Thursday, February 7, 2013

Tarte tatin


Sunday morning was one of those crisp, clear, incredibly sunny winter days that remind me of New York, a harsh, cold wind sweeping through the streets and cleaning the air. Colors seemed brighter, outlines sharper, like everything had more detail.
You know what I mean, right? When you feel like you are looking at the world through binoculars and you just adjusted the focusing wheel a tad? Like you had gotten accustomed to seeing everything just slightly out of focus, so slightly that you hadn't even notice it until you actually adjusted the wheel?
That is the kind of day it was on Sunday, quite extraordinary for this city. On days like these you can clearly see the snow-capped mountains that surround Milan and they look so close, you feel like you could reach out and touch them. It is a view that takes your breath away.
Flaky, crisp crust
On days like these, I always wonder what it must have been like to leave this city on horseback or on foot centuries ago, back when there was very little to obstruct the traveller's view of the Po valley: lush, green flat land for miles and then the abrupt massiveness of the Prealps and the Alps. What did this view provoke in the mind of a simple farmer from a small village in the plain on a day like this? A man who had never left his village, let alone ventured over the Alps? What did he feel like when he woke up on a day like this to find that majestic alpine belt at a finger's reach? What did he make of the majestic crystalline rock formation he saw so nearby but would never cross? Did he wonder about it, about the foreign people and lands that were right on the other side, yet so unapproachable? Or did he just work the land without wasting time on such unecessary thoughts, thoughts that certainly did not help put food on the family table?
But I digress. My friends tease me about my habit of constantly imagining and wondering what a place was like back in the Middle Ages. What can I say? Living in a country so filled with history, it is hard not daydream about these things.

Anyways, what I really wanted to tell you about when I started this post was how sometimes a handful of seconds can change your life. So back to a sunny, very windy winter day in Milan.
We all woke up in good spirits on Sunday morning. How can you not when blazing sunlight welcomes you after days of grey, wet, foggy weather? We were going out for lunch with my in-laws and the prospect of a short drive out of the city made us even more cheerful. When we walked out of our part of the building into our courtyard, I wrapped my collar tighter around my neck. The wind was colder than I had expected it to be. We walked over to the communal recycling bins where the children took turns at who could separate glass, paper, plastic and metal more quickly. When we were done we crossed the courtyard and walked up to the entrance of the building.

Like so many apartment buildings in Italy, our building is built around an inner courtyard, so when you enter it from the street, you first approach a covered area that opens up through an arch into said courtyard. The main stairwell is located in this enclosed area. If you cross the courtyard you enter the back of the building through a  smaller door and reach a secondary staircase. In the old days, this was the servants' entrance, but after the War the large apartments were split into smaller ones, so now the two stairwells and the apartments are totally independent from each other.
If you are wondering why the apples look different here, it is because the first time I  made tarte tatin I accidentally cut the apples in eights (see here) and the second time I quartered them (see above and below), the traditional way.
 I digress again, forgive me, but this time I am doing it to help you envision what I am about to tell you.
We walked through the arch and towards the main entrance of the building. Right as we stepped out onto the street we heard a deafening thud. Not a crash, more like a loud thump. Startled, we turned and realized a very tall but flimsy plant with a large, heavy plastic vase had just been swept by the wind off of one of the balconies/terraces above and crashed into the courtyard exactly where the four of us had just walked through the arch no more than five seconds before.

Quartered apples
Call it luck, fate, destiny, providence or whatever else you like. All I could think at that moment was that we were alive and going out to lunch on a beautiful sunny day, but that one of us could have been killed or very seriously hurt, if...

...if my son had missed the paper recycling bin while throwing away the empty cereal box on his first try

...if the kids had lingered like they usually do to look at an ant or pick up a fallen leaf

...or if I had stopped to pull down my daughter's hat over her ears to protect her from the wind as I so often do.

If is such a short, simple word, yet so powerful and full of meaning.
The proverbial vase falling from a window sill will never be just that anymore. It will forever remind of that time that was not my time or my family's apparently, of how precious and fleeting life is.
So forgive me for inundating you with a jumble of thoughts mixed with historical and architectural details and just plain weirdness, but the craziness is bound to come out sooner and later if you just laugh it off with your kids when it happens to minimize and proceed to hide your shaking hands for the next hour.

So with this carpe diem attitude, why not make something you were too afraid to make before, just for the heck of it, because life is good and full of surprises and because you never know what tomorrow holds.

In my book this means attempting a tarte tatin. Not a fake one or a trial one, an actual tarte tatin, just like the ones you eat in a bistrot on a Parisian avenue (on the other side of the Alps) with a dollop of crème fraîche to balance out the sweetness of the caramelized pommes.

