Sunday, 18 November 2012

Tarte tatin

If you happened to read my recent post on kale frittata, you know I finally bought myself a cast iron skillet. It's one of those things I have dreamed about for a long time, but it took me  a long time to buy, as I thought I wouldn't have room for it. And to be honest, I don't have any extra room anywhere in my apartment. But I bought one of the small ones, so it doesn't take up that much space. And even if it does, who cares, because it's so cute and pretty and shiny. And above all great for cooking. Best steaks ever. The brand of the skillet is Lodge, and on my recent trip to SF, I found so many different types of cast iron cookware from this manufacturer that I would have loved to bring home. Particularly, I fell in love with their handle-less skillets, which were about single serving size and would have been great for direct to table cooking. Too bad the airlines pose weight restrictions on the luggage, otherwise I would have bought a few of those to take home with me. So I comforted myself by thinking I would get some from Amazon. Turns out I can't find that specific skillet anywhere online, not even on the Lodge website. So now I'm a little bit heartbroken.

My true inspiration for buying a cast iron skillet was my desire to make Tarte Tatin. I watched the bakers on the Great British Bakeoff making more or less successfull Tarte Tatins, and I really wanted to try it out. Despite the more exotic variations out there, such as banana or tomato, I decided to go for a traditional apple and pear variety. Partly because I wanted my first Tarte Tatin to be a classic one, and partly because I still had a bunch of apples and pears left over from my grocery delivery extravaganza a while ago, which really needed to be used up asap.

I have read from several blogs how hard the Tarte Tatins are to make, so I was feeling very insecure embarking on my TT journey. I read all the recipes I could get my hands on and all the comments sections if there were any. The recipes I ended using as a basis for my attempt were this one form BBC food and this one from Jamie Oliver. And the recipes from the Great British Bakeoff cookbook. You can actually find a few of the GBB recipes here if you want to have a look at them. And looks like I wasn't the only one inspired by GBB to make some TT, here is the blog of a fellow inspired baker. She even made her own rough puff, which I am very impressed with.

In theory, making a TT sounded really easy. Just add sugar and water, cook it without touching it at all, dump on the fruit and pastry, and bake. Ok, I guess I can do that, although the instructions for making the caramel were in general very vague. "Cook until a beautiful golden colour". Ok then, thanks for those specific instructions. Also, "don't stir the caramel while cooking as that will make it crystallise". Ok, fair enough, but how am I supposed to mix it when it only turns out golden in one quadrant of the pan? Given that I really had no idea of what I was doing, the end result turned out really great. I suggest you go through the process in your head once or twice before starting though. Just so that you have figured out each step in advance. And make sure you have all your ingredients all measured up and chopped and ready to go. Then just do it! I did cheat by using ready made puff pastry, as I thought the stress of making your own caramel would be enough of a challenge for my first TT.

Tarte tatin for a small (20cm) cast iron skillet (serves 6):
100 g caster sugar
3 tbsp water
1 apple
1 pear
1 lemon
1 tsp vanilla syrup

50 g butter
250 g puff pastry

The howto:
Preheat oven to 200 degrees C. Roll out the puff pastry and cut a circle which is a bit bigger than your skillet. I used a plate which is slightly bigger than my skillet as a template. Slice the pear and the apple (peel first if you like). Grate the zest from the lemon, and also squeeze any juice you can get from it. Mix the fruit with the lemon juice/zest mix. Add vanilla syrup.

Make the caramel: put water and sugar in an oven proof skillet and heat on low until the sugar has dissolved into the water. Increase temperature to medium and cook until caramel turns golden brown. Watch it closely, as it will turn from light brown to burned very quick. Don't stir the caramel while it's boiling as this will cause it to crystallise.

Take the skillet off the heat, and add the fruit to the pan, making a beautiful pattern of the layer of fruit which goes on the bottom. Be careful, because the caramel is extremely hot! The rest of the fruit wont be visible, so you can just pile it on without arranging it. Cut butter into small pieces and add on top of the fruit. Cover with puff pastry, and tuck in the edges of the pastry to the edges of the pan, but be careful as the pan is really hot. Make a few holes in the pastry with a fork, and bake until puff pastry is golden, about 25 minutes. The caramel and fruit juices will bubble around the edges of the puff pastry while baking. Let cool for a few minutes in the skillet, then turn over onto a plate which is bigger than the skillet. Place plate against the skillet, and press the plate against the skillet when turning the plate-skillet combo. All recipes suggested wearing heat proof gloves when turning the tarte, as the caramel is really hot and can burn you if you get it onto your skin. I didn't have any problems with any overflowing or exploding caramel, but I guess it's a better safe than sorry moment.

Water and sugar added to the pan.
When the sugar has melted, up the temperature to medium,
and the mixture will start bubbling like this.
The caramel is starting to turn golden. This was when I ran into trouble,
as my cooker clearly has uneven heat distribution, and particularly
the lower left hand quadrant turned very dark quickly whereas other parts
of the caramel were still white. And I wasn't allowed to stir the caramel
so that it wouldn't crystallise. Quite a pickle. I took the caramel off
almost immediately after this picture was taken.
Add fruit and chunks of butter.
Last but not least, add the puff on top, and tuck in the edges.

The verdict:
The tricky part about a Tarte Tatin is the caramel. I seriously had no idea what I was doing, but I knew I wasn't supposed to stir it while it was cooking as this could cause it to crystallise. In all episodes of GBB, they cooked the caramel until it was quite a dark golden brown. My caramel cooked very unevenly as you can see from the pictures, and it started to get a funny burned sugar smell in one part of the pan while still too light elsewhere. I figured some sort of compromise was in order and took it off before the burnt part got too dark and bitter smelling. Also, if I wasn't imagining it, the caramel did crystallise a bit when I added the fruit on top of it. However, clearly baking it in the oven did something to return the caramel to a smooth state, there were no crystals anywhere to be seen in the finished product. And after letting the tarte rest in the skillet for about 10 minutes after baking, it turned out very beautiful, and didn't stick at all. Might be beginner's luck, as I have read many bitter comments about TTs that have refused to get out of the pan when turned. I guess if you burn your caramel that is what happens. Also, some of the tips said you shouldn't let the tarte cool before turning it, as the fruit will stick to the pan. 

Interesting enough, it looks like there are two methods for making caramel. One is the water and sugar method I have used here, and which has been demonstrated by Mary Berry in the GBB. And if Mary says so, that's what I'll do. But some recipes seem to use another method, where the sugar is melted into butter. I have read quite a few comments about people having trouble with that method, but also seen several very successful results, so I guess both methods are perfectly valid. Not sure if I'll ever be brave enough to try the other one now that I know I can make this one work. Now my mind is just jumping from idea to idea what other flavours to do next.


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