The very first time I had tarte tatin was at a small, sort of touristy restaurant at the Old Port of La Rochelle, France. It was one of those typical French restaurants that wanted to seem upscale and chic, but really just had an overpriced menu in a good location in a little seaside town that the all of England like to holiday at. It was also the first time I had braved the traditional French meal in all its fullness: five courses of butter-rich dishes elegantly composed as though there was an Iron Chef competition being hosted in the kitchen.
Several courses down with only dessert remaining, I could feel the waistband of my jeans mounting a revolt. Mutiny was imminent, but when the waitress brought out this thin, delicate slice of what seemed to me to be just a gooey, messy, French apple pie, I thought to myself, “One bite won’t hurt.”
I don’t know if you’ve ever had one of those moments where you are so overwhelmed by emotions, often contrary to each other, all battling to be king of the emotion hill. Then one comes out victorious and just sort of bursts forth from you. If you haven’t, well, it can lead to some pretty awkward moments, like bursting into laughing tears at the finale of Aida or, in this case, becoming righteously pissed off at my first bite of tarte tatin.
I was furious at it for existing, at everyone who fed me apple pie instead of this slice of warm, buttery heaven. Protests would be mounted, letters had to be written, impassioned speeches given in front of large, official-looking buildings… after I was done with my dessert, that is. Even my waistband seemed so overcome it was suddenly possessed by the spirits of every real estate agent in the world, casting aside words like “constrained” and “uncomfortable” for shinier adjectives like “snug” and “cozy”.
I was a woman possessed, convinced that if I didn’t learn to reproduce this masterpiece of caramelized-apple-tart heaven, my whole year in France would have been for naught. I scoured the Internet in search of recipes and found quite a few. I consulted cookbooks around La Rochelle – never actually buying them on my English teacher’s salary, but I treated many bookstores like libraries and endured/ignored the saleswoman’s stink eye and backhanded comments about Americans.
It was months later that the opportunity to actually make a tarte tatin presented itself: my friend and fellow teacher, Marcus, was hosting a dinner party for his mother’s visit. His aspirations where grand: twelve people, half American, half French, and yet another five course meal. I, clearly suffering from temporary insanity, volunteered to make dessert. The panic set in as I was getting all my ingredients ready and I suddenly realized I was making tarte tatin for real, live French people! If I had just been making it for my American friends, no one would know if it wasn’t perfect. The pressure was on and I became the most methodical wannabe chef ever. Everything pre-measured, pre-cut, pre-heated, pre-anything I could do ahead of time… well, almost everything.
You see, the whole charm of tarte tatin is in the anticipation: you cook the apples in an oven-ready skillet, take the crust you make out of the freezer and, while the butter in the crust is still cold, toss it over the apples and quickly put the whole mess into the oven to finish baking. When it’s done baking, you put a plate over the skillet and flip! You have no idea if the apples are burnt or sticking to the pan until that final moment.
In all of my preparation, I forgot one teeny, tiny detail: French ovens are notoriously small. My oven-safe skillet was 2 inches to big. As I layered the crust, swooped the skillet into the oven and shut the door, I was not met with an overwhelming sense of satisfaction but, instead, with a loud BANG! My heart sank. I called Marcus, instantly in full crisis-prevention mode, and had him pick me up and take me to his house. “His oven had cooked a whole turkey on Thanksgiving” was my mantra as we drove to his house, the pan in my lap, the butter in my crust melting and all aspirations of tender flakiness beginning to disappear.
Of course, his oven was also too small as well – as was his neighbor’s – so I ran through a list of Plan B’s: remake the crust, find a new skillet? Couldn’t. All my ingredients were at home and Marcus didn’t have an oven safe skillet; or serve the apples alone with ice cream for dessert? NEVER. I was determined to churn out a tarte tatin if it killed me! Eventually I scooped off the crust into a ball and stuck it in the freezer for a while, hoping it would firm up what butter hadn’t melted away and transferred the caramelized apples into a casserole dish. During the cheese course, I quickly worked out the crust by hand (no rolling pin in sight, or flour for that matter) to cover the oblong dish, tossed it in the oven and came back to dinner.
Our French guests sang their drinking songs, and we, as red-blooded Americans, sang them ours: Don’t Stop Believing and Bohemian Rhapsody, specifically. The night was a riotous culture clash. As the apples bubbled away in their own juices and the requisite mountain of butter called for in every French recipe, Marcus and I explained to all the guests the chaos that was to hopefully be our dessert course. Everyone had a good laugh, myself included. It had reached the point of seeming just ridiculous. However, when Marcus’ host father began to exclaim that he never tried to make tarte tatin because of how hard it is to get right, how it takes many times to perfect the dish, I must have gone a bit pale, as another of my friends quickly refilled my drink and gave me a comforting but discrete shoulder pat.
It seems though that fortune does favor the bold… or at least the foolhardy. When the moment of truth finally came, the grand flipping of the tart onto a serving platter – a job my nerves suggested I let Marcus do, to which I dutifully listened – the table erupted into a round of applause at the fully intact, deeply red, caramelized tart sitting before them. It was devoured within 3 minutes and, when asked where the second one was, Marcus and I just died laughing.
At the end of the evening, one of our French guests pulled me aside and told me that it was delicious… not just delicious, but that it was just like the tarte tatin his grandmother makes. I think my face could have given our then decimated dessert a run for its money in the warm and red departments. Now understand, my tarte was not perfect: some apples stuck to the dish and had to be pried out and put back in place, the crust was oddly shaped from my rushed job during the cheese course. It was not beautiful – not like the slice I had eaten at the restaurant where I first tried it – but if it made one person at that table want to go outside and call his grandmother, I like to think I nailed it.
For the rest of the year in La Rochelle, I didn’t spend another dime at the portside restaurants. I searched the narrow, cobblestone streets for small, family owned cafés and truly tasted France. It was simpler than I expected, rustic, and full of care. The meal was sacred, the time with friends, the drinks and songs, all part of the ritual. I brought that home with me, back to the States, and have made tarte tartin several times since then. I’ve gotten much better at it, my tartes more beautiful, but every time I smell that decadent combination of butter, sugar and apples, I find myself humming a Journey song and thinking of that night.