It was my Martha Stewart moment. Many years ago I was standing – in an awed stupor – in the Parisian cookware store E. Dehillerin. It was my second visit in just a few days. The first time, I was completely overwhelmed. So overwhelmed that I had to leave empty-handed. It was just too much to take in and I had to cut and run. When I returned a few days later with a clear head, I had focus. I had a mission. Tart pans. French tart pans. The kind I couldn’t find back home – teeny ones, square ones and things called flan rings, which had nothing to do with the custardy flan I knew. But I knew I wanted them.
I marched over with purpose to the left side of the enormous store with floor to ceiling racks of unimaginable wonderful things, seemingly in place since the turn of the century. I was the proverbial kid in my kind of candy store. My eager eyes scanned the small bins of metal pans while my hands purposefully sorted through the endless variety, picking and choosing just so. My basket got heavier and heavier as the clerks smiled at me in amusement.
Then I looked up and paused, stunned. Right there, just above my head, hanging from a hook. A perfect shiny silver petal-shaped tart ring. Just like Martha. Just like the one she used in her Pies and Tarts book (page 14 if you’re interested.) The very one I’d seen in her magazine and once on her show and thought “where do you find one of those?” And there it was, just over my head, just out of reach. I wanted it. Bad. The ring was rather large and had no bottom, which at the time I wasn’t too sure how to deal with. I didn’t care. Oh the beautiful things I could make! A quick “Pardon? S’il vous plait?” and a shy smile to a kind clerk and it was mine. I’d figure out all the technicalities later.
Fast-forward 10, wait … maybe 15 years? I still have that pan. I covet that pan. Every time I dig it out, I smile. And I’ve used the damn thing probably less than a half a dozen times. But oh does it make such beautiful things, just like I knew it would.
Truth is, I’ve only made one thing in that pan. A French Apple Tart courtesy of Julia Child. It seemed fitting somehow, both in the source and the origin. I’ve always been a little bit more Julia than Martha anyway.
Midway through Baking with Julia by the ever-so-wonderful Dorie Greenspan, there is a simple apple tart recipe though the long list of ingredients and steps would lead you to believe otherwise. A compote of roasted apples is made, then gently mashed and tumbled into a pastry shell. The mixture is topped with thinly sliced apples, arranged just so and baked. It’s rather simple, most definitely beautiful and utterly delicious, just the kind of thing I adore.
Of course I’ve tinkered with it a bit over the years, adding some additional flavors that zip up that compote like ginger and orange zest. I also decided long ago that the perfectly fanned apple slices on top looked so much better with a little color, more than my old oven was willing to give. So I dig out my underutilized blowtorch and fire that sucker up, creating some contrast along those edges. Any excuse to use fire when cooking is a damn good day.
This time around, it was an abundance of apples that spurred me to get that pan off the top shelf. I was in a rush – a rush to get the thing done so I could get some photos before the sun set and a rush to get to a friend’s house for dinner. I was late on both counts. In my haste I completely forgot to mash the cooked compote a bit first so it was a bit too chunky. Oh well. It was mighty pretty just the same, even if the lighting was crap while I was trying to take some pictures. It was very tasty too, especially since I used some organic lard I’ve been hoarding for the crust. Oh my.
STRESS BAKING THERAPY FACTOR: MAIS OUI! There’s something magical about this silly pan that makes me feel very good every time I use it. Probably because it transports me right back to that crazy wonderful store in Paris. Or perhaps its that I long ago mastered using bottomless pans (makes me feel very competent), or maybe that I get to light the thing on fire (very empowering.) Whatever it may be, it’s deeply satisfying and I haven’t even mentioned how delicious it is. That I shared the little beauty with friends was the absolute best part. Always is. Even though I’ve only made this apple tart, I am certain that anything would look absolutely lovely when shaped as a giant flower.
FRENCH APPLE TART – adapted from a recipe by Leslie Mackie in “Baking with Julia” by Dorie Greenspan. Whew. That’s a mouthful.
