A challenge, unanswered

Apple-Cranberry Pie cooling

A few weeks ago, I got a challenge, from a reader named Rachel:

How about the perfect tarte Tatin? I challenge you to make it perfect – the caramel has to be thick enough to coat the apples when flipped, but not so runny it falls out of the crust. The apples have to be cooked and saturated with the butter/sugar mixture but yet, at the same time, it has to retain some firmness – who wants a soggy apple? Well, I suppose a soggy apple soaked in a butter/sugar mixture is not the worst thing one can eat, but still, the challenge is to keep the apples firm and the caramel viscous (but not too viscous). If you want to know how NOT to make a tarte Tatin, just watch Julia Childs’ episode on it – hers is a total disaster – then go online and look at all the pictures. Pale apples = no good. Dark coated apples = nice. Which one to use, Granny smith or Golden Delicious, or maybe figure out which one the Tatin sisters used in 1889? Somehow theirs came out perfectly. The crust: Puff pastry? With butter? With shortening? Made from scratch? Maybe not even puff, maybe a regular pastry dough is better – who knows. All I know is I have made it like 14 times and have even gone down the food science path, trying to utilize gums and starches, which only made things worse. I am hoping you will have better luck and post the results here.

Oh, Rachel, honey, you’re not alone. Who hasn’t been disappointed by an underbrowned tarte Tatin? When you wrote, I promised I’d wait until apple season – until I could get crisp, sharp, puckery varieties like Cox Orange Pippin and Bramley’s Seedling, good, firm apples I was sure would give me more flavor than the varieties you mentioned – and start experimenting. Good riddance to sogginess.

Just a few days after you wrote, I had the crust epiphany. It came in the form of an assignment for work. I’m the recipe editor for a magazine called Edible Seattle, and when the editor, Jill, sent me her favorite pie crust recipe, I all-out balked. Blended with a fork? Rolled and crimped before chilling out in the fridge? Then frozen?

The first time I tried it, I’ll admit, I could have used an attitude adjustment. How could a crust bake up flaky if I mashed the butter cubes into the dough with a rolling pin when they might have already had a chance to warm up a bit? I worked quickly, and to my surprise, the crust rolled out like a sort of edible magic carpet – easy as pizza dough, only not springy. I transferred it to my pie pan in one fell swoop, forgetting my usual silent prayer to the pie crust gods. (Hail pie crust, full of butter, gravity is with you. Blessed art thou glutinous bonds, and blessed is the fruit thy will cover. Please don’t fall apart; you looked so good on the counter.)

Edible all-butter crust

I followed the rest of Jill’s instructions – first freezing the bottom crust in the pan, then refrigerating the top crust on a cookie sheet, then, when her “trustworthy apple pie” filling was ready, securing the top crust onto the bottom crust and baking away.

Her crust method was, hands down, both the least stressful and most delicious I’ve ever made. Is, I should say, because I’ve made it now five times since then. (My neighbor’s made it twice, too, and seven pies can’t be wrong.)

Apple-Cranberry Pie side

People, look at those layers. Have you ever seen a pie crust that looks so much like those sheets of mica we used to find in the sandbox in elementary school? Every layer was made up of a seemingly infinitesimal number of smaller layers – layers that shattered and melted in my mouth. Even the edges were tender, and by the time I finished, oh, about the third piece of the third or fourth pie, I knew I’d found my perfect Tatin crust. Because no matter how perfectly the apples are caramelized, you can’t just serve them on air. The perfect Tatin requires the perfect crust, and my days of making homemade puff pastry are over.

Crust question solved, I marched off to the farmers’ market last weekend, in search of my apples. I found them – huge, brawny half-pound specimens, those Bramley’s. (If you’re a mean person, and want to have a little fun, stand next to Booth Canyon Orchard’s apple stand and watch small children taste the ubertart varieties.)

But dammit, on the way out, I saw the cranberries. They’re only available two weeks a year. How could I not buy them?

So home they came, the apples and the cranberries, and a $7 kabocha squash that’s now sitting where the last one sat, waiting for a miracle that justifies its price.

