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Cooking Off the Cuff: For a Memorable Tarte Tatin, Get the Caramel Spirit

01/15/2014 09:58 am ET | Updated Mar 17, 2014

Tarte Tatin is not something most people think of making at home; it appears to be a fancy, complicated dessert with glistening brown apples and uncannily crisp pastry.

But it is actually a fall-winter dish that protects the infrequent baker (me) from potential disasters: Because the apples (in the version I describe) are cooked before the tart goes into the oven, they'll always be just right; and because the pastry is laid on top of the caramelized apples rather than underneath the fruit, it cannot get soggy and will always be baked to perfection. In short, it is a forgiving recipe.

Too many recipes have you make a sugar/water/butter caramel sauce, top it with apples, cover the whole thing with pastry and bake. This yields a delicious apple tart with a caramelized surface, but it doesn't always work. And it is not what I mean when I say tarte Tatin, in which the apples are pretty well candied: There has been an exchange of apple juice (i.e. water) and sugar and the latter has penetrated the fruit, changing it while concentrating rather than obliterating its flavor. There's more science here than I understand, but the effect is quite a bit like magic.

Heat your oven to 425 degrees F (just shy of 220 C). For an eight-inch tart -- enough for six portions or four with second helpings -- start with a ten-inch skillet: you'll cook the apples in this, and they will shrink enough to yield a smaller tart. Put a scant cup of sugar into the skillet along with a few tablespoons of water. As you peel, quarter, core and rinse your apples, toss them into the skillet; stop when it is generously filled with a well-packed single layer plus about another apple's worth. Five big apples or six/seven smaller ones will probably do it. I generally use a mixture of New York State apples or sometimes all one variety such as Winesaps, but use anything that won't fall apart the minute it starts to cook.

I add vanilla at this stage: the scraped-out seeds from half a pod, plus the pod itself. This can be omitted, but it certainly makes for a tempting aroma. Over medium-low heat, I cook the apples, moving them around as they begin to exude juice and join the sugar to form a syrup; now I add two tablespoons of Cognac, again optional. Using a silicone spatula -- the kind that has a spoonlike concavity -- I turn the apples in the syrup from time to time as they cook. At a certain point perhaps fifteen to twenty-five minutes into the process, you will feel their texture change: it is as if they have puffed up. Now you need to keep your eyes open for the right degree of caramelization. The "right" degree, however, will depend on the water content of your apples: if there is a lot of liquid in the skillet, you can wait for a deep brown caramel to form, but if things start to look a little dry you can stop when it is a dark blond color -- it will darken in the baking anyway.

Now I remove the vanilla pod, gently stir in three tablespoons of butter (salted preferably, but unsalted is fine so long as you add just a tiny bit of salt to the syrup) and add the apple quarters to a lightly buttered eight-inch non-stick skillet, rounded side down so it will look nice when unmolded. Once this neat layer is in place, just spoon the rest of the apples and syrup, including any broken pieces, on top and even the surface with a spatula.

Top the skillet with a disk of buttery pastry, ideally puff pastry, though any butter pie dough will work; make sure the pastry goes a little beyond the rim of the skillet, because it will shrink in the baking. Place the skillet on a sheet pan to catch any drips and bake for 35 to 40 minutes until the pastry is beautifully brown.

Put well-insulated oven mitts on both hands. On the turned-off stove or another heat-proof surface, give the skillet a shake to make sure that the tart is moving around, then cover with a serving plate, hold tight with both mitts, and quickly invert. Gently remove the skillet; any apple quarters that remain in the pan can be eased off with a spatula and put back in place.

Take a good deep whiff, but be careful not to burn your nose: it is very hot. It's apple-y and buttery, with alluring vanilla and brandy aromas if you've added those ingredients.

Serve tepid or at room temperature. Some people serve it with whipped cream or crème fraîche, but Jackie and I like it plain. And I think it's great cold for breakfast, but not everyone would agree.

A Memorable, Caramely Tarte Tatin