Text Susan Jung / Photography Jonathan Wong / Styling Nellie Ming Lee
The story of how the tarte Tatin came to be is one of a happy accident. While at their Hotel Tatin, in Lamotte-Beuvron, France, in the 1880s, the Tatin sisters - Caroline and Stephanie - were cooking a regular apple tart on the stovetop when they realised they had forgotten to add the pastry. (What experienced cook forgets that a tart needs a pastry base?) Instead, they put the pastry on top of the apples, placed the whole thing in the oven and, when it was baked, flipped it over and voila! A new dessert was born.
The problem is that a tarte Tatin - at least a good one - is not that easy to make; it's taken me years of experimenting. I pored through hundreds of recipe books and watched countless YouTube videos, but my tarts kept turning out soggy, with a caramel that was far too watery. The secret is time, patience - and the right apples. On the advice of David Lai, chef and owner of On Lot 10 and Bistronomique, who makes a tarte Tatin I approve of, I now use Fuji apples, which hold their shape and don't get mushy when cooked for a long time. It takes me half a day to make a tarte Tatin, but it's not a constant slog - much of that time is taken up by the apples macerating.
I bought a stainless-steel-lined copper tarte Tatin pan a couple of years ago, at the Dehillerin cookware shop in Paris. I was puzzled as to why it didn't have handles, but it makes sense now. The scariest part about making the tarte Tatin is inverting it (the tart is hot and the caramel scorching), so that the pastry - which was on top when it was baked - is on the bottom when the tart is served. Because the pan doesn't have handles, you can put the serving platter flush against the rim of the pan and hold it securely so the caramel is contained, rather than flying out when the tart is inverted. If you're using a regular pan, stand over the sink and flip the tart over away from you. That way, the hot caramel - if it does splash out - goes into the sink, rather than on you.
You'll need a pan that's 24cm in diameter and about 4cm deep. It's OK to use a pan that's slightly smaller, but if it's larger you'll need to increase the amount of ingredients or the tart will be too low.
If you have vanilla sugar (made by putting a dried vanilla bean in a canister of sugar), use that in place of regular granulated sugar.
8-9 large Fuji apples
200 grams granulated sugar
100 grams unsalted butter, chilled
30ml fresh lemon juice
230 grams all-butter puff pastry sheet (I use the Casino brand, which is sold in the refrigerated section at Great, Pacific Place, Admiralty)
Peel the apples then cut them in half from end to end. Use a melon baller to remove the core of each half, then cut a small V at each end to slice out the stem and blossom parts. Weigh the apples - you should have at least 1.5kg (it's fine if it's slightly more). Keep one apple half intact, but cut all the others into three, even wedges. Put all the apple pieces in a bowl and sprinkle with the sugar. Mix well to dissolve the sugar, then cover with cling-film and leave for several hours or overnight to macerate. This draws off much of the liquid.
Later, or the next day, pour the ingredients into a colander set over a large skillet. Drain off as much liquid as possible. Put the colander (with the apple pieces) over the original mixing bowl (to catch any remaining drips).
Put the skillet over a medium-high flame and simmer the apple and sugar liquid until it turns a medium amber - watch it carefully so it doesn't burn. Put the butter in the skillet and stir it constantly until it's melted. Put half the apples into the skillet, shaking the pan so they're in an even layer. Bring to a simmer over a medium flame then lower the heat, cover the skillet with the lid and simmer until the apples are soft, but not collapsed - when you squeeze them with kitchen tongs, they will be bendable (about 15 minutes; uncover the skillet every five minutes and turn the apples over so they cook evenly). Check them more frequently towards the end so they don't overcook. Remove the apples from the skillet as they're ready (the pieces take different times to cook). Cook the next batch of apples the same way.
When the apples are cooked, arrange them in the tarte Tatin pan: place them curved side-down, in slightly overlapping concentric circles in the pan, starting from the outside. They need to be close together because they'll shrink slightly when baked. Put the half apple in the centre of the pan. After laying down one tightly packed layer of apples, arrange the excess pieces on top, starting at the centre and working outwards.
Put the skillet with the caramel on a medium-high flame, add the lemon juice and simmer until the caramel is of a coating consistency. Pour this over the apples and leave to cool for about 20 minutes while pre-heating the oven to 220 degrees Celsius.
Unroll the puff pastry sheet. Leaving it on the paper, use the tines of a fork to poke holes in the pastry sheet. Holding it by the paper, flip it over so the pastry is centred over the apples; peel away the paper. Use scissors to trim off the overhang, leaving a border of about 2cm. Tuck the border into the perimeter of the pan.
Bake the tarte Tatin at 220 degrees for 15 minutes, then turn the heat to 180 degrees and continue baking until the pastry is medium brown and cooked through (about 15 more minutes). Remove the pan from the oven and leave to cool for 15 minutes. Invert the serving platter over the pan and hold it securely, then carefully flip it over. Remove the pan; if any apples have stuck to the pan, put them back in place on the tart. Serve immediately.