And you know what? It turned out to be so much less dauting than I expected.

First step: take out your beloved copy of The Joy of Cooking. Or turn to your favorite blogger (moi naturellement).

Second step: make the dough. Use frozen homemade pie crust like I did, make your own fresh (I used this recipe), or buy some store bought crust or puff pastry.

Apples cut in eighths here

5 or 6 golden apples, peeled, cored and quartered
1 stick/1/2 cup butter, melted
1 cup sugar
pie crust or puff pastry
Preheat oven to 375° F/180°C. Peel, core, quarter and then quarter. I used 6 apples and had a couple of leftover pieces (keep them aside, you can always insert them when you turn the apples if they have shrunk too much).
In a heavy, ovenproof skillet, melt the stick of butter. Remove from heat and add the sugar, making sure it distributes evenly across the bottom. Arrange the apple pieces around the edges of the pan in a circle so that one tip is touching the side of the pan and the slices overlap a little (keep in mind the pieces will shrink as they cook). Fill the center of the circle with leftover pieces.
Return the pan to the stovetop on very high heat for 10 to 12 minutes, until the butter and sugar mixture turns from golden to a dark amber. Make sure it doesn't burn.
Remove from heat and turn apple slices over with the help of a knife or a fork and spoon. Return to the stovetop on high heat and cook for approximately another five minutes.
Place your rolled out pie crust or puff pastry on top of the apples and carefully tuck the edges under slightly. I used the tip of a knife to avoid burning myself.
Bake in in the top third of the oven until the crust turns golden-brown, anywhere between 25 and 35 minutes. Remove from oven and allow to cool on a rack for about 20 minutes.
Now comes the tricky part of turning the tart out onto a serving dish, but do not panic. The tart is more forgiving than you expect.
Run a knife along the inside edge of the pan, where the caramelized crust gets stuck. Place a plate over the pan and quickly flip over. Watch out because the skillet will still be hot and it is quite heavy. I tried a first time and the tart remained stuck to the skillet. I ran a knife along the edges again and then vigorously shook the skillet back and forth before turning it over, to detach the caramelized apples. Give the turned-over skillet a good slap or two (with a pot holder!) before checking to see if it detached. Last but definitely not least, do not worry if a few pieces of apple remain stuck to the pan, just carefully take them out and place them in their alloted spots. About 5 slices were stuck to my skillet and I dare you to tell me which ones they were!
Serve warm immediately or heat slightly again before serving. If you don't have any crème fraîche, you can serve it with ice cream or mix together some mascarpone cheese and sour cream or even serve with a dollop of Greek yogurt.


Apples cut in eighths


  1. OMG! I LOOOOVE Tarte Tatin! Drooling...... you did a fantastic job! :-)
    I always do that "if" thing, it can drive me insane sometimes! I am really glad you are all safe.
    I know exactly how the light must have been that day. I can picture it in my mind. Those are the best days to be in Milan. I actually got married on one of those, 10 years (and 1 week) ago! <3

    1. Belated happy anniversary wishes... sounds like the perfect day for a wedding!

  2. Beautiful beautiful tart! It looks so sticky and rich and good.

    It's so easy to get hung up on the 'what ifs' but the most important thing is that you're alive and happy and safe with your wonderful family :-)

  3. Your tarte tatin looks glorious! I love the bronzed, glossy glaze on it. And wow, that is very lucky indeed that you passed that point when you did. Fate is an interesting mistress! Oh and have you read Pillars of the Earth? It's set in the Middle Ages and is totally enthralling! :D

    1. Yes, read it eons ago. And did you ever read The Physician? Another fun one.

  4. Oh talk about a close call! Bet you are so grateful to have escape this horrible fate and that your children and husband are safe/ wow. This tatin is the prettiest I have seen in a long time!

  5. Incidents like that make us appreciate how fragile and precious life really is. And, for me at least, I appreciate beauties like your tarte tatin even more! I love tarte tatin (even if I'm not generally big on desserts) but have never ventured to make it at home. That tricky part about turning the thing upside down has always intimidated me for some reason, even if I will make a frittata without batting an eye.

    1. Frittata and tarte tatin have always scared the bejeezus out of me for exactly that reason but as it turns out a tarte tatin is much more forgiving. You just pull the apple section off and nestle it back into its little hole.

  6. Oh, the magical 'if'. Such a spectre. Nb, that tartin is glorious.

  7. I often think about what it would be like to live in my town during the early 20th century. So many things would be new and exciting (but I wouldn't be baking nearly as many delicious desserts like this one!) Thank you for sharing this sweet post. I hope you are having a wonderful week of good food, love, and laughter.


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