In my opinion, all homemade apple pies are good, but a tarte Tatin is a cut above the rest. It’s an upside-down caramelized apple tart, with big, juicy chunks of apple—actual apple halves, in fact—and you get the addictively delicious flavor of caramel, cooked right into the apples, with a little more spooned on top. Although the crust of a tarte Tatin (pronounced tart ta-tan) isn’t the first thing you notice, it’s an important foil for the apples, providing a buttery, flaky platform.
I learned to make tarte Tatin when I went to cooking school in France, and I’ve been enjoying making it ever since, teaching it in cooking classes and making it for dinner guests. Tarte Tatin is wonderful to serve to guests because either they know it and adore it, or they’ve never heard of it before and they fall in love with it right at your dinner table.
It isn’t hard to make, but it isn’t the easiest dessert to make, either. Caramelizing the apples takes some time—half an hour or so for the batch—and each time you make it, the apples behave just a little bit differently, giving off more or less juice depending on the season and the variety.
Frankly, I’ve never been able to figure out which season and which variety of apple works best—I just pick an apple and go for it, because the method that I’ve developed over the years handles the two main challenges presented by fickle apples: too much shrinkage, which would make your tarte look slumpy, and too much caramel, which would make the final tarte soggy and too sweet.
Here’s what I do to handle the challenges: During the cooking process, I pour off some of the apple juice and caramel mixture from the skillet into a separate pan, in which I simmer some extra apple halves so that they get caramelized also. I then insert those extra apples into the gaps that form as the apples in the skillet shrink and collapse, making the whole formation really pretty, with concentric circles of plump, shiny apples. I keep cooking the leftover caramel so that it gets thick and syrupy, and then I use it to brush onto the finished tarte and to pass as a sauce.
Perfect Tarte Tatin: Step by Step