Not to be boastful, but it has been a week of miracles around here. A week of superlatives, according to Jim. There was that chicken, convection roasted (I’m working on my fear of my oven’s convection setting) to a puffy, brassy brown, served with a pan gravy made just from just a cup and half of Honeycrisp apple cider and a swig of cream, simmered down, and a dollop of Dijon mustard. There were the pork chops, pan-seared, nestled into mashed Yukon Gold potatoes and smothered with the leftover gravy, which was, as always, even better the second time. The broccoli gratin, crispy with Jarlsberg. The tiny root vegetable gratins. Even my powdered hot cocoa has been coming out deliciously.

I’ve been lucky, this week. So I figured it was as good a time as any to chance the perfect Tatin. (Luck means a whole bed of deeply browned apples, falling out of the pan together at just the right time.)

But dammit, those cranberries. I went to start cutting the apples, and couldn’t leave well enough alone. The first pie crust ended up in a pan, and went straight into the freezer, and after a trip to my neighbor’s house for flour, there was a second crust, balanced across the tops of the sour cream, cottage cheese, and yogurt containers, as always, in the fridge.

Apple-Cranberry Pie filling

Rachel, I meant to make tarte Tatin. I’d even gotten the pan out.

But the truth is, I’m not so great at challenges. (Just ask the folks who asked for spaghetti squash and chestnut flour recipes ages ago.) Flog me with the rolling pin – whatever you need to do.

More than savory cooking, baking appeals to me because it requires creativity within relatively strict constructs – take the impulsiveness out, and I’d probably never turn the oven on again.

The Tatin will come. Someday. (If Rachel has made it 14 times, it could certainly take me a few tries, right?)

Apple-Cranberry Pie top

But yesterday wasn’t the day. Yesterday was the day for what Jim says was the best pie I’ve ever made. (And he’s learned to be choosy.)

This is not a pie you can shrug off. It’s one you must make, and soon, before the flavor of apples and cranberries no longer matches exactly what’s happening in the air outside. I feel comfortable planning your baking future because this is not my recipe, but an adaptation of Jill’s.

Must, people.

And try the convection setting, if you have one. My neighbor and I have agreed the crust is more crisp and shattery that way.

By the way, Bon Appetit’s October 2008 issue has some great info on tarte Tatins.

Apple-Cranberry Pie slice with whole

Heirloom Apple-Cranberry Pie (PDF)

Based on editor Jill Lightner’s recipe in the Fall 2008 issue of Edible Seattle, for Trustworthy Apple Pie (tweaked only slightly), this is the centerpiece you want on your Thanksgiving dessert table. (At least, it’s what we’ll have on ours.) More specifically, it’s the crust you want to not fight with – rolled out just after mixing, Edible’s all-butter crust takes a less traditional approach, but it’s worked perfectly for me every time. And with all that turkey juggling, who needs pie crust anxiety?

The amount of filling prescribed here makes one piled-high pie, so when you’re making the crusts (do that first!), be sure to roll the top crust out into an 11” circle.

TIME: 35 minutes active time, including crust
MAKES: One 9” pie

Two prepared pie crusts, made from two separate batches Edible’s All Butter Crust (recipe follows)
2 large Bramley’s Seedling apples (about 1 1/4 pounds), peeled, cored, and sliced very thin
2 Cox Orange Pippin apples (about 1 pound), peeled, cored, and sliced very thin
1 1/2 cups cranberries
1/2 cup white sugar
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
1/4 teaspoon (rounded) ground cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons whole milk, for brushing crust

To prepare the pie crusts, freeze one as directed below and roll the second crust out into an 11” circle. Brush off excess flour, transfer to a parchment-lined baking sheet, cover with plastic, and refrigerate until firm, about 20 minutes.

Preheat the oven on its convection setting to 350 degrees. (Use 375 degrees if you’re using the regular “bake” setting.) Place the apples and cranberries in a large mixing bowl. Combine the remaining ingredients (except milk) in a small bowl, mix to blend, and add to the fruit, mixing with your hands until all the apples are well coated.

Transfer the fruit to the frozen crust. Peel plastic away from the refrigerated top crust, and brush it with the milk. Center crust milk side-up on the filling, and trim the edges to a 1/2” overhang. Tuck the top edges under and press into the bottom’s crimped edge, and cut a few slits in the top of the pie (or a hole in the center) for steam to escape.

Apple-Cranberry Pie hole

Place the pie on a parchment lined baking sheet (to catch any drips) and bake on the center rack for 50 to 60 minutes (or 60 to 80 minutes on regular “bake”), or until golden brown and bubbling.

