As apple tarts go in France, I don’t think you’ll find more iconic than the classic Tarte Tatin. This tart of caramelized apples and crisp buttery crust turned upside-down, is an icon of French cuisine and a must to have in your baking repertoire as a French host(ess). But don’t be confused, a Tarte Tatin is not French for apple tart. A Tarte Tartin is in fact a very particular kind of French apple tart.
As the rumor goes, The Classic Tarte Tatin was likely invented in the 20th century at the Hotel Tatin in Sologne, in the Loire Valley in Western France.
In France, a “Tarte aux pommes” (apple pie/tart) usually comes in a pretty fluted crust, either filled with “compote” (apple sauce) or frangipane (almond cream), which is then topped with neat apple slivers, baked to a lightly golden perfection and often finished up with a shiny apple glaze. These apple tarts are the ones you will find across French bakery stalls, and the ones French people often buy to serve for dessert at their Sunday family lunch.
Now, a Tarte Tatin, I believe, is more of a home baker’s staple – it’s not as often found in bakeries. Maybe because it has a more honest, rustic look which makes it more approachable to home bakers. A Tarte Tatin is quicker and simpler to make than a classic bakery-style apple tart, when done right. It also doesn’t require a polished final look – it lets the apples shine on their own, and it’s even better when the tart looks bumpy and rustic.
It truly is a perfect recipe for home bakers of any skill level – which is why I have been wanting to share it on the blog.
But as I said in the previous paragraph, as rustic and honest as it is, a Tarte Tatin has to be done right. Because the truth is, making a Classic Tarte Tatin at home, can come with a few traumatic experiences. And yes, I have had my share of those: apple juice flowing out of the pan when baking and covering your oven’s bottom with un-scrapable black puddles… light caramel turning into a burnt clutter, and countless failed flips – including either the apples staying stuck to the bottom of the pan or blistering hot juices drooling all over, with the crust breaking into a messy wet calamity.
For all these disastrous reasons, I really wanted to take the time and share with you a few of my cooking notes and tips, to explain to you my process in developing this Classic Tarte Tartin recipe and how you can also achieve it successfully in your own kitchen.
So make sure you read the following cooking notes before your start. These may look a bit lenghty, but they explain all the key components and steps of this recipe: the choice of the best baking vessel, the best apple variety, the proper time taken on the stove to cook the apples, etc. Combined, these components and tips will make for a successful Tarte Tatin.
And once you do this recipe successfully, you’ll realize how easy making a Classic Tarte Tatin can be. You need just a few key concepts in your pocket, to make it properly… And to not be left with traumatic memories of scoldering caramel dripping down your arm! Lastly, please note that these are my notes and tips for achieving the best Tarte Tatin, that tasted the best and worked the best for me. You’ll find so many Tarte Tatin recipes out there that can be a little, or very different from this one. There’s not one Tarte Tatin. There’s many. This one is just my favorite.
- The baking vessel: Choose a cast-iron skillet. I have tested this recipe with different baking vessels: a glass pie dish, a ceramic pie dish, a cake pan and a cast-iron skillet. The skillet made for the most successful recipe, by far (I used a 9-10” (22.9cm-25.4cm) cast iron skillet). I find that starting your oven on high (430F/220C) while using a skillet is best to give an initial heat shock to the tart, and provides faster and proper baking. With the other baking vessels, I had to cook the Tarte Tatin on lower heat for longer, which made the apples turn overcooked and mushy, while the crust was still barely cooked. A skillet tolerates and retains higher heat, which makes it the best vessel to create the best caramelization, crisp crust and proper overall baking.
- The apple variety: Choose Honeycrisp apples. I have tested this recipe with different apple varieties, including Royal Gala, Melrose, Braeburn, Granny Smith and Honeycrisp. Honeycrisp apples provided the best results. They turned so sweet and tender, but not mushy at all. Many recipes out there suggest the use of both Granny Smith and Honeycrisp. Using different apple varieties is something I always do when I bake American-style apple pies, to provide both sweetness and tartness. But when I tried this option with the Tarte Tatin, the Granny Smith actually turned mushy, while the Honeycrisp kept a nice texture. The version using solely Honeycrisp was just perfect, working with my suggested cooking time and method (if you use other apple varieties that work well, let me know in the comments, I’d love to hear it).
- Do not underestimate the initial stove-top cooking process. Taking the proper time to cook the apples on the stove-top first is an essential step. Do not rush it. You really want the apples to release their juices in the skillet, so they don’t sweat it out in the oven later– this is how you’ll end up with a juice oozing out of the pan when baking, and a soggy crust once the tart gets flipped. Once the apples have sweat their juices out and are lightly caramelized (this should take between 20 to 30 minutes, depending on your stove top), gently transfer them with a slotted spoon to a cooling rack, so they drain properly and cool down. The remaining apple juice in the skillet then gets reduced and turned into a caramel.
