Turning the tarte Tatin on its head

Turning the tarte Tatin on its head

by Clare Gazzard 29 October 2015

The tarte Tatin is one of those iconic dishes, shrouded in history and tradition, its creation is something of an urban legend; a kitchen disaster which turned out to be an instant success. A delicious pastry dish, enjoyed the world over and in a world of wonderful ways.

Having attended cookery courses in South Africa, Vietnam, Thailand and the Caribbean, Clare is always looking to expand her culinary know-how and improve on recent kitchen disasters.

Having attended cookery courses in South Africa, Vietnam, Thailand and the Caribbean, Clare is always looking to expand her culinary know-how and improve on recent kitchen disasters.

The creation of the original tarte Tatin is something of an urban legend, was it a happy accident, a stroke of culinary genius, or the reinvention of an ages-old dish? The traditional story starts with the Tatin sisters, Stéphanie and Caroline, who owned a local hotel in the small French town of Lamotte-Beuvron. It is said that Stéphanie made a mistake with a traditional apple tart recipe in the kitchen, but even here the specifics differ from tale to tale. Some say she left apples cooking in a pan on the stove for too long and they started to burn, so she threw a disc of pastry over the top in the hope of rescuing the dish, and chucked it into the oven to bake. Another version claims that, rushed by a busy service and desperate to produce a pudding, she threw a pan of apples into the oven with a pastry lid, not realising the pie didn’t have a pastry bottom. In whichever variant you believe, it supposedly resulted in an upside-down tart with the apples on top that the diners subsequently loved.

Not alone in the world of kitchen mishaps, some of our favourite foods have been created by similar mistakes. Two classic British desserts, Bakewell tart and Eton Mess, have similarly colourful histories. The original Bakewell pudding was supposedly created when a cook in the early 1800s misinterpreted a jam tart recipe from her landlady and topped the jam with an almond sponge. Stories for Eton Mess range from the original meringue dessert being dropped in the school kitchens, or the schoolboys mushing up their desserts when they ate them, to (my personal favourite) a labrador sitting on a picnic basket containing a pavlova during a school event. Chocolate chip cookies were apparently the result of an experiment to create chocolate biscuits, as the cook expected the chunks of chocolate to melt throughout the dough when cooked. Crisps were purportedly the revenge of a chef whose customers complained his potato chips were too thick, so he tried to bake inedible thin discs to spite them… and so on.

Although many of these stories are now something of an urban legend, they do hold true to the fact that a lot of recipe development is a matter of trial and error, and that sometimes a bit of creative PR is no bad thing. In terms of the tarte Tatin, it has been recorded that forms of an upside-down tart were made in the Sologne region of France long before the Tatin sisters were around in the latter 1880s, but the name ‘Tatin’ is what stuck, while the tarte solognote is relatively unknown outside of the region itself. The main boost to the tarte’s widespread fame came when it was copied on the menu of the Paris restaurant Maxim’s during the 1920s and called Tarte des Demoiselles Tatin – the tarte of the Tatin sisters. The tarte Tatin as we know it was thus unleashed on the culinary world.

Since then, the tart has known no bounds, and now appears in many shapes and styles throughout the world’s kitchens and cuisines. Three key elements make the essential Tatin: a softened fruit or vegetable, coated in sticky caramel, and topped with a crisp pastry ‘base’.

These elements however, are open to interpretation and vary greatly depending on the creativity of the chef. For the fruit or vegetable element apples are the classic choice, but the variety differs wildly from recipe to recipe. Some chefs recommend a crisp eating apple that holds its shape well, while others favour softer, fragrant varieties that melt into the caramel. Other orchard fruits are a common substitution, and it is thought that the traditional upside-down tarts of Sologne used pears as often as they did apples. Pears have a similar firm texture, but stone fruits such as plums and apricots also work well. With the wider availability of exotic fruits, banana, mango and pineapple Tatins are now a widespread choice, the latter reminiscent of a retro pineapple upside-down cake. The soft nature of some of these fruits means that nuts are a favoured addition, giving a desirable crunch to the filling; perhaps banana and pecan, or pear and walnut.

Savoury versions of the Tatin are now popular options, with the thick pastry and caramelised vegetables making the tarts an elegant (yet filling) vegetarian dish. Onions and shallots work well as they naturally suit caramelisation, while root vegetables such as carrots, parsnips and sweet potatoes as well as pumpkins and squashes, also have a natural sweetness that is complemented by the buttery caramel.

When looking at the caramel, it fundamentally boils down to butter and sugar, but again, the choices are broader than you may think. Brown or muscovado sugars will add extra treacly flavours compared to white sugar, while salted butter can be used for savoury versions, or the popular salted-caramel take on a sweet version. On top of this the caramel can be flavoured with herbs and spices to suit the filling: some thyme or rosemary would complement root vegetables, whilst star anise would suit mango and cinnamon would work with plums.

For the pastry, puff is the most popular choice, and ready-made versions now available make it a speedy option for making a more impromptu pud. The crisp and buttery layers of puff or flaky pastry give a perfect contrast to the soft, sticky filling, while shortcrust pastry or even a scone dough could be used for a more robust, firmer finish.

The trick to all of these elements, as with most recipes, is in the cooking, and as with many things, often comes down to the trial and error of the chef. A delicate balance is required throughout the cooking process: cooking the filling ingredients until they are softened, but not turning into mush; taking the caramel far enough to get the perfect sticky glaze, but not burning to bitterness; baking the pastry until crisp, golden and cooked all the way through but has still managed to absorb some of the caramel.

And all of this before we even reach the ‘turning out’ stage. To flip the tart successfully out onto a serving plate, with filling intact and without covering oneself in burning caramel… it sounds like a kitchen fiasco waiting to happen, but with a little confidence and care, flipping your tart in one, quick movement and giving the tin a gentle tap before lifting, will ensure you keep your Tatin (and your hands) intact to enjoy. For the deliciousness of the resulting dish, it’s a culinary mishap I’m thankful to the Tatin sisters for, and one I’m definitely willing to try.