This past week I taught a class that included several classic French dishes. I ended the class with a Tarte aux Pommes. You can't get much more "classic" than this tart. If you have ever walked in to a French pastry shop, you have seen this tart. It is amazingly beautiful. It is also surprisingly easy to make.
Since we are in the middle of apple season, now is a good time to try your hand at making this tart. The apple traditionally used is the Golden Delicious—it is sweet, apple-y tasting and holds its shape when cooked. But any flavorful apple that reliably holds its shape when cooked could be used. Patricia Wells suggests Jonagold, Gravenstein, Gala or Cortland. I imagine that Braeburn and Jonathan would also be a good choices, but honestly, my favorite is the Golden Delicious. Because it is sweet, it doesn't require lots of sugar. It is also widely available. Apples are very regional—I don't think I have ever seen a Gravenstein, and although I have lived in Cortland country, I don't anymore. They occasionally make an appearance in the grocery stores where I live now, but I can't count on finding them.
The Tarte aux Pommes consists of two layers of apples. A beautiful sunburst-like spiral of apples is spread over a thin layer of a thick, homemade apple compote. The compote is quite easy to make. The only trick is to make sure that you cook it until it is no longer "wet". When you draw a spoon through the compote in the pan, a path should remain without any liquid bleeding out of the compote.
Simply French. One of the things I love about her recipe is the inclusion of a vanilla bean in the compote.
Classically, this tart is finished with a glaze of an apricot jam-like substance called nappage. This gives the finished tart a beautiful sheen. It also helps preserve the tart for longer keeping in a pastry shop case since it protects the fruit from the air. Unless a tart has been prepared well in advance of when it will be served, I find the apricot glaze to be pretty unappealing. Oftentimes the apricot glaze is poorly applied and is thick and gloppy. I prefer the method that Patricia Wells uses: When the tart is hot from the oven, dredge with powdered sugar. Then, run the tart under the broiler until the edges of the apples are browned. Not only does this accentuate the beautiful spiral of apples, it also forms a light glaze over the whole tart as the powdered sugar melts. It tastes great and looks truly elegant.
Tarte aux Pommes
(French Apple Tart)
2 Golden Delicious apples (about 7 to 8 oz. each)
1 T. unsalted butter
3 T. sugar
3 T. apple cider or water
1 vanilla bean, split and scraped
3 Golden Delicious apples (about 7 to 8 oz. each)
1 partially baked 9- to 10-inch tart shell (Pâte Brisée)
2 T. melted butter
2 T. sugar
Peel, core and dice the 2 apples. Place in a saucepan with the butter, sugar, cider and the vanilla bean and seeds. Cover and cook over moderate heat until the apples are tender and beginning to fall apart—10 to 15 minutes. Uncover, increase the heat and continue to cook, stirring and mashing with the back of a spoon or a heat-proof spatula until you have a coarse purée that mounds on a spoon and doesn't "weep" liquid. Let cool. Remove the vanilla bean.
Peel, halve and core the remaining three apples.
Lay the apples cut side down on the cutting board and using a sharp knife, slice the apples cross-wise as thinly as possible—they should be 1/8-inch thick or less.
Spread the apple compote in the partially baked tart shell. Fan the apple slices, tightly overlapping one another, in two concentric circles—starting with the outside circle and overlapping the inner circle partially over the outer one. (It will be easier to make the inner spiral of apples lie flat if you first use the smaller "end pieces" of the apples to fill in the center of the tart, building it up to the same level as the outer circle of apples.) Brush the apples with melted butter and sprinkle the granulated sugar evenly over the apples. Place the tart on a baking sheet and bake in a 400° oven until the apples are lightly golden and tender to the tip of a sharp knife—about 30 to 40 minutes. Remove the tart from the oven and sprinkle generously with powdered sugar. Broil the tart until the edges of the apples are a deep golden brown—watch carefully, the tart will burn easily. Cool slightly and serve. Slice using a thin, sharp knife.
(Recipe adapted from Simply French, by Patricia Wells)
(Basic Pastry Dough)
1 1/3 c. all-purpose flour (150g)
scant 1/2 t. salt
8 T. cold unsalted butter, cut into pieces (112g)
3 to 4 T. ice water
Combine the flour and the salt in a medium-sized bowl. Rub the butter into the flour until the butter is in small pea-sized pieces. Drizzle 3 T. ice water over the flour/butter mixture. Using your hands, fluff the mixture until it begins to clump, adding more water if necessary. If, when you squeeze some of the mixture it holds together, the dough is finished. Turn the dough out onto a counter and form into a mound. Using the heel of your hand, gradually push all of the dough away from you in short forward strokes, flattening out the lumps. Continue until all of the dough is flat. Using a bench scraper, scrape the dough off the counter, forming it into a single clump as you do. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and press into a thick disk. Chill for at least 30 minutes.
To roll out the crust, let the dough warm up for a moment or two. Butter a 9-to 10-inch removable bottom tart pan and set it aside. Flour the work surface and the rolling pin. Begin rolling from the center of the dough outward. After each stroke, rotate the dough a quarter turn—always making sure that there is sufficient flour to keep the dough from sticking. Keep rolling and turning until you have a round of dough that is about 1/8–inch thick. Brush off the excess flour and fold the dough circle in half. Slide the outspread fingers of both hands under the dough and gently lift it and transfer it to the prepared pan. Unfold the dough and ease it into the pan being careful not to stretch it and making sure to press the dough firmly into the corners and up the sides. Using your palms, gently press the dough against the edge of the pan to cut it off flush with the edge of the tart pan. Chill the tart shell for at least 1/2 hour.
To partially bake the tart shell, line the pastry with aluminum foil or parchment paper, pressing it into the corners and edges. Add a layer of pie weights or dried beans. Bake in a 425° oven for 10 to 18 minutes. When the pastry begins to color on the edges, remove the foil and weights and continue baking until the pastry dries out and turns a pale golden color. Let cool before filling.