Nothing against apple pie, but alone, it never quite cut it for it me. Oh I admire the pairing of crust and fruit and the middle ground of spiced juices that cools into a goo that, when done well, is quite heavenly. But more often than not, the bottom crusts turn out as appealing thickly-spread wallpaper glue and the fruit tastes more of the sugar jar than of the tree and the sun that babied it into existence. And if there were a top crust? That's a whole other story. You don't want to get me started.
Therein lies the appeal to the classic tarte tatin. It's one of those cases where things in another language — especially French — immediately sound more appealing, sophisticated and delicious.
Boeuf bourguignon = red wine beef stew
Sole Meuniere = Sauteed Sole in Butter
[and my favorite ...]
Tarte Tatin = Upside-down apple tart
But there really is no translation for what I ever so monstrously created over the weekend. As usual, it started with a craving. Combined with the task of bringing dessert to a gathering, it required accessible ingredients, fairly forgivable methodology and something easily shared with a crowd. I craved apples an that made me think of cheese. Something exceptionally sharp. Maybe made by someone who loved their cows as much as they loved profit. I craved apples they way one does when images of bronzed, caramelized slices appear in mind and trigger borderline vulgar reactions from smacking lips, excessive drool and rumbling stomachs.
Thus, by way of France, England, Vermont and many points in between (not least of which my Utah kitchen) — Tarte Tatin, with a cheddar accent.
I was little, probably about 9 or 10, when I first heard of pairing a slice of homemade apple pie with a thick wedge of cheddar cheese. I Love Lucy was one of the many shows that babysat me during my latchkey kid days. And this particular night, Nick-At-Nite was rolling out a Lucy marathon. But it was Ethel that forged the flavors. She was (as in every episode) trying to coax her crusty old husband Fred into giving her something, or not telling Ricky incriminating info about Lucy lest Ricky beat the crap out of Lucy the way he did the bongos at the Cabana Club. Her bribe: "How about a nice big slice of homemade apple pie? Oh, and a big piece of cheddar right on the side? Whaddya say, Fred?"
I was intrigued. The only apple pie I knew of came from a woman named Marie Callender or the plastic pocket of a Hostess half-moon. I'd never had warm apple pie. Or ever dreamed of eating it with cheese. Still, my tongue could summon an approximation of apple juice and its pectin mingling with sugar in the most ideal way.
It would be years later in college when I first tried my hand at this all-American tradition. Long story short: I sucked. The crust though glorious by itself didn't survive the fruity moisture. As is it could never bribe me the way the Ethel's promise bribed Fred. Then, I came across tarte tatin. A brilliant take on the beloved pie, minus one-half of the crust, plus a good dose of stove top caramelization.
Cut to last weekend. Cut to the cheddar, grated into a rubble, being cut into a short crust recipe with pieces of butter that would steam and expand into the little pockets of flakiness. Wedges would've been to cumbersome for guests and small plates or lively discussion. So, in the cheese went into the crust. Part savory biscuit/cracker, part play on a tradition. A classic.
For me, caramel, toffee, butterscotch, any scorched sugar is ephemeral. But since I was already spiking the dough, spiking the apples and sugar with a bit of fresh rosemary seemed logical. In the end, after a bit of tweaking, it was just enough to get a breath of the resiny freshness (almost like pine some people say) into the sweet, deep apples. Just for good measure, I made a batch of rosemary-steeped cream and whipped it into a cloud with verbena sugar.
Nothing against apple pie. Or traditional tarte tatin. But meeting in the cultural middle ground in my kitchen yielded the best results so far. The ultimate kitchen bribe.
V's Tarte Tatin with Cheddar Shortcrust and Rosemary Cream
V is me. It's my version of French apple tart, with a twist of cheddar (English-style from Vermont). For this recipe, cheese quality is vital. I don't mean to sound pompous when I insist on the good stuff. No annatto seed-tinted orange cheddar. It's far too moist. The drier, sharper notes of aged cheddar, in this case a Cabot bandage-wrapped wheel, butter white and flavored intensely of the New England milk from which it was made. If you can get it grated, great. If not, a food processor with the grater attachment works just as well. Even better if you give it a second pulse through with a regular blade to get the cheesei nto even smaller pieces. Though this came about for a dinner gathering, it's quite good with a cup of coffee during a quiet morning. Even better when warmed (always in the oven; the dough doesn't like the microwave) and served with a thick slice of bacon or a favorite sausage. The best breakfast/brunch pie.
