After months of deadlines, I had a breather this past week for goofing around in the kitchen. Having succeeded with the fried apple spring rolls – a tasty exercise in mutant cooking of sorts – I decided to try a nontraditional approach to making tart tatin, a classic French upside-down fruit tart, typically made with apples. At a professional food conference this summer, I watched the legendary Jacques Pepin tweak an apple charlotte by cooking it in a skillet and putting the bread on top instead lining the pan with it; for serving, the result was inverted like a tatin. He’d crossed the charlotte with the tatin, said to be created by two sisters in in 1898.
Since a tart tatin required caramelizing the apples stovetop followed by covering them with a pastry crust and baking, why couldn’t I substitute slices of white bread for the crust? I suppose you could think of that approach as a Franco-Viet tart tatin. Imagine a resourceful cook in Vietnam not having enough butter for cooking the apples and making the pastry. Perhaps she or he would reach for a few slices of banh mi to fudge the dough? In Vietnamese, banh mi refers to both bread and sandwich. Baguette and sliced white bread are both types of banh mi to Vietnamese people.
I had plenty of butter and flour for the pastry but frankly was feeling a little lazy about making dough, and also was very curious about how the bread would function as a crust. I also had these fears: What if the whole thing fell apart when I inverted the pan? What if the bread didn’t stick to the fruit or crisp up? What if the tart looked ugly or worse, tasted bad?
What the hell, I tried it out. I had nothing to lose but a handful of ingredients. If I succeeded, I’d have a method for making tart tatin with just 4 ingredients.
Sometime in the mid-1990s, a couple of pastry chef friends, Christophe and Maki, taught me how to make tart tatin. For an afternoon snack, they threw one together in an All-Clad skillet, with apples picked from Maki’s mom’s house, a stick of butter, cup of sugar, and thawed puff pastry. It was a cakewalk for two people who at that time had about 30 years of professional cooking between them! Nevertheless, watching them gave me the confidence to make tart tatin on the fly ever since. For this tart tatin experiment, I applied the old lessons learned from Maki and Christophe but just tweaked the crust.
The result? Quite lovely, though I had to do some plastic surgery during unmolding. The true test of the recipe was when I gifted the tart to our neighbors, Dan and Adrienne. Back in September, Dan had given us a big box filled with apples picked from his parents’ trees. I wanted to return the favor with something from my kitchen.
They were surprised and enthralled. Adrienne took a bite and her eyes lit up. Then she asked for the tart tatin recipe. Here it is, Adrienne. Happy Thanksgiving.
Tart Tatin Tips
- 8-inch skillet: Is a nice size for this recipe because 4 slices of trimmed bread is about all you need. They fit neatly without overlap to cover the apples. Plus, the 8-inch skillet is perfect for 4 servings. I normally use a 10-inch All-Clad skillet because it has good insulation to cook evenly. This time around, I pulled out a Lodge cast iron skillet (see above).
- Bread: I used sliced potato bread instead of short-crust pastry dough. I opted for the potato bread because it has a slightly dense crumb that would hold up well once the tart came out of the pan. You can use a similar type of bread, maybe even gluten-free bread if that’s an issue. Lightweight Vietnamese baguette may not bake up as nicely but on the other hand, it may be just fine because you unmold the tart before serving. If you try this recipe with this type of Vietnamese bread, let me know how you fared!
- High-pectin apples: A tart-sweet apple, such as Pippin or Granny Smith, has a good amount of pectin to produce the slightly glossy, gelatin-like finish that also sandwiches the ingredients together and makes the tart gorgeous. I used a combination of locally grown heirloom apples.
- Number of apples: Fill the skillet with apples and add 1 more for the center for good measure.
- Ice: Arrest the cooking process with an ice bath, of sorts. This is among the best tricks I learned from Maki and Christophe.
- Unmold before you serve: If you unmold the tart tatin too far in advance, the bread (or pastry) may get too soft.
Tart Tatin with Bread
That’s right, for this take on the classic French sweet, you just need a handful of easy-to-find ingredients. You may not use all the apples but it’s better to have a little more prepped than to have to do it in the middle of cooking.
4 slices white bread
1 tablespoon plus 5 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 teaspoon plus 1/2 cup sugar
5 tart-sweet apples (1 1/2 to 1 3/4 pounds total), peeled, cored, and quartered
1. Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 350F.
2. Select an 8-inch oven-proof skillet for cooking the tart. Trim the crust from the bread, then put them together like a square. Invert the skillet over the bread and press to stamp the shape. Cut the bread. If you have some patches on the side, save the leftover bits to nip and tuck later on. Melt the 1 tablespoon of butter and brush it on the bread. Sprinkle on the 1 teaspoon of sugar. Set aside.
3. Over medium heat, melt the 5 tablespoons of butter and 1/2 cup of sugar in the skillet. When it is more or less liquid, lower the heat to medium low and arrange the apples, cut side down around the perimeter. Make them hug one another tightly. Put some smaller pieces in the center; cut bigger pieces, if you have to. Not all the pieces will go into the skillet.
4. Cook for 25 to 30 minutes. Not much happens for the first 10 minutes. As the apples soften, they will slightly shrink. Tuck more apple pieces when you spot an opening. The same goes for the center pieces; I often slide the new apple pieces under the cooked ones in the center. Trim the apple pieces, as needed.
The liquid mixture will bubble and eventually thicken. When you notice that the center liquid is an orange-honey color – a sign that caramelization is happening – remove the skillet from the heat. When the bubbles subside, arrange the bread on top of the apples, buttered side up. If you have overflow, use a knife tip to push the edge of the bread down.
5. Bake for 20 minutes or until the bread is golden brown. In the last 5 minutes, fill a larger skillet (a 10-inch one is swell!) with ice cubes. When the tart is done, pull it from the oven and set it on top of the ice to quickly cool. Remove the tart skillet once all the ice has melted and set aside until you’re ready to serve – or about 20 minutes before serving.
I had to wait for a minute for mine to come out. If pieces remain in the skillet, grab a metal spatula or knife to transfer it to the tart. Bits of clinging pectin in the skillet can also be used for skilful plastic surgery. The close-up below shows how imperfect my tart was. You may not have known that from the photo at the top.
Don’t be afraid to do some last minute arranging. The important thing is that you do your surgical procedures when the ingredients are somewhat warm so they’ll stick together and look like you meant it. Your guests will NEVER know and they will love you for making them a wonderful sweet treat.
Related VWK recipes and links:
- Deep-Fried Apple Spring Rolls Recipe
- Pumpkin Soup with Lime Leaf and Coconut
- Red Wine and Beef Stew in Claypot (A Franco-Viet Experiment)
- Jacques Pepin’s “More Fast Food My Way” episode in which he makes the Charlotte-Tatin