Tarte Tatin is one of those lovely recipes with an attached aetiological myth. Back in the 1890s, the Tatin sisters, who ran a hotel and restaurant in Loir-et-Cher (still open for business in 2010), had a kitchen accident when making an apple pie. Apples were left cooking an a mixture of sugar and butter for a little too long, and burned. Stéphanie Tatin, who was in charge of the kitchen, tried to save the dish by pressing a disc of pastry onto the ruined apples, and served the finished pie as a sort of upside-down tart. The hotel patrons raved about the resulting dish, a buttery, caramel apple classic was born, and the Tatin family ensured themselves fabulous advertising for their hotel forever.
These days, you can actually buy specialised dishes to cook a Tatin in. I have a Le Creuset Tatin dish which gets used for a lot more than tarts – it’s very dense and distributes the heat gently and evenly, making it great for gratins, shallow pies and other baked dishes. If you don’t have one, a frying pan measuring about 25cm in diameter will do the same job, but it needs to have an ovenproof handle – check before you cook that the length of the handle will allow you to shut the oven door.
170g plain flour
80g caster sugar
1 large egg, beaten (I used two bantam eggs, but you’re unlikely to be able to find any if you don’t have a friendly neighbour with bantams, so use a large chicken egg instead)
6 sweet apples (I used Cox’s)
110g caster sugar
Zest of 1 lemon
Prepare the pastry first, and let it rest in the fridge while you warm up the oven and prepare the apples.
Sieve the flour into a bowl from a height, and rub the butter in until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs. Stir in the sugar, and bind with the egg. Depending on the weather, you may also need a little water to bind the pastry. Put the ball of pastry in a freezer bag and refrigerate.
Preheat the oven to 190°C/375°F.
Core and peel the apples, and cut them into eighths. Melt the butter and sugar together in your Tatin dish or frying pan over a medium heat, and arrange the apple slices neatly over the butter and sugar mixture in the base of the pan. Back on the heat, keep cooking until the butter and sugar begin to caramelise. You’ll see the brown caramel bubbling up through the apple slices. The apple slices must catch and darken, so don’t be shy about taking the pan off the heat – the brown caramel should be visible across the whole dish, which should take 15-20 minutes.
When the apples are ready, roll the pastry out into a disc the same size as your pan. Set it on top of the apples and use your fingers to carefully press the pastry into the dish. Bake for 25-30 minutes until the pastry is golden.
Remove from the oven and allow to cool for a few minutes, then put a plate over the top of the dish and flip it over, using oven gloves to protect your hands. The tart should drop neatly onto the plate. Serve warm, with lashings of cream.