Caramel has long been a problem in the JennyBakes kitchen, from failed cakes to frustrating tarts. But caramel is a key element in a tarte tatin, and I couldn't read Ducks, Newburyport, whose narrator thinks frequently about tartes tatin, without making the attempt. Not to mention that she specifically uses Pink Lady apples and the Instacart person picking my apples for me had ended up bringing me a 3-lb bag of the same kind of apple!
The other appeal to the recipe I decided to use as my basis was that it made use of a "rough puff" for the puff pastry. Anyone who has sat through a season of the Great British Bakeoff (aka Great British Baking Show in the states) knows about a rough puff. But yet I had never had the opportunity to make one. I'll be honest that I was most excited about that!
I will share what I am certain is a lovely recipe outside of user error, and then discuss my thoughts on the recipe.
Tarte Tatin with Homemade Rough Puff Pastry Dough
(recipe from Brooklyn Supper, with great detail and lovely pictures, please refer to that site)
Rough Puff Pastry
- 1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
- 8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, frozen
- 1/4 teaspoon fine grain sea salt
- 6 tablespoons ice water
- 6 medium apples, peeled and quartered with cores cut out (go with a crisp, flavorful variety like Jonagold or MacIntosh)
- 1 1/4 cups white granulated sugar , divided
- 1 tablespoon fresh squeezed lemon juice
- 6 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1/4 teaspoon sea salt
- 1 recipe puff pastry (above)
To make rough puff pastry dough, use a fork to blend flour and sea salt. Grate in frozen butter. Use fingertips to rub butter into flour, though not as thoroughly as you might for a traditional pie dough. Drizzle in half the ice water, turn dough until it’s absorbed. Add remaining water, turning dough once more. Gather dough into a loose mound; there will be a few dry bits, but that’s fine. Turn mound out onto a sheet of plastic, form a loose disc, and wrap tightly. Set in refrigerator and chill for 30 minutes.
On a very lightly floured sheet of parchment, roll the disc out into an 8 x 15-inch rectangle. Dough will still be quite crumbly; just do your best. Fold sheet of dough into thirds, folding each third into the center, so you have something resembling an envelope (pictured above). Press an indentation into the upper corner of envelope with your fingertip, to indicate one turn. Wrap tightly with plastic and chill 30 - 45 minutes.
Continue this process of rolling, folding into thirds, marking number of turns with a fingertip, wrapping, and chilling, for a total of 5 turns. As you can imagine, it’s best to give yourself a day when you can make this ahead. When you’ve completed the fifth turn, wrap dough and chill until needed for the tarte.
Use a sharp knife to trim angled edges from the apple quarters, so they’ll sit flat, with the rounded side facing up. Toss prepared apples with lemon juice and 1/4 cup sugar, and set aside to co-mingle for 20 – 30 minutes.
To make caramel, set a 9-inch, deep-sided heavy-bottomed skillet over medium heat. Add butter, and once melted, the remaining cup of sugar. Keep a close eye and stir constantly. First, things will hold together, then slowly, the mixture will darken and butter will begin to separate. Stay strong. Next, sugar mixture will bubble and spit a little. You may want to edge heat down slightly here, as you’re going for a light caramel color and things still have a ways to cook. Finally, caramel will come back together, smooth out, and cook quickly. As soon as you have an even, light caramel, remove pan from heat, about 10 - 15 minutes total.
Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
Toss apples one more time, and then carefully spoon into hot caramel. Things are going to spit and bubble a little, so go slowly. If there’s a lot of excess juice (it varies according to the kinds of apples), leave it behind. Set caramel and apples back over medium, or slightly medium-low heat, and cook 15 minutes or so, stirring frequently to turn apples in the caramel mixture. Apples and caramel are ready when the apples have taken on color without being mushy and the caramel is a dark, golden brown.
Arrange apples with rounded sides facing down in a nice circle, with several apples more in center.
Roll the prepared puff pastry into a 10-inch circle, about 1/4-inch thick. Set on top of apples and tuck sides down into edges of the pan. Cut four 1-inch vents in center with a sharp knife.
Set pan on a rimmed baking sheet and slide into oven.
Cook tarte for about 25 minutes, or until the pastry has puffed up and is a nice golden brown.
Set tarte aside to cool for a minute, then cover with a large plate, and use two potholders to flip. Slice and serve immediately.
Reader, there are so many places I made mistakes.
First, I decided to make a half recipe. I would be the only person in my house eating it and I figured I could just cut everything in half and use a smaller skillet.
The rough puff was going fine, and fit the skillet I had chosen, but...
The caramel followed the steps described in step 5, but by the time the mixture started to bubble and spit after separating, it was already a pretty dark reddish brown which quickly turned to BLACK BLACK BLACK hahahaha. I definitely over cooked it but to be fair, that was prior to even 10 minutes. Perhaps the lower amounts, perhaps using a nonstick pan, perhaps my infernal electric flattop stove.
So I pressed on. I did not cook the apples long, just arranged them and tried covering them with caramel at least partially (it had the texture of pulled sugar and I definitely knew it was already over but for SOME REASON I decided not to start over.
I had it all arranged in the 6-inch skillet and on a cookie sheet but I kept having this niggling thought in my head... nonstick skillet...plastic handle... IF I PUT THIS IN THE OVEN IT WILL MELT.
So I quickly and sloppily transferred the concoction to a lovely but oval-shaped ceramic baking pan. There were no longer exactly the right number of apples, and the puff pastry was no longer the right shape and covering everything. Yet I pressed on.
There was just no coming back for the caramel. And the lack of heat in the apples I didn't cook plus the late-in-the-game relocation of the puff pastry didn't do it in any favors and I didn't see the layering like I thought I should (in a few select pieces it was perfect and lovely but most of the time it was a lump of unscorched delight in a pool of burned and blackened apple-shaped corpses.
Will I try this recipe again? Oh probably not. I'm not sure it's worth the end result. I'd much rather have an apple pie or apple crisp, one of which is easier to make than a tarte tatin. I take some consolation in remembering Julia Child's episode of the French Chef where she turned her tarte tatin over and it fell apart and loosely spread beyond her serving platter. And she just tucked it all back in and declared it good enough. I suspect she had the opposite problem of me - not enough carmelization! Plus her apple choices seemed a bit willy-nilly and it's clear from the narrator in Ducks, Newburyport, who bakes for a living, that the apple matters. I enjoyed the Pink Lady apples in their slightly baked manner, once the charred caramel was cut off.
I might make the rough puff again, but of course anyone who bakes probably knows that once you see how much butter puff pastry has in it, you don't particularly want to eat it.