As Easy as Tarte Tatin

tarte tatin

If America could be symbolized as one object, it could be an apple pie. Round, wholesome and homey, the pie evokes images colonial cooking. Just imagine crisp apples freshly picked off of trees and combined with a hand-formed crust.

Never mind that apple pies actually came from Europe, and the phrase “As American as apple pie” was a marketing campaign created by New York apple growers. Plus, pie crusts are prone to innumerous problems: tearing, sticking, toughening, and getting soggy.  So pie isn’t exactly easy.

Enter the solution: the easiest yet most impressive looking “pie” is the French tarte tatin. Legend has it that in 1898, the Tatin sisters accidentally left apples stewing on the stove and rescued the dish by putting pastry on top and flipping it over.

I love tarte Tatin because it doesn’t matter if you have a misshapen crust. It will be covered by the apples. Don’t be fooled by the short ingredient list; neither spices, thickeners nor lemon juice are needed. Fresh out of the oven, the caramel is gooey, the apples chewy and the crust crispy. The recipe below makes one of the best apple pies I’ve ever had in my life.

It’s important to choose apples that keep their shape after cooking. Generally, sweeter apples like Galas don’t hold up, while tart apples like Granny Smiths have great texture. The best compromise is a Golden Delicious or Jonagold (a cross between the tart Jonathan and sweet Golden Delicious). I usually buy whatever apples are on sale, but the apple type really matters. Don’t use Macintoshes or Jonamacs (a cross between Jonathans and Macouns): you’ll just get apple sauce. More info about apple varieties is at the New York Apple Association’s site.

The crust has two unusual ingredients: egg and vinegar. Egg makes it rich, while vinegar makes it flake on contact. The vinegar also makes the crust shrink after baking, but it’s a slight shortcoming. After trying this all-butter recipe, you may never go back to a vegetable shortening crust again. (Cooks use shortening because it’s less likely to melt from the heat of your hands, but it does nothing for flavor or texture.)

Pie Crust

Adapted from a Sunset magazine cookbook
Makes barely enough for three single-crust 9-inch pies or too much for two.

3 cups flour
1 tsp salt
1 1/4 cup (2 1/2 sticks) cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1 egg, well beaten
1 Tbsp vinegar
4 Tbsp ice cold water

Combine flour and salt in a bowl. Add butter and cut into flour. You may use a pastry blender, two knives or your hands. Smoosh the butter with the flour and continue till the biggest pieces are pea-sized and the smallest pieces resemble bread crumbs.

Combine egg and vinegar in a small bowl and add it to the flour mixture. Add water 1 Tbsp at a time, just until the crust just begins to come together. Smoosh the dough together so it forms a solid mass. You should still see large striations of butter.

Divide dough in half and press each half into a round flat disk, and wrap tightly in plastic. Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes, preferably for several hours and for up to two days before rolling. This step lets the dough relax so it doesn’t get tough. The dough can also be wrapped airtight and frozen for up to 6 months; thaw completely before rolling.

If you refrigerated the dough for more than a couple hours, let it warm up on the counter for about 15 minutes so it’s pliable. You want the dough to be cold, so the butter doesn’t melt. But if it’s too cold, it will be stiff and crack when you roll it.

Roll the dough on a flat floured surface (a wax-paper lined counter works well). Lean into a floured rolling pin and roll from the center out, stopping just short of the edge. Keep rotating the dough 90 degrees to ensure that it’s not sticking and to shape it into an even circle. If the dough cracks or tears, push it back together. If the shape is uneven, cut off the portruding piece and patch it on the short side with cold water. If the dough becomes too soft and starts sticking, slide it on top of a rimless cookie sheet and refrigerate it until it firms up. It is not unusual for all these things to happen. The crust should be about 1/8-inch thick.