[PASTRY] 1 cup all-purpose flour * 1 tablespoon sugar * 1/4 teaspoon salt * 6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) chilled unsalted butter, cut into pieces * 1 cup finely grated sharp cheddar (about ¼ cup, depending on the size of grate) * 4 to 5 tablespoons (about) ice water
Pulse together flour, sugar and salt in a food processor or if making by hand, sift together into a large mixing bowl. Add the chilled butter and grated cheese and pulse until it becomes sandy. By hand, use a pastry cutter until you get the same consistency. Add 3 tablespoons water and blend until moist clumps form, adding more water as necessary. Press the mixture into a ball and place onto a sheet of plastic wrap and flatten into a disk. Wrap with the plastic and chill the dough. Let it relax and rest at least an hour or overnight. Either case in the fridge.
9 apples, peeled, cored and sliced thickly (use a mix of goldens, granny smiths, honeycrisp, macoun, etc.) * 2 tablespoons butter, melted * 1/3 cup sugar * 2 sprigs of fresh rosemary
Spread butter onto the bottom of a skillet. I love cast iron for this purpose -- the best caramelization. Pour the sugar over the melted butter in an even layer. Arrange as many apples in one layer. You can shingle and get fancy or tumble them in and mosaic them as you see fit. No need to get too finicky since most likely you'll have to rearrange the slices when you invert the tart. When I'm in a hurry, I like to shingle, concentric circle pattern in one layer and then tumble the rest in. I can say I at least tried. Keep in mind the apples will shrink and settle as they cook, so don't freak out if it seems to overwhelm the pan.
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. On the stove, cook arranged apples over moderately high heat, undisturbed, until juices are deep golden and bubbling about 20 minutes. It won't be even coloring, but everything will turn out. Add the sprigs of rosemary. Place the skillet onto the middle rack of the preheated oven (I like to place it onto a baking sheet or foil to catch any possible spillage. Wise for those who have very sensitive smoke detectors). Bake 15 minutes. The point here is to get rid of as much moisture as possible before capping the pan with the pastry. Most of the moisture is leached out in this initial cooking stage, thus, the omission.
While that's baking remove the disk of dough from the fridge. Sprnkle some flour onto a clean surface to roll out the dough. Use a rolling pin to flatten the piece into a circle (not perfect, no need here) about an inch or two larger than the size of your pan. So if you're using a 10-inch cast iron, you want about a foot diameter. In the end, you don't want a super thick crust. Ideally, we're looking for about 1/4-inch thickness. Cover the rolled pastry with a sheet of plastic wrap and fold in half. Fold into quarters, dusting with flour to prevent sticking.
Remove the pan from the oven and place the pastry over the apples. There will be draping -- that's desirable. Simply tuck and fold in the excess into the edges, like you're capping a pot pie. One tip: If you're nervous about placing a bit sheet of pastry over a hot pan, you can just as easily cut the pastry into quarters (triangles) and place each individually over the apples. They'll overlap and bake into each other into one full, complete crust.
Bake until the pastry is browned about 25 minutes. Transfer the skillet to a rack and cool at least 10 minutes. While it's cooling, run a sharp knife around the edge of the pan. The goal is to separate the cooling caramel from the pan before it transforms into an atomic glue. If you neglect to do so or wait until the tart is too cooled, this might happen to you:
Fugly, yes. But still quite delicious.
To enjoy it, place a platter or cutting board (shown above) onto the top of the skillet and invert the pan to that the tart will fall onto the platter/cutting board. Inevitably, apple slices will stick to the bottom. Use a spatula to place them out and back onto the tart. Neat is good. Messy is good. It all tastes the same. Serve warm or at room temperature.
1 pint heavy cream * 1 large sprig of fresh rosemary * Sugar to taste
In a heavy bottomed sauce pan, heat the cream over medium heat. When you see little bubbles forming at the edge of the pan, turn off the heat. Bruise the rosemary a bit with the spine/backside of a knife blade to release some of the oils and its fragrance. Add this to the hot cream and let cool completely. Chill until ready to use. Whip with a wire whisk, a hand mixer or stand mixer. When it starts to gain volume add as much sugar as you like. I like the mixture sweeter since the crust is deeply savory, so I use about 1/2 cupsugar, infused with lemon verbena from my garden. Whip into a soft stage -- you don't want anything stiff, you want the whipped cream to drape over the slices, not stand to attention. Keep the whipped cream covered and in the fridge for up to one day.