The recipe I chose to feature today is is all about one of France’s most beloved and cherished desserts: Tarte Tatin. The French also call this dessert tarte des Demoiselles Tatin (the tart of two unmarried women named Tatin).
A quintessentially French dessert, tarte Tatin is an upside-down apple tart (actually a sweet upside-down cake) made by coating the bottom of a shallow baking dish with butter and sugar, then apples and finally a pastry crust. While baking, the sugar, and butter create a delicious caramel that becomes the topping when the tart is upturned onto a serving plate. Tarte Tatin is what many Americans believe to be an upside-down apple pie. But it’s, in fact, a bit more than that.
There is one imperative for eating Tarte Tatin, which is meticulously observed: tt must be served warm, so the cream melts on contact. To the French, a room temperature Tarte Tatin is not worth the pan it was baked in.
There are numerous versions of the history of the tarte Tatin, the most popular being the following. In 1898 two French sisters, Carolina (1847-1911) and Stephanie Tatin (1838-1917) accidentally created this beloved pastry. The sisters lived in Lamotte-Beuvron, a small countryside township in the Loire Valley of France; they owned and ran the Hotel Tatin.
The elder sister Stephanie was an exceptionally fine cook, though not known as one of the smarter persons in town. However, her ability in the kitchen was unmatched in the valley. Stephanie’s forte was an apple tart, served impeccably crusty, caramelized and which melted in the mouth. One hectic day, Stephanie had attempted to make a customary apple pie, but so they say she left the apples cooking in butter and sugar too long, and they were beginning to burn. Trying to recover the dish, she basically covered the top of the pan with pastry dough and tossed the whole creation into her oven. The upside-down tart that resulted from this blunder was a huge hit with the hotel’s guests, and ultimately became a signature dish for the hotel.
In fact, it was such a hit that French author and gourmet Maurice Edmond Sailland, better known by his nom de plume Curnonsky and considered to be France’s “Prince of Gastronomy” was the original person to dub the dessert the tarte Tatin, after its creator.
This dessert gained its popularity when the famed Maxim’s Restaurant in Paris, France put it on their menu. According to various historians, when word of this innovative gastronomic delight reached Paris, Maxim’s owner determined he had to have this tarte Tatin recipe. He allegedly sent a cook/spy, masquerading as a gardener, to Lamotte-Beuvron to ascertain the secret. The spy was successful, and it has been on the menu of that renowned restaurant ever since.
Some of the best culinary creations have come from kitchen mistakes. Such is the case with the fabled tarte Tatin, no matter which story is true, the tarte Tatin is delicious, so don’t be overwhelmed by the lengthy instructions and multi-step process. It’s worth the effort at least once each apple season.
Baking a beautiful tarte Tatin is not complicated. It is, one might say, as easy as apple pie when keeping to a few simple rules. The choice of dough is a personal preference. Some French tarte Tatin recipes use simple store bought processed dough or even puff pastry. I, however, go for the more authentic/traditional taste and use a shortcrust pastry. When it comes to food, I am a traditionalist. I like mine little processed, and cook everything from scratch.
Today, you can unearth the dish in most Parisian patisseries and restaurants. There are other accounts of the tarte Tatin’s origin, and historians note that upside down tarts, including apple pies, had been created and served by other French patissiers, including Antonin Carème who mentions a similar dish in his 1841 book Le Patissier Royal Parisien. Nonetheless, the story of the Tatin sisters is the most widely acknowledged depiction of the conception of this French classic.
The original tarte Tatin was made with two local French apples, Reine des Reinettes (King of the Pippins) and/or Calville. Over the years, other cheaper varieties became more frequently used. For North American cooks, Granny Smith, Jonathan or Golden Delicious varieties are the top choices for the dessert. Luckily for us, this happy mistake ended up being so delicious that it’s since grown in popularity and spread far and wide to dessert lovers the world over.
If you love food and food history in its original settings, then think about visiting the town of Lamotte-Beuvron. Lamotte-Beuvron is less than two hours from Paris, and here you will find the original Hotel Tatin and its restaurant. Here and at other restaurants in Lamotte-Beuvron, they only serve authentic versions of the original Tarte Tatin. Over the years, the apple tarte Tatin recipe has evolved, improved by the contributions of successive cooks and better cookware. I invite you to retrace its history, better yet, come enjoy it in its birthplace, and treat yourself to the fantastic scenery that is the birthplace of this quintessential French dessert.
Along with creme brulée, tarte Tatin is probably one of my favorite French desserts. Who can resist these soft and deliciously caramelized apples anyway?
This recipe is validated by our culinary expert in French cuisine, Chef Simon. You can find Chef Simon on his website Chef Simon – Le Plaisir de Cuisiner.
- 2 cups flour , sifted
- 10 tablespoons butter (at room temperature)
- ⅔ cup icing sugar
- ½ tsp fleur de sel (or salt)
- ⅓ cup ground almonds
- 1 egg , slightly beaten
- 4 apples , peeled and each cut into 8 pieces
- ½ cup sugar
- 7 tablespoons butter
- 1 tablespoon lemon juice
- 1 pinch fleur de sel or salt
- 1 vanilla bean
- In the bowl of a stand mixer, mix the butter and icing sugar at medium speed for a few minutes until reaching a sandy texture.
- Add salt and ground almonds and mix for 1 minute.
- Add the egg and continue mixing for 1 minute.
- Add the flour and mix very quickly until a reaching a homogeneous dough.
- Spread the dough between two sheets of parchment paper to a thickness of about ¼ inch, trying to give it the shape of the mold that will be used for baking.
- Place the dough in the refrigerator for 4 hours or even overnight.
- Preheat oven to 400 F.
- Melt the butter in a saucepan over low heat. Add the sugar and stir for 2 to 3 minutes.
- Split the vanilla bean in half and extract the seeds. Add lemon juice and vanilla seeds to the saucepan, and stir.
- Pour the whole in a springform pan and bake for 15 minutes.
- Remove the pan from the oven and let cool.
- Place the apples on top of the caramel, with the curved part facing the mold. Sprinkle lightly with fleur de sel.
- Remove the dough from the refrigerator and place it on the apples, making sure to fold the edges inside around the mold.
- Make two light cross-shaped incisions in the middle of the dough using a knife.
- Bake for about 15 minutes to 20 minutes or until golden.
- Remove from the oven and wait at least 10 minutes before unmolding.