If you plan on making a custard pie (ie pumpkin, lemon meringue or pecan), prick the crust with a fork and blind bake (cover the shaped crust with foil and weigh it down with dried beans, rice or metal pie weights) at 425F for 12 minutes. Then remove the foil, brush with egg wash and sprinkle with sugar. Bake for a few minutes more, until the crust is golden brown. I have never had a soggy pie crust with these directions. When you bake the filling, cover the edges of crust with foil (you’ll need several pieces plus tape). If making a double-crusted pie or tarte tatin, there’s no need to blind bake. But do brush with egg wash and sprinkle the crust with sugar to keep it crispy.

If you have extra pie dough, make empanadas by filling small disks with chocolate chips, mashed bananas, Nutella or nuts. Fold each disk over and seal. Brush with egg wash and sprinkle with sugar. Bake at 425F for about 20 minutes, or until golden brown.

Tarte Tatin

adapted from The Joy of Cooking

You will need any ovenproof, deep, heavy skillet measuring 7-8 inches across the bottom and 10-11 inches across the top. Cast iron works well because of its heat retaining properties, but you may find it too heavy when unmolding the tart. I’ve heard you can use a pan with a plastic handle if you cover the handle with several layers of aluminum foil. I’m not sure if a Teflon-coated pan can withstand the heat though, especially in light of recent lawsuits.


1/2 recipe pie dough, puff pastry or store-bought pie dough (make sure it has real butter!)
6 medium-large Golden Delicious apples (about three pounds)
1 stick butter (can reduce to 1/2 stick)
1 cup sugar

Prepare the pie dough. Roll into a 12-inch round, slip a rimless cookie sheet beneath it, and refrigerate. If using puff pastry, dock the dough with a fork so it doesn’t rise to be one-inch thick in the oven.

Position a rack in the upper third of the oven. Preheat the oven to 375F.

Peel, core, and quarter lengthwise the apples. Melt butter in the skillet chosen for the tarte. Remove from the heat and sprinkle sugar evenly over the bottom.

Arrange a ring of apple quarters against the sides of the pan, standing the apples on the thin edge of their cut side so as to fit as many as possible. Fill in the center of the skillet with the remaining apple quarters. You may have a piece or two of apples leftover.

Place the skillet over the highest possible heat and cook, stirring, until the juices turn from butterscotch to deep amber, 10 to 12 minutes. Remove the skillet from the heat, spear the apples with a fork or the point of a paring knife, and flip them onto their uncooked sides. Return the skillet from the heat and slide the prepared crust onto the aples. Being careful not to burn your fingers, gently tuck the edges of the dough against the inner sides of the skillet. If the crust tears, patch it up with a paste created with flour and water. Brush the crust with egg wash (a beaten egg and a Tbsp of water) and sprinkle with sugar.

Bake the tart until the crust is richly browned, 25 to 35 minutes. Let cool on a rack for 20 minutes, then loosen the sides with a knife and invert the tart onto a serving plate that can withstand the heat. Return any apples that stick to the skillet to their proper place on top of the tart. If you let the tarte cool too long, the caramel will harden and the apples will not come loose. In that case, just heat the pan on the stove to remelt the caramel.

Serve immediately or let stand at room temperature for up to 8 hours. When ready to serve, warm the tart to tepid in an oven heated at the lowest setting.


The apples have a great buttery caramel taste, but the tart’s only one inch tall (I like the texture of deep-dish apple pie).  Anyone have suggestions on how to caramelize apples in a traditional pie without cooking them to death? Tyler Florence’s Ultimate Caramel Apple Pie looks promising.

If the apples don’t come out on the first flip, don’t force them out with a spatula. Instead, reheat the pan over the stove to soften the caramel. Otherwise, you’ll end up with broken pieces like this:

full tarte tatin

Comments (3)      Email Email      Print Print


  1. Jane said,

    Everything looks great.

    December 10, 2005 at 11:36 pm

  2. OlyaPolya said,

    The Tatin sisters could NOT have made their delicious apple pie mistake in 1989. Its my understanding that it was in the early 20th century, not 20 years ago??

    September 2, 2010 at 10:01 pm

  3. Jessica "Su Good Sweets" said,

    Whoops, you’re right. Thanks for the correction!

    September 2, 2010 at 10:43 pm