Tarte Tatin (Upside-down Apple Tart)

La Tarte Des Demoiselles Tatin“, more commonly known as “Tarte Tatin” in English, is a famous French dessert made of caramelized apples with a flaky, buttery crust. According to most culinary historians, the dish was created sometime around 1880 in the small town of Lamotte-Beuvron in France. The story has it that, Stéphanie Tatin, who ran the family hostel with her sister Caroline, once accidentally dropped an apple tarte while rushing about the kitchen. With hungry patrons calling, she promptly picked it up and rearranged it as best as she could, which happened to be upside down, and stuck it in the oven. Once baked, she flipped it back up on a dish, and discovered to her surprise the rich caramelized texture that is the tarte’s hallmark.

When selecting apples for tarte tatin, look for firm apples suited to both cooking and eating out of hand. Do not use soft or mealy apples that will turn to applesauce in the pan, and avoid overly juicy apples which will release excessive amounts of water and complicate baking.  Two old French heirloom varieties, the Reine des Reinettes (also known as “King of the Pippins”) and the Calville have long been preferred, but are seldom seen outside France, and are increasingly hard to find even there.  As a result, many cooks (even in Lamotte-Beuvron) use Gala, Golden Delicious, Granny Smith, and sometimes Belle de Boskoop, a Dutch variety.  Feel free to experiment here, and if you are lucky enough to have access to unique local varietals or heirloom apples (such as any of the Pippins), then by all means, use them. If not, my personal recommendation is the plebeian Golden Delicious, which reliably produces consistent- if not transcendent- results in tarte tatin and other apple pies.

Adapted from Mastering the Art of French Cooking (Volume One), by Julia Child, Louisette Bertholle, and Simone Beck. Copyright 1961 by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.

Ingredients:4 lbs. firm cooking apples

  • ⅓ cup granulated sugar (to toss with the apples)
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon (optional)
  • 2 tablespoons softened butter (for buttering your dish)
  • baking dish 9″ – 10″ in diameter and about 2 – 2½” deep
  • ½ cup granulated sugar (to caramelize the apples)
  • 6 tablespoons melted butter (to caramelize the apples)
  • chilled sweet short paste (use proportions for 1 cup of dough)
  • 2 cups heavy cream, or crème fraîche

Preparation:Quarter, core, and peel the apples; cut the quarters in half lengthwise into 1/8-inch thick slices. Toss in a bowl with the cup of sugar and cinnamon. You should have about 10 cups of apples.

Butter the baking dish heavily, especially on the bottom. Sprinkle half of the remaining sugar on the bottom of the dish and arrange of your apples over it. Sprinkle with of your melted butter. Repeat with a layer of half the remaining apples and butter, then a final layer of apples and butter. Sprinkle the rest of the sugar over the apples.

Preheat oven to 375° F.

Roll out the pastry to a thickness of 1/8-inch. Cut it into a circle the size of the top of the baking dish. Place it over the apples, allowing its edges to fall against the inside edge of the dish. Cut 4 or 5 holes about 1/8-inch long in the top of the pastry to allow cooking steam to escape.

Bake in the lower third of preheated oven for 45 to 60 minutes. If pastry begins to brown too much, cover lightly with aluminum foil. Tart is done when you tilt the dish and see that a thick, brown syrup rather than a light liquid exudes from the apples between the crust and the edge of the dish.

Immediately unmold tart onto a serving dish. If the apples are not a light caramel brown, which is often the case, sprinkle rather heavily with powdered sugar you can run it under a moderately hot broiler for several minutes to caramelize the surface lightly.

Keep warm until serving time, and accompany with a bowl of cream.  (May also be served cold, but we prefer it warm.)

Cook’s Notes:There are many opinions about what sort of baking dish makes the best tarte tatin, with various cooks variously arguing that either copper tarte pans, cast iron skillets, ceramic pans, or glass baking dishes are best. While “traditional” copper tarte pans are quite lovely and distribute heat beautifully to ensure even baking, they aren’t really practical or economical for most home cooks (they’re also a real pain to keep shiny and clean). I find that the humble cast iron skillet performs admirably well in terms of heat distribution and caramelization, but can be tricky to invert due to its weight, and the apples tend to stick to the bottom. Conversely, ceramic and glass baking dishes release nicely, but don’t disperse heat as well as metal pans, so tartes made in these dishes often require a few minutes under the broiler to finish caramelizing properly. However, glass baking dishes do have the added advantage that you can actually see when the tarte is done. Julia Child herself recommended a Pyrex baking dish for this very reason in her original recipe.

To unmold the tart, place a foil-lined baking sheet on top, and carefully invert, holding the tart pan or dish firmly against the baking sheet. Gently lift the pan away from the tart- some of the apples may stick, but you can gently remove them from the pan and place them back on the tart.

In lieu of a broiler, you can caramelize the apples using a little kitchen torch if you have one.