The first tarte aux pommes that I came upon in Lyon, and on only our third day in the city, was inside the doorway of a bouchon and was so large that, having just been removed from the oven, it was put on its own dining table to cool. A typical French tart consists of three concentric circles of fruit slices. The showcase tart, by virtue of its exceptional diameter (it put me in mind of a giant pizza for a tailgate party), had seven, and each ring of fruit was so exactingly carved and symmetrically placed that the cook could have used a ruler. It looked like, what, an expression of infinity? It was an over-the-top aesthetic act and an early lesson in French pastry—make it beautiful and you will make it scrumptious, because the eater’s sense of anticipation will insure that it is. I badly wanted to eat some. I also wanted to learn how to make one.
Six months later, I did, when I went to a cooking school in Lyon and signed up for all the pastry classes, including a stage (something like an apprenticeship) in the school’s upmarket restaurant. (Me? Pretending to be a pastry chef? Ha!) The tarte aux pommes, I learned, has three components: the apples, which are sliced in beautiful uniformity; homemade applesauce, the base that the apple slices are arranged on; and a pastry half made of butter.
The apples—they’re everything, obviously. But, so, too, is that pastry. American pies often include vegetable fat—i.e., hydrogenated shortening, like Crisco—which is reasonably easy to work with and doesn’t fail at warmer temperatures. The result is wonderfully flaky. Less wonderful, it has no flavor. A proper French pastry has the flake and the flavors of butter, a surprising sweet tartness that goes with just about anything, especially fruit. The butter, however, makes the pastry temperamental: work it too hard—knead it with flour as you might bread dough, roll it out as you might pasta—and the result will be glue.
There are several types of temperamental butter pastry in French tradition, pâte this and pâte that, but not much difference among them; they all have roughly the same amount of butter—a lot. There’s one for a savory filling (like quiche), a slightly different one for meat (like pâté en croûte), etc. Fruit tarts are often made with pâte brisée, an inauspicious name. It comes from the verb briser, which means to shatter or break—like a vase that’s dropped—and it is true that the pastry has so much fat and so little liquid that it easily falls apart. In one recent effort, I made what I thought was a textbook example—the dough wrapped tightly around a rolling pin—so beautiful that I was compelled to photograph it, when, while holding the rolling-pin handle in my right hand and trying to find the phone in my pocket with my left, I don’t know what happened, the pastry suddenly crumbled and fell, broken (brisée! ) into more than a dozen irregular pieces. It wasn’t until cooking school that I learned how to live with the fragility of the pâte and to recognize its beauty.
The philosophy: Flour and butter will never get along. They don’t like each other. You want for them to coexist just long enough to make it into a hot oven.
The flour: Pastry flour, never bread flour. Look for one that has a low protein content. In the United States, the information is often posted on the back of the bag. Ten or twelve per cent protein is good for bread, five to six per cent (if you can find it) for pastries. The flour I use, called Frederick, which I buy at Union Square Greenmarket, has eight per cent.
Heat: The enemy. You want cold. I keep my pie molds in the freezer. If I am mixing in a bowl, I store it there, too. The dough’s water element: iced. The yolk: from an egg retrieved at the last minute from the fridge. Even the butter, I cut into a small dice, then refrigerate on a plate. For good measure, I wear latex gloves.
Kneading: Never. After gathering up the dough into a ball, you are allowed a smoosh. One. Not two.
Imperfection: Ugly, in this case, is lovely. There can be streaks and buttery spots in your dough. If you carry on working it, hoping to get a beautifully golden globe, you will ruin it. And, besides, fat under heat recomposes itself: the lumps and streaks disappear. My rolling-pin pastry that shattered into more than a dozen pieces? I reassembled them in the tart pan. I didn’t press the pieces. I placed them. The pastry went into the oven misshapen; it came out looking just fine.
For me, a French apple tart is among our autumnal harmonies—falling leaves, logs in a fireplace, cold-weather smells of cinnamon—and is a favorite go-to dessert for the season. My sons, however, don’t like it. They never have.
“I never saw the point,” George said when I asked.
“Who makes a dessert with apples?” Frederick added. “It’s so lazy. Why would I ever eat apples if I can have chocolate cake instead?”
I pondered the distinction. It reminded me of the Saturday mornings the boys and I spent together in Lyon. I used to take them to a public pool for swimming lessons. Afterward, on our way home, we would stop by les Halles Paul Bocuse, the city’s food hall, for a French pastry. For a few euros, we were rewarded with beautiful mini-dessert classics: tarte au chocolat, Paris–Brest, Saint Honoré, macarons, éclairs, never-pass-them-up pains au chocolat, and much else. In such company, I now see, an apple tart has a hard time competing.
Perhaps we can define what an apple tart is by what it isn’t. It isn’t particularly sweet. American apple pie has much more sugar—and often flour or another starch in the filling. A tarte tatin (apples caramelized on a puff pastry bottom, one of the most famous French desserts) has even more sugar. By comparison, the flavors of apple tart are quite restrained: the fruit cooked and not so cooked, a pastry with the texture of buttered air, and in its presentation a gift, like a painting. It is simple, and, like most French desserts, not so simple.
Tarte aux Pommes
I prefer metric measurements for this recipe, because there is a mathematical harmony to the ingredients that illustrates quite clearly their relationship to the flour (and makes them easy to remember): flour (250 g), butter (125 g), sugar (25 g), salt (5 g).
- 125 g (4 ½ oz.) unsalted butter, plus another 25 g (1 oz.) for buttering pan
- 250 g (9 oz.) pastry flour, plus more for dusting
- 5 g (⅕ oz.) salt
- 25 g (1 oz.) sugar
- 50 ml (1 7/10 oz.) ice water
- 1 egg yolk
- A splash of milk or a lightly beaten egg, to brush onto the pastry
- 9- to 11-inch tart pan, with removable bottom
- Latex gloves
- Pastry scraper
- Pince à tarte, or a large fork with a big gap between the tines, or a pair of fish-boning tweezers, for fashioning pastry crust
- Rouleau de pique-vite, or a fork, to prick holes in the pastry
1. Dice butter and refrigerate.
2. Butter the bottom and sides of the tart pan comprehensively. (I tear
off a piece of the waxed paper from a butter stick and use that as a
buttering tool.) Using a sieve, dust the pan with a small amount of
flour. Rotate pan in a shallow circle to insure that the flour coats
the bottom and sides, then tip out excess. Put pan in freezer for 2
minutes, then remove and dust again with flour. Keep pan in freezer
3. Via a sieve or a sifter, create a mound of the flour in a bowl or
on a work surface. Make a well in the center, then add salt, sugar,
and ice water. Wearing the latex gloves, mix salt, sugar, and
water in the well. Add egg yolk and mix to combine. Add the
chilled diced butter to the well, and, working quickly, mix it in
with the other ingredients, breaking it up into smaller bits with
your fingers, and then gradually pull in the flour. Continue mixing
with your fingers until the dough is crumbly and starting to cohere.
Compress the mixture gently with your hands to create a ball of
dough. Press one more time, with force, flattening the dough
lengthwise with the blade of the pastry scraper or your palm to help
further amalgamate the butter in the dough. (The smoosh!) Do not
knead. Loosely shape the dough into an approximation of a circle, an
inch or so thick, being careful not to work it. (I use the pastry
scraper to push the dough into shape). Place dough in a plastic bag,
using the pastry scraper to transfer it. Refrigerate for 30 minutes