- Don’t forget the salt! A Classic Tarte Tatin may be all about the sugar and apples turning into sweet caramel jewels, but a generous sprinkle of salt (fleur de sel, or sea salt flakes) will make the apples shine even more and bind all the ingredients together beautifully. Of course, because I am from Brittany (where we only rely on salted caramel), I think the step of salting the apples – after cooking them on the stove top and right before returning them to the skillet and into the oven – brings so much life to this tart. Think of it as salting your meat before your cook it. It brings tenderness, life and so much more character. For the fleur de sel, I use Fleur de Sel de Guerande. As a substitute, Maldon salt works great too.
- The crust: Homemade is the way to go! This recipe can be made with a store-bought pie crust if you wish. Although, I highly recommend you make your own crust here, as it will make a big difference. This crust recipe is specifically tailored to a Classic Tarte Tatin: it is buttery and crisp (firm enough to be kept together for the final flip), but slightly more delicate and crumbly than a classic pie crust – which is exactly what you want for a tarte tatin. It has to be a little more messy than your average apple tart.
For the crust:
1 cup (125g) all-purpose flour
1 tbsp (12.5g) sugar
½ tsp salt
½ cup (125g) unsalted butter, cold and cubed
1 large egg yolk
1 tbsp (15ml) lemon juice
For the Tarte Tatin:
6 medium Honeycrisp apples
2 tbsp (30ml) lemon juice
1/3 cup (75g) unsalted butter
1 cup (200g) sugar
1 vanilla bean, halved and scraped
1 tsp fleur de sel (or sea salt flakes)
Make the crust:
In a large mixing bowl, combine the flour, sugar and salt. Add the cubed butter and mix the ingredients together using your hands (rub between your palms) until you get a crumbly texture and pea-size bits of butter are still visible. In a small bowl, whisk together with a fork the egg yolk and lemon juice, and add to the other ingredients. Combine until the dough comes together into a ball. If it feels too dry, you can add a 1 tablespoon (15ml) of water. Wrap in plastic film and chill until needed (minimum 30 minutes, maximum 24 hours).
Make the pie :
Peel, core and cut the apples in quarters. As you go, reserve the apple quarters in a large bowl with 2 tablespoons (30ml) of lemon juice, to prevent them from browning. Stir the apple quarters as you go to make sure they’re always lightly coated in lemon juice.
In a 9-10” (22.9cm-25.4cm) cast iron skillet, melt the butter over medium heat, with the sugar and vanilla bean scrapings. Stir and cook for about 5 minutes, until the sugar has dissolved and the liquid starts to simmer. Add the apple quarters, stir to coat and turn the heat down to low.
Cover with a large sheet of foil (so the steam is kept inside) and cook for 20 minutes until the apples are tender (but not mushy), stirring occasionally and pouring the liquid in the pan on top of the apples (always place the foil back). With a slotted spoon or spatula, transfer the apple quarters to a cooling rack and sprinkle evenly with the fleur de sel (or sea salt flakes). Bring the heat to high and simmer the remaining liquid until it turns into a golden caramel.
Remove from the heat.
Turn your oven to 430F(220C).
Take the crust out of the fridge, transfer it to a lightly floured working surface and roll it out to a 12-inch (30.5cm) circle.
When cool enough to handle with your fingers, place the apple quarters back into the skillet (over top the caramel) in a circular pattern, with the “outside of the fruit” side down.
Cover with the crust and tuck the edges of the crust into the pan. Poke four tiny holes into the crust with a knife (for the steam to escape while baking).
Bake for 10 minutes in the pre-heated oven. Turn the oven down to 375F(190C) and bake for 20 more minutes, until the crust is golden.
Transfer the tart to a cooling rack for 5 minutes, and flip upside down onto a serving plate (do not wait any longer before you flip it, or the caramel will harden and the apples will remain stuck to the bottom of the pan). Use oven gloves or kitchen towels to protect your hands when you flip the tart as some remaining juice may still spill on the side of the skillet.
Serve warm (commonly with dollop of crème fraiche on top), or chilled.
If you try this Classic Tarte Tatin recipe let me know! Leave a comment or share a photo using #pardonyourfrench on Instagram. Bon Appétit!
If you like desserts with apples, you may like:
- Brittany-Style Buckwheat Pancakes and my favorite Apple compote recipe
- Skillet Caramelized Apple Cake from Brittany
- Caramelized Apple Cake from Flanders
- Calvados and Apple Flan from Normandy
- Spelt French Apple Cake