Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Tarte Tatin

I've just taken one out of the oven and turned it onto a plate. It's a real beaut; the apples have cooked to a gorgeous golden brown colour and there are little dribbles of caramelised sugar oozing out around the pastry base onto the serving dish. OK, so the pastry is a fairly straight forward sweet butter shortcrust, instead of the frozen sheet of puff pastry Jenny Sheard went with in last week's Good Weekend and I put the thing together in an ordinary baking dish, instead of building it up in an oven-proof frypan like some bizarre fusion of cookery and ikebana but it looks pretty damn good, smells just as good and Zeppo and I are looking forward to tucking into it for dessert tonight. And, as I'm still thoroughly bored by the political scene (I've tried, but every new controversy that comes up, like the kerfuffling over the Flood report, just strikes me as more of the same old same old. Maybe, as Shaun Carney suggested in Saturday's Age, John Howard's main strategy for winning the next election is to bore us all shitless), I decided I might as well follow on from the veal casserole with a classic dessert.

I think we'll have to go with the step by step description I used for the veal shank casserole thing because, while I tackled cooking the tarte tatin a lot more methodically than I did the veal I did a lousy job of keeping track of quantities, except at a couple of points.

Three Days Before Cooking: pick up two kilos of Granny Smith apples at the Victoria Market for one dollar a kilo. Take home and refrigerate.

One day before cooking: pick up two 250 gram bricks of unsalted butter and a bag of dark brown sugar from the supermarket.

Final Preparation: First make the pastry for the base of the tart. Cut off half of one of the bricks of butter, and cut it into small cubes (roughly 1 cm on a side). Astute mathematicians will realis that this is 125 grams of butter, give or take a gram or two, but it's better to think of it as half a brick. Otherwise you're likely to get upset when I tell you to weigh 5 ounces of flour into a bowl. Add one ounce of granulated sugar, or castor sugar if you're the kind of ponce who keeps castor sugar in the house. Toss in the cubes of butter.

Go and wash your hands. Then wash them again, this time in cold water (seriously: it's uncomfortable, but it's better for the pastry). Rub the butter into the flour and sugar with your fingers, until most of the mixture reaches the consistency of bread crumbs. It's better to underdo this than overdo it; you'll probably find that however hard you try, you'll still end up with a few large flakes of butter that refuse to mix properly with the flour. Deal with it and move on.

Get a cup of very cold water; the precise quantity doesn't matter, you won't be using all of it anyway. Start adding small dribbles of water to the pastry. Really small dribbles. Each time you add water, press the pastry into it with the tips of your fingers. Stop adding water once you have a smooth ball of pastry which you can roll around the sides of the bowl without it sticking (once again, it's better to use too little water than to use too much). Cover the bowl and put the pastry in the refrigerator.

Peel the two kilos of bargain basement Granny Smiths. While you peel them indulge your sensitive, feminine side, by trying to take the peel off in a single continuous strip, which you can toss into the air. According to an article I read in Ma Trotsky's copy of The Australian Women's Weekly many years ago, folklore has it that this will give you the first initial of your destined one true love. Apparently, my destined one true love is an ancient Mayan who died many centuries before syphilis arrived in Europe.

Once you've finished piss-farting around with the apple peel, quarter and core the apples. Ponces who keep castor sugar in the kitchen probably keep an apple corer around the place as well; if so, you can core and quarter the apples instead.

Now check the cupboard for a baking dish; you want something with sloping sides. The one I found was about twelve inches in diameter. Coat the sides of the dish liberally with butter, then put a dessert spoon of brown sugar into one of those flour dredging things that ponces who use castor sugar and apple corers usually have in the kitchen somewhere. Attempt to coat the base and sides of the baking dish evenly with brown sugar, using the dredge.

When you realise that the brown sugar is just getting stuck in the mechanism of the flour dredge, give up, and tip the sugar straight in the baking dish. Rub it over the base and sides of the dish by hand. Repeat with another dessert spoon of brown sugar. If you've been liberal enough with the butter, you should have a dense coating of brown sugar on the inside of the dish.

Now cut some of your quartered apples into thin slices (about 2 to 3 mm) and arrange them in a poncy pattern in the base of the dish. Slice about half the remaining apples however you like; No one's going to see them under the decorative layer anyway.

Melt some butter in a frypan, add a small piece of cinnamon bark*, a quarter teaspoon of cardamom powder and a dessert spoon of brown sugar. Add the chopped apples, stir and saute gently until the apples have started to take on colour from the brown sugar. Leave out the cloves; I've read frequently that cloves complement the flavour of cooked apples but in my view this is like saying that tsunamis enhance the rustic tranquility of Japanese fishing villages. OK, if you really want your cooked apples to smell and taste like a home remedy for toothache, toss some cloves in. See if I care.

Put the cooked apples into the baking dish. Take the pastry out of the fridge and roll it out until you have a circle, or something approximating to a circle, or something which is nothing like a circle, but at least big enough to cover the baking dish and hang over the sides most of the way round, except for that one gap you can plug with a piece trimmed off the other side of the dish. Allow the pastry to rest for a couple of minutes (this will prevent it from shrinking to a small circle the size of a bread and butter plate when it bakes). Place the pastry over the baking dish, trim it and put it into an oven preheated to 175 C**.

Fret over the oven for approximately 20 minutes to half an hour, then check to see if the pastry has cooked; the tarte is cooked when the top is a light brown colour more or less all over. If it hasn't fully cooked, continue fretting for another 10 minutes.

While you're fretting, you can cook up the remaining apples in the butter, brown sugar and spices mix described above. They can be refrigerated until you need them for your next big batch of comfort food.

Once the pastry has cooked, remove the baking dish from the oven and run a table knife gently around the inside edge of the dish. Place a plate on top of the dish, and invert the plate and baking dish together. Lift the baking dish gently and admire your handiwork.

* I know, this sounds like one of those pieces of ginger 5 cm long and 2.5 cm wide, except I haven't even specified the length and thickness have I? Well, it came out of a bag of stuff labelled "Cinammon Bark" and I suppose it was somewhere between 5 cms and 6 cms long. If it really bothers you, you can either leave it out or go with a teaspoon of the powdered stuff. The cardamom isn't essential either, but it's definitely worth adding.

** On balance, I think this temperature was a little too low; the pastry would probably benefit from a few extra degrees on the oven thermostat, so next time I'll be upping the temperature to somewhere between 180 C and 200 C.

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