Whenever I play the name-the-best-meals-of-your-life game, I always include the lunch with my mother at La Brasserie.
At age 13, I thought the restaurant, housed in a townhouse on Capitol Hill in Washington, an impossibly elegant desination. I felt very grown up as I dipped my spoon into the bowl of cold pepper soup that was divided, as if by magic, into a red half and a yellow half. But the real wizardry came when the waiter arrived with my tarte Tatin. The caramelized upside-down apple dessert was the size of a large dinner plate.
To this day, I make no apologies for eating all of the buttery pastry and soft, sweet apples, and scraping up the burnt sugar still stuck to the plate. I was already in middle school, so tarte Tatin was not my first love, but it was one of my most enduring.
I'm not alone in my obsession with tarte Tatin. There is a website dedicated to it: TarteTatin.org, which is maintained by the Friends of the Tarte Tatin. French culinary historian Henri Delétang published a book, "La Tarte Tatin: Histoire et Légendes," in 2011. One popular origin myth is that one of the Tatin sisters forgot to line a pie plate with pastry before pouring in apples that had been cooked in butter and sugar. Rather than start again, she laid the pastry on top and flipped the tart over to serve.
The truth is that upside-down tarts had been around long before they were branded tartes Tatins.
Food writers have made pilgrimages to the presumptive birthplace of the dessert, the Hotel Tatin in France's Loire Valley, in search of the very best expression of the dish. But the only thing these writers agree on is that it is not found at the Hotel Tatin.
I must admit it was years before the idea of actually making a tarte Tatin crossed my mind. So revered was the dish to me that it seemed arrogant to think that I could make one.
Making the perfect tarte Tatin is remarkably simple. The recipe is one for the digital age, easily written in 140 characters with some to spare: Make caramel, add peeled apples, top with pastry,bake till bubbling, flip onto plate to serve. Even better is that the dessert can be made in advance, which means you can wow your dinner guests and still enjoy your party.
A classic tarte Tatin uses a flaky pâte brisée. Inspired by Washington pastry chef David Guas' sweet potato version, I have switched to store-bought puff pastry, which cuts my prep time to 20 minutes. The morning of the day I plan to serve it, I heat sugar until it is a bubbling, dark butterscotch brown, then pour it into a cast-iron skillet. I top it with a fan of peeled pears (or apples or peaches, depending on the season), then sprinkle it with crystallized ginger. A round of puff pastry goes on top, and the whole thing goes into the fridge. The only thing left to do is pop it into the oven as the guests sit down to dinner. Unveiled at the table, the tart of sticky caramelized fruit is guaranteed to elicit wows.
Easy Make-Ahead Pear Tarte Tatin
Only all-butter puff pastry will produce a superior tart. Other kinds will work, but the flavor of the tarte will suffer. You’ll need an 8-inch cast-iron skillet to prepare this dish. Store any leftovers wrapped in aluminum foil. Inspired by a sweet potato tarte Tatin recipe by Bayou Bakery chef-owner David Guas.
⅔ cup sugar, plus a generous 1 teaspoon for the pastry
2 tablespoons water
6 tablespoons (¾ stick) unsalted butter, cut into 12 pieces
½ teaspoon ground ginger
⅛ teaspoon kosher salt
1 sheet (at least 9 ounces) frozen all-butter puff pastry dough, defrosted
2 or 3 small Bartlett pears, ripe yet still firm, peeled, cored and cut lengthwise into quarters (may substitute other sweet pears, such as Anjou or Comice)
2 tablespoons finely chopped crystallized ginger
1 egg (any size)
Whipped cream or ginger ice cream, for serving (optional)
Combine 2/3 cup of sugar and the water in a small saucepan, swirling the pan gently to make sure all the sugar is wet. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, then start watching the pan, without stirring. The bubbles will get bigger and pop more slowly until, in the next 15 minutes or so, the liquid starts to color: first to a pale amber, then butterscotch, then a medium-dark copper. At that point, add the butter one piece at a time, stirring vigorously until it melts. Turn off the heat; stir in the ground ginger and salt. Pour the caramel into the skillet and let it set up a little while you prepare the crust.
Place the sheet of puff pastry dough on a clean work surface; use your fingers to smooth any deep creases. Use a paring knife to cut out a round slightly smaller than 8 inches in diameter. Set the round on a baking sheet and refrigerate until ready to use. Wrap and refrigerate the excess dough for another use.
Arrange the pears in the skillet round-side-down, with their narrow stem ends pointing toward the center to create a flower pattern, paring/shaping them to fit if needed; you should be able to fit at least 8 pear quarters in the skillet. If a large open space is left in the center, pare down another pear quarter into a round to fill the hole. Scatter the crystallized ginger evenly over the pears and any exposed caramel. Drape the puff pastry over the top, tucking in any exposed edges.
Bake or cover the skillet with aluminum foil and refrigerate for up to 8 hours.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Beat the egg in a small bowl; brush it over the pastry, avoiding any exposed cut edges of the dough. (You will not need all of the egg.) Sprinkle the pastry with the remaining teaspoon of sugar. Bake for 40 to 45 minutes, until the pastry is puffed and golden, with deep-amber edges, and the juices are bubbling.
Cool the tart for 20 minutes. Very carefully tilt the skillet over a small saucepan, and gently pour off as much of it as you can; you might need to hold a clean hand over the pastry to keep it in place. Invert the tart onto a serving plate (hold the plate over the top of the pan and flip them together).
Bring the liquid in the saucepan to a boil over medium-high heat; cook for 5 to 10 minutes or until it has thickened a little and become slightly syrupy. Just before serving, pour or brush some of the hot syrup over the pears to glaze them.
Serve warm, either plain or with whipped cream or ginger ice cream, if desired.