Accidents sometimes lead to delightful things and the story of tarte Tatin’s origins is proof of that. A tarte Tatin is an upside-down caramelized apple tart and as the story goes, the first tarte Tatin was accidentally created in the late 1800’s, at Caroline and Stephanie Tatin’s inn just south of Paris. One particularly hectic day, Stephanie was preparing dinner for her guests but she forgot to put a pie crust on the bottom of her apple pie. Because she was running out of time, she put the dough on top of the pie instead. After she flipped the pie over, she discovered that the apples had caramelized perfectly and the pie was an instant hit with the guests. Thus was born one of the most classic desserts in French cuisine.
I am forever grateful to the Tatin sisters for stumbling upon this recipe which is one of my all-time favorites. I love it so much that I’ve made several variations on the theme, including savory versions like this Leek Tatin and this Buttercup Squash Tatin. But nothing beats a classic apple tarte Tatin.
This recipe calls for only 5 basic ingredients: flour, butter, eggs, sugar, and apples. I love recipes that take simple ingredients and transform them into something exquisite. Best of all, this is a one-skillet pie. Though caramel can sometimes be finicky to make, in this recipe, you can’t really mess it up because the pectin in the apples keeps the caramel texture soft and creamy.
A tarte Tatin is best made in season, with freshly picked fall apples that are bursting with flavour. I rarely make this dessert unless I can pick the apples myself. To me, the picking is as much part of this recipe as the cooking itself. There is something magical about the smell and taste of apples plucked straight from the tree on a crisp fall day. It goes without saying that a grocery store apple that has been sitting in storage for months will not yield as good a Tatin. I also aim to use organic or low-spray apples whenever I can because apples are one of the worst culprits for pesticide residues.
Many North American recipes for tarte Tatin call for Granny Smith apples, which yield good results. But Granny Smiths don’t commonly grow in my neck of the woods and the truth is, there are many apples varieties that will work well in a Tatin. Look for an apple that is hard (a tarte Tatin apple should hold its shape) and tart (to offset the sweetness of the caramel). These include Braeburn, Golden Delicious, Honeycrisp, Fuji, Jonagold, Granny Smith, Pippin, and Northern Spy. McIntosh can also be used though I find they tend to lose their shape and kind of melt away into the caramel. They are also quite sweet, making a pie that, in my opinion, is too sugary. But it’s all a matter of personal taste. This fall, my apple of choice is Northern Spy because they grow in a nearby orchard. They are hard, tart, and… gigantic! And in my opinion, they make a mean Tatin.
There are different approaches to making Tatin pastry. I like to use a sweet pastry in the French tradition, made with softened butter, an egg, and a hint of powdered sugar. This yields a sturdy dough that is quick to make, easy to handle, and has a cookie-like texture.
The main challenge with making a Tatin is inverting it once it’s out of the oven. I always hold my breath for this part, no matter how many times I’ve done it. As you can see in my video, I used a cutting board to flip this one because I couldn’t find a plate large enough to fully cover the top of my skillet. You can cool your Tatin ever so slightly once it’s out of the oven, but you’ll want to invert it within 5 to 10 minutes so the caramel doesn’t harden. Be careful not to burn yourself and use a plate or serving board that covers the entire rim of the skillet in case any hot caramel seeps out. Hold the plate or board tightly against the skillet and execute your flip quickly and smoothly. When you lift up the skillet to reveal your masterpiece, you’ll enjoy a true ‘Ooh and Ahh’ moment. And if one or two apples stick to the pan, no big deal, simply remove them and fill in any gaps in the pie. May the spirit of the Tatin sisters be with you!
This French dessert is an upside-down caramelized apple tart that legend has it was created by accident.
- 1 1/3 cup unbleached white flour
- 2 Tbsp. powdered sugar (if you don't have any, simply pulse regular sugar in a coffee grinder until it's powdered)
- 1/2 tsp salt (or 1 pinch if using salted butter)
- 1 stick butter, at room temperature and cut into small 1/2 inch cubes
- 1 beaten egg
- About 8 medium to large apples (2 1/2 to 3 pounds of apples)
- 1 cup granulated cane sugar
- 1 stick butter
- To make the dough, whisk the salt and powdered sugar into the flour. Rub the softened butter into the flour using the tips of your fingers, until the mixture feels like moist sand. Mix the beaten egg into the flour mixture until you can form a ball. Using the palm of your hand, mash the dough into a clean pastry board a few times (a technique called "fraisage" which is similar to kneading), until the dough is smooth. Gather into a ball and flatten into a disc. You can let the dough rest in the refrigerator while you prepare your apples.
- Peel, core, and cut the apples into quarters. In a large 9 to 10-inch cast iron skillet (or other oven-proof skillet), melt the butter. Once it has melted, turn off the heat and sprinkle the sugar evenly on top of the melted butter. Place the quartered apples in a circular arrangement in the skillet, as snuggly as you can fit them, cut-side up. Put the skillet on high heat and allow the apples to simmer in the caramel for about 10 to 15 minutes. You can swish the caramel around a bit to prevent from burning and ensure the apples are cooking evenly. Occasionally spear an apple with a sharp knife and make sure the bottom isn't burning or sticking to the pan. You can scoop some of hot caramel and drizzle it on the tops of the apples if you wish. Once the caramel begins to turn slightly amber in color, immediately remove the skillet from the heat. The apples will have shrunk slightly and with a fork, you can gently bring them as close together as you can, shrinking your overall circle. Leave them to cool slightly while you roll out your pastry.
- On a lightly floured surface, roll out the pastry dough to about 1/8 inch thick. Place the dough over the apples and cut off any excess amounts, leaving a 1-inch overhang. Tuck the dough in around the outer edges of the apples. Make a few slits on top of the dough, to allow the steam to vent.
- Bake the pie in a 375 F oven, for about 30 minutes, until the top of the pie is golden.
- Do not wait more than 10 minutes before flipping your pie over onto a serving plate. The apples must still be hot when you invert the pie otherwise the caramel will harden and the apples may stick to the skillet. Before inverting, first run a sharp knife along the inner edge of the skillet to separate any dough that has stuck to the side. Gently shake your skillet from side to side to loosen any apples that may be stuck. Using oven mitts and a plate that is wider than the top rim of your skillet, hold the plate tightly against the skillet and flip them over in one swift motion. Gently lift the skillet and if any apples have remained behind, simply loosen them and place them back in their spots. Serve warm.
Tips/TechniquesUse apples that are hard and tart, to offset the caramel, such as: Braeburn, Golden Delicious, Honeycrisp, Fuji, Jonagold, Granny Smith, Pippin, and Northern Spy.
Yield: 8-10 servings
Aube Giroux is a food writer and filmmaker who shares her love of cooking on her farm-to-table blog, Kitchen Vignettes.
Aube is a passionate organic gardener and home cook who likes to share the stories of how food gets to our dinner plates. Her work has been shown on television and at international film festivals. Her web series was nominated for a 2014 James Beard Award. In 2012, she was the recipient of Saveur Magazine’s Best Food Blog award in the video category.