Tarte tatin, as simple as pie? Ermm, of course! Even if I did sideline its traditional apples for poires and spiced it up. The Tatin sisters ‘invented’ it in the 1880s by mistake when a pie went wrong, so perhaps it’s meant to be a trial and error dessert anyway!
Perfect pears, finally. Soft enough under finger, not hard, nor overripe. These are like gems to find in Malta, imported as they are and usually picked well before their prime. Such a rare autumn treat that I had to push the boat out for them. A Tarte Tatin avec poires with homemade rough puff pastry. I’d never made either.
I’d read that there’s a knack to the Tatin. It seems simple enough on paper: sliced fruit on caramel in an oven-proof pan, and covered with a slab of pastry. It is though, just like that other French classic the lemon tart, a test for trainee pastry chefs let alone the home cook. So just what can go wrong, when it was a tarte gone wrong in the first place according to legend?
With the age-old words of warning that there’s more to a plain ol’ Tatin than meets the eye, I googled it and sure enough the top results were all about it being tricky. Hats off to this Guardian Lifestyle writer who pitted several well-known chefs’ recipes (think Blanc, Ramsay, Oliver and more) and that of French cooking bible Larousse against each other to find a definitive winner in terms of ease of making, time, presentation and taste. Just wish I’d read her epistle first as it was lengthy and daunting to the newbie Tarte Tatin maker.
The main dilemma it transpires is whether to use puff or shortcrust pastry. I was already down the road of making homemade puff (required by the James Martin’s Tatin recipe which I had decided to go for) when I realised it takes two hours. Puff needs rolling, resting, rolling, resting four times and then two hours chilling before using. The Guardian article then said that puff is perfect if you serve the pud immediately, but it deflates quickly and can get that dreaded ‘soggy bottom’ if left around. Too late, it had to be left while I photographed it! Undeterred, I persevered with puff pastry from scratch and it wasn’t too difficult as I just got on with other things while it rested. I suggest you opt for ready-made though even if, as Martin’s book says, shop-bought is rarely 100 per cent butter puff pastry; an imperative for a perfect Tatin.
The next tricky part is avoiding too much fruit juice oozing out and spoiling whichever pastry you’ve opted for. A firm caramel might help and mine was – it took a steady nerve to see the sugar going deep dark brown (burnt isn’t nice) but I caught it in time to get a perfect flavour. The various recipes tried by the Guardian writer ended up with caramel over spill burnt on the hob. Luckily, a fate I escaped. Pears are wetter than apples, the traditional Tatin fruit so that didn’t bode too well either for avoiding the ooze.
However, the trickiest part of the Tatin process for me was flipping over a scalding hot cast-iron pan to get the tarte right sides up in one piece on the serving plate. Amazingly, as the photos show, it slipped out on cue and without too much liquid to spoil the puff. A case of beginner’s luck? I’d have to try it again to say I’ve perfected this classic to pastry chef level. But, a final note about my choice of flavours over the trad apple: pear and cardamom is divine…not me saying so, but the husband who gave it thumbs up, twice, even the day after when the puff had most definitely gone. I think it’s autumn into winter dinner party fare par excellence. You can practice a time or two first or just rely on beginner’s luck like me.
All images © Liz Ayling 2013
Tarte Tatin with Pears & Cardamom
Recipe adapted from James Martin’s (p.116) ‘Desserts‘.
- 1 block of ready-made puff pastry, defrostedprint button transparent
- 6 firm but ripe pears
- 4 cardamom pods
- 150g caster sugar
- 25g unsalted butter
- To Serve:whipped cream, double cream/mascarpone combo, with a little Calvados.
- Pre-heat oven to 200°C (180°C fan oven). You will need a heavy-based, oven-proof pan (cast iron ideal) around 24 cm (mine in the photos was 28cm)
- Prep fruit: peel, core and slice the pears into quarters or smaller if large slices still.
- Put some cardamom pods in a frying pan and dry roast briefly. Crush them up in a pestle and mortar and set seeds aside.
- Roll out the pastry to fit (plus 1-2 cm overhang) the pan you will cook the tarte in.
- Place the caster sugar in the pan and heat very gently until the sugar is dissolved and caramelising. Don’t shake or stir it nor let it burn (start again if it does). It needs to be a very dark brown liquid. Once caramelising, remove from heat and stir in the butter quickly.
- Place the fruit on the caramel in the pan, arranging slices in wheel shape for decoration (see photos above). Sprinkle on a few cardamom seeds leaving more to add on serving. Cover the pears with the pastry and press the extra pastry down in around the sides like gently tucking in a blanket.
- Bake for around 30 minutes or until the pastry top is browned and risen. Remove from the oven and leave to rest for a couple of minutes before turning out. To do this, place a flat plate on top of the pan, and carefully, using oven gloves to grasp the pan base and plate side, flip it over all together. Carefully remove the pan on top to reveal the Tarte Tatin in tact. There may be some juices, but I found they just added a nice caramel flavour to the pastry if serving immediately; if left, they will make the pastry soggy though.
- Serve with whipped cream of choice and if desired, sprinkle some more cardamom seeds on top. I used Mascarpone whipped up with double cream and added a few drops of Calvados.