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.)
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.)
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.
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?)
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.
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.
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.
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.