In the past I wondered why we cook the same dishes around the holidays year after year and made a pact with myself that I would break with tradition and avoid this practice at all costs. What better time to cook for your loved ones the dishes they really love. I find I can avoid cooking a whole turkey or leg of lamb and still hold onto tradition.
I prefer to prepare simple meals bursting with amazing flavors by using fresh, seasonal ingredients. As a culture, we have a tendency to forget when fruits and vegetables are in season. Sure, you can buy basically any fruit any time of the year, but sometimes it’s just not the same.
While I love the traditional holiday desserts, this same rule applies. A simple dessert wins the dinner every time. I try to serve items that are not too rich or too sweet and always include fresh fruit. Desserts should be the beautiful ending to a meal, small portioned, and feature flavors you might not expect served in novel ways.
One of my favorites is the simple Apple Tart Tatin. This glorious dessert actually has a humble background. It was created by mistake in the nineteenth century at the Hotel Tatin, a hundred miles south of Paris. A French cook’s apple pie disaster morphed into one of France’s most beloved recipes. The details of the birth of this classic are often debated.
The most common version of the story is that Stephanie Tatin, who owned the hotel with her sister, was overworked one day while trying to bake a traditional apple pie. She left the apples cooking in the butter and sugar too long allowing them to burn.
To rescue the dish, she put the pastry on top and threw the whole thing in the oven. The result? An upside down tart her guests loved. A beautiful caramelized fruit tart iconic and worthy of its place in French gastronomy.
Due to its status, there are multiple variations and subtle flavors that can be included in addition to the essential vanilla bean. Anise is a good pick. I love to use finely chopped fresh ginger which crystalizes as the tart cooks. It’s beyond delicious.
Put simply, this classic is made by combining butter and sugar to form a caramel, fresh firm apples (or pears), a vanilla bean, some spices, and short crust pastry. That’s it. It really is that simple. An easy to make, incredible dish that will impress. There are many variations and I personally love ones that use nontraditional fruit. Here are some simple guidelines to follow when making:
- Keep the fruit fresh and know what type you are using. While prepping the fruit, the juice of one lemon will keep apples from turning. When using pears, use bosc pears or similar; it’s important that the apples or pears can stand up to cooking, not all varieties can.
- Yes, we will tell if you use a pre-made crust. Sure, it will be good, but trust me on this, make your own. It’s simple, requiring only cold butter, flour, a little salt and water. Many cooks use the yolk of an egg or other liquid, but I have yet to find any difference in taste. Also, the dough should be refrigerated to let the gluten settle. If you skip this step, the pastry can shrink and for this tart it’s very important that it doesn’t. Some chefs and cooks use puff pastry for this recipe, which is perfectly acceptable. I prefer a short crust, which in my opinion pays homage to the original creation.
- Don’t make it ahead. This dessert is best served warm, traditionally with a dollop of vanilla ice cream, if you find that it is too rich, serve with crème fraiche. Interestingly, a tablespoon of sour cream is also perfect.
And finally, some pointers for beginners:
- Measure the fruit. If you’re new at making this classic, simply place your prepared fruit in the cold pan to assure a proper fit.
- Don’t fear the flip! Use caution and ensure your plater is of the proper size. When pulled from the oven the tart should rest for only 15 minutes before turning it out. This can be intimidating, but just be observant.
- Don’t use cast iron. Unless you have been cooking for years and have both experience and well-seasoned cookware, just don’t. Use stainless steel, oven safe cookware.
- Start Small. This is a very easy tart to create and great to practice making before serving for entertaining, your family will thank you.
We owe a debt of gratitude to the mistakes made at the Hotel Tatin for their accidental creation of this classic dish. Don’t be afraid to make your own mistakes. Cooking, like anything worth excelling at requires patience and practice. Sometimes, even the mistakes payoff.
I’m making mine for New Years Day. Wishing you and yours a happy one.
Written by Mark Stewart, 12/30/19.