When I was a child, my family had a book that we would read a few times every Christmas. I don't remember the title, but it involved a large house and a Christmas tree. The very large Christmas tree was too big to fit in the not quite so large but still very large main hall, so the top of it was cut off. The woodsman (or someone) took it home, but it was too large, so the top of the top was cut off. And then on to the parlor maid and to others until finally the last discarded bit of tree was taken in by the mice living beneath the stairs, who put it on their table and even had room for a star made of cheese to top it.
I was reminded of the story this weekend when I was rolling out puff pastry as part of making a dinner to welcome V. back from his trip to Africa. I had been wanting to make a Tarte Tatin. The immediate cause was a comment by leslie on my apple tart post, but I have wanted to make a Tarte Tatin since I was about twenty-five, and a college friend of my roommate Rob came to stay with us and made us a fancy dinner that ended with a Tarte Tatin that was tasty but where the top had not caramelized.
I may have mentioned, back in the early days of this blog (which would be any time more than a month ago, but who's counting?) that I hope to one day inherit one or more of my mother's cast iron skillets. A cast iron skillet is a necessity for a Tarte Tatin, since it's your only real hope of getting good caramelization on the bottom/top of the tart. I considered calling Mom and asking about her health, but that seemed like not entirely a good idea, so instead I made a trip to the largest nearby consignment shop and checked out their supply. Which was mostly meager and overpriced, I thought, but I did manage to find a very good specimen of a 6.5 inch skillet for $5. It's downright adorable, and it seemed like it would make a perfect sized tart for two, and, when the time is right, a good sized round of cornbread, also for two.
You will, upon having seen the picture at the beginning of this entry, have thought that I burned my tart, but I did not. I did, in fact, get a very dark caramel, though not quite as dark as the picture makes it look, and I was worried that it might have burned slightly, but instead I got a very rich caramel flavor with no burning whatsoever. It was a very tasty tart, though I might have preferred the apples to have been a shade less cooked. Still, no one could say that I didn't get my sugar caramelized, and if the tart sat a bit too long while we were eating our fondue, and if after a quick reheating on the stove it unmolded not quite completely (and I'm not saying that happened, mind you, because nothing untoward ever happens in my kitchen), then it was an easy matter to remove the other apple pieces from the pan and place them on the tart with no loss of design.
2 T. butter
3 T. brown sugar
2-3 golden delicious apples
A piece of puff pastry that was originally a giant 54-ounce sheet, and then was cut in thirds, and then was one-third that was rolled out to make an apple tart, and then was the scraps that were left when the 12" tart was cut out of it, and was then rerolled together into a sheet about an eighth inch thick.
Preheat your oven to 425 degrees.
Put a 6.5 inch cast iron skillet on the stove on low heat. Add the butter and let melt. Swirl around and up the sides of the skillet, then add sugar and coat as evenly as you can. Remove the skillet from the heat, and sprinkle on the cinnamon. (Purists will tell you that cinnamon has no place in a Tarte Tatin. I will not engage them in an argument, but I will note that the cinnamon was undetectable in the finished product.)
Cut the apples in quarters and remove the cores and other tough bits. Peel. Fit as many apple quarters as you can into the pan. I could fit ten quarters into my pan. Put the pan over medium high heat for 18 to 25 minutes, or until the butter and sugar are bubbling lustily. I don't know how else to describe it, but don't let the sugar burn.
Move the pan to the oven for another 20 minutes. While the tart is baking in the oven, finish rolling out your pastry, and cut a 6.5- or 7-inch circle out of the dough. Remove the pan from the oven and place the dough on top of the apples, tucking in the edges slightly if you cut a 7-inch circle.
Return the dough to the oven for another 20-25 minutes, until the dough has puffed nicely and browned thoroughly. Remove the skillet from the oven and let it sit on a turned-off stove for about twenty minutes, until it has cooled somewhat. Place a plate on top of the dough, then invert the skillet on top of the plate. If necessary hold with both hands and give a sharp downward shake, and pray that the tart releases. If it does not, but the skillet over a low flame for fifteen seconds and try again. Perform any cosmetic surgery that might be necessary.
Different people have different ideas about what an authentic Tarte des Demoiselles Tatin really is, and since neither of the Mlles Tatin is around to clear it up, I choose not to argue about it. I will risk being labeled a heretic by saying that while the flavor was very good, it really would have been improved by having a scoop of good vanilla ice cream served on it, since there was no flavor evident except for apples and caramel and puff pastry.
After cutting out the pastry for this tart, I still had some left over, and while I was tempted to find a family of mice to give it to, I instead decided to roll out the last bit, cut out rounds with a cookie cutter, fry the rounds in a bit of canola oil, and then shake them in sugar and cinnamon. This had the added benefit of adding another layer of seasoning to my new old cast iron skillet, which I really do adore. I imagine that I will be adding a larger one to my collection pretty soon, and I am awfully tempted to get a second 6.5-inch version, perhaps to make individual chicken pot pies for a comforting dinner on a cold winter's night.