Serves 8, makes one 9″ tart
Now then, I realize few people have the fancy petal pan but if you do, now’s the time to dig it out. If not, and that’s totally cool, use a standard 9” removable bottom fluted tart pan. And if you don’t have that, a regular 9” pie pan will work too in a pinch.
For the pastry:
1 1/3 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
3 Tablespoons unsalted butter, cold and cut into small pieces
5 ½ Tablespoons organic lard (or vegetable shortening), cold and cut into small pieces
½ teaspoon kosher salt
¼ cup ice water
for the filling:
3 large Granny Smith apples
3 large Golden Delicious apples
1/3 cup sugar
1 Tablespoon unbleached all-purpose flour
1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon ground ginger
zest of 1 orange, cut in wide strips
juice of ½ orange
for the topping:
2 large Golden Delicous apples
2 Tablespoons melted unsalted butter
1 ½ teaspoons sugar
Powdered sugar, for the brulee
- For the pastry: Mix the flour and salt together in a large bowl.
- Add the butter and, using a your fingers, rub the butter into the flour until it’s the size of small peas and the mixture is rather coarse.
- Break up the lard (or shortening) and add it in bits to the bowl.
- With your fingers, continue to work in the lard until the mixture has small clumps and curds. Do not overwork.
- Switch to a wooden spoon and add the ice water, stirring just until incorporated.
- Turn the dough out onto a work surface and fold it over on itself a few times to gently blend together but don’t overwork.
- Flatten into a disk, wrap in plastic and chill for at least two hours.
- Roll the pastry: On a lightly floured surface, roll the dough into a circle about 1/8” thick and large enough to fit it into a 9” fluted tart pan with a removable bottom. As you roll the dough, give it a quarter turn every few rolls to make sure it’s not sticking to the work surface.
- When the dough is the right size, transfer it to the pan by rolling the dough up onto the rolling pin and unrolling over the tart pan.
- Working quickly, ease the pastry into the pan (if you’re slow, the pan edges may cut the dough.)
- Pinch off the excess dough along the edge of the pan (or roll the pin over to cut) and press extra dough along the sides of the tart pan, so that the sides have a double wall of pastry.
- Freeze the tart shell for at least 30 minutes or up to 3 days.
- Prebake the pastry: Preheat the oven to 400°F.
- Place the tart shell on a parchment or silpat lined sheet pan and bake for 20-25 minutes, or until golden brown.
- Place on a rack to cool, lower the heat to 375°F while you make the filling.
- For the filling: Peel and core the apples and cut into 1″ chunks.
- Place the apples on a sheet pan and sprinkle with the sugar, flour, cinnamon, ginger, salt and a good squeeze of orange juice from half the orange. Stir to coat.
- Nestle the orange zest in the apples and bake for 20-25 minutes, stirring halfway through baking, until the apples give up their juices and are soft enough to mash.
- Scrape the apples into a bowl and break up with a potato masher or a heavy spoon. Leave a few chunks – you want some texture.
- Cool the filling for about 15 minutes.
- Spoon the apple compote into the cooled tart shell and smooth the top with an offset spatula. The filling should come to just below the rim of the shell.
- For the topping: Peel, core, and quarter the apples (cutting from end to end), then cut them into thin slices that are about 1/8” thick.
- Working carefully and starting at the edge, arrange the apples in a circle on the compote. The slices should overlap and the points should just touch the shell. Since these will shrink, make a well-packed circle.
- When the outer ring is complete, move in making another ring, overlapping the first by just about 1/8”, tucking a few small pieces under the circle to level it and trimming the slices as necessary so that they fit.
- If you like, cut a small round out of a thin apple slice and place it in the center of the tart to complete the rosette.
- Gently brush the apple slices with the melted butter and sprinkle with granulated sugar.
- Bake again: Bake for 25-30 minutes until the top is glazed and the apple slices are tender. The original recipe says they should be “edged in black for a stunning effect.” If this works for you, wonderful. If not, break out the blowtorch. Dust the top with powdered sugar and blast away at the apple edges.
- Once cool, remove the tart from the pan and serve.