widely available, and this is a dessert that is always a hit.