Edible’s All-Butter Crust
From the Fall 2008 issue of Edible Seattle.

Really: Chill the butter again after cutting, as directed. Here in Seattle, I’ve found I’ve always used the full 5 tablespoons of water.

TIME: 20 minutes
MAKES: One 9-inch pie crust

1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 stick unsalted butter, chilled, cut into 1” dice, and chilled again
4 to 5 tablespoons water, chilled in fridge

Blend flour and salt in a medium mixing bowl. Sprinkle chilled butter cubes into the flour and press into the dry ingredients with your fingertips, blending together until the mixture looks like fresh breadcrumbs or damp sand. Ideally, no lumps of butter any bigger than a pea will remain, nor will you have any dry flour lurking in the bottom of the bowl.

Add cold water one tablespoon at a time, blending gently with a large fork, until the dough forms into a ball. Roll crust out to about 1/8” thick and gently pat down into a 9” pie pan, trimming the edge with a sharp knife or scissors so the dough hangs over the edge by 1/2”. Fold and crimp the dough’s edges. Line with plastic wrap and freeze for a minimum of 30 minutes, or overnight.

Remove from freezer when you’re filling’s ready and the oven is pre-heated—whatever sort of pie you’re baking, you want the crust fully frozen when it goes into the oven.


Filed under dessert, recipe

17 responses to “A challenge, unanswered

  1. I’m all ready to try this except I’m afraid my pie pan(s) will shatter on going from freezer into hot oven. I have a variety of pans–is one type trustworthy from freezer to oven?


  2. Jill

    And I thought it was just me. I’m so glad you love it, Jess. The cranberries are a brilliant addition.

    And Daphne, I’ve used pyrex pans every time I’ve made this crust for years now, and I’ve never had a problem with cracks/explosions.

    I do have to admit there was a little “oh no, duck!” thought the first time I slung a frozen pan into a hot oven. I doubt that the pyrex makers would totally approve, so there might be options that are officially safer.

  3. Daphne, I’ve tried both Pyrex and Corningware, with no ill effects – yet. I have, however, seen someone else have bad luck with a Le Creuset pie pan going from freezer to oven, so perhaps stick with the $8 variety and close the oven quickly? Sorry I don’t have a more scientific answer. . .

  4. Dedene Court

    Hello Jess,
    The following recipe comes from a great food blog here in France. I’m sure you can read French so I copied it straight from the blog.

    The blog is:

    Hope this is helpful for your conquest of the perfect Tarte Tatin!

    Bye, Dedene

  5. OK, it is a day later and I am still cracking up about the prayer to the pie crust Gods. I am always chasing the ultimate pie crust so I have a similar prayer (Oh pie Gods who art in the oven, hallowed be thy crust, thy blending done, thy chilling done on earth and in my kitchen. Lead me not into sogginess and deliver me some crispy, golden layers.) Too funny, I wonder how many other people have pie prayers? The recipe has been printed and has made it onto the fridge. I’ll get to it by Christmas.

  6. Oh, Kimberly, yours is so much better. Or at least, more accurate! Love it.

  7. tonya

    I always claimed not to be much of a Pie Crust fan…. then I had a really really really good pie crust and I understood that I was just not a Bad pie crust fan.. and there are alot of bad pie crusts in the world… Mastering pie crust has been on my list to not fear… I am going to give this great method a try! Thanks!

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  9. cassie

    Like Tonya, I thought I did not like pie crust, but now know that I just don’t like bad pie crust! I just had a slice of this pie (made with braeburns and no cranberries), and it was great! It was the first successful pie crust I have ever made, and it was so easy. It rolled out perfectly, and tastes GOOD.

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  11. Laura

    Yah! This is a keeper of a recipe. I made it for a little dinner party on Friday night and everyone loved the pie. I made it sans the cranberries because I didn’t have them but no one missed them because the apples were good and tart. The pie crust was very easy except for the fact that I only had frozen butter and decided that could be qualified as “chilled”. So, it took a little extra dexterity to work in the butter but I prevailed!

  12. Jess! Here I am , still trying to perfect that tarte and going online to do research, and came across your site again! Belive it or not I have almost perfected this dish and have posted my analysis here-and I almost made a perfect one on 10/31-I am going to make one tonight and see if my theories from last month holds up!

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  14. Rachel – thanks for keeping us in the loop!

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