Pear and Cardamom Tarte Tatin

~ Perfectly imperfect: Pear and Cardamom Tarte Tatin ~

By now you may have noticed that I am a huge fan of tarte tatins.  Tarte tatin is an upside down fruit tart, traditionally made with apples. It’s named for the Tatin sisters who “invented” the upside down caramelized tart purportedly by accident in Lamotte-Beuvron, France in 1898. Legend has it that one of the sisters, due to fatigue or distraction (and we have all been there), somehow omitted the pastry in an apple tart, thereby adding it on top of the fruit in an attempt to salvage the dessert. Wouldn’t it be nice if all of our kitchen disasters yielded such successful results?

Tarte tatins are a lovely way to showcase seasonal fruit. Homey and rustic, they ooze caramel and fruit. Best of all they are beautifully imperfect. Once you get the hang of making the caramel and the final turnout of the tart onto a plate, tarte tatins are an unfussy and pleasing dessert – and in my case, they are irregular, uneven and all the more charming for that.  I use a sour cream pastry which creates a crumbly, cookie-like crust. As the tart bakes in the oven, the caramel from the fruit filling will bubble up in spots through the crust. Fear not: The crust will continue to bake, and when the tart is finished and cooling, the wayward caramel will harden and coat the crust like a candied apple. How can anyone resist this?

Pear and Cardamom Tarte Tatin

I like to serve this with lightly sweetened whipped cream spiked with a spoonful of pear brandy. Serves 8 to 10.

Sour cream dough:
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup chilled unsalted butter, cut into cubes
1/3 cup full fat sour cream

Tart:
1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened, cut into 4 pieces
1 cup plus 1 tablespoon granulated sugar
6 large Bosc or Anjou pears, peeled, cored, and halved
1 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 egg, beaten to blend, for glaze

Prepare the dough:
1. Combine the flour, sugar, and salt in the bowl of food processor and pulse to blend. Add the butter and pulse until the butter is pea-sized. Add the sour cream and pulse until moist clumps form.
2. Gather the dough into a ball, and then flatten and wrap in plastic. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours. (The dough may be made one day ahead and refrigerated until use, or frozen for up to one month. Allow to defrost in refrigerator overnight before using.)
3. Remove the dough from the refrigerator and let stand at room temperature for 15 minutes before rolling out.

Prepare the tart:
1. Place the butter in the bottom of a large oven-proof skillet with sloping sides. Sprinkle the 1 cup sugar evenly over the butter and pan. Cook over medium heat until the butter melts, the sugar is partially dissolved, and the mixture is bubbling, about 2 minutes.
2. Arrange the pears closely together, cut-side up, in a circular pattern in the skillet. Cut the remaining pears into quarters to fill in the spaces. Mix the 1 tablespoon sugar, the cardamom, and nutmeg in a small bowl and sprinkle evenly over the fruit. Increase the heat to  medium-high and cook until a thick amber colored syrup forms, turning the skillet to ensure even cooking, about 25 minutes.
3. While the fruit is cooking, preheat the oven to 425°F. Roll out the pastry on parchment paper to a round shape slightly larger than the skillet. Slide the paper onto a baking sheet and place in the refrigerator until the syrup is ready.
4. When the syrup has colored, remove the skillet from the heat and lay the pastry over the fruit (work quickly because it will begin to melt from the heat of the pan). Cut 3 to 4 slits in the pastry and brush the pastry with some of the egg glaze.
6. Transfer the skillet to the oven and bake until the tart is deep golden brown and firm when tapped, 25 to 30 minutes. Remove the tart from the oven and cool on a rack 1 minute.
7. Cut around edge of skillet with a metal spatula to loosen the pastry. Place a large plate over the skillet and, using oven mitts, invert the tart onto the plate. If any of the pears or caramel are stuck in the pan, remove with the spatula and spread on top of tart. Cool the tart slightly before serving and serve warm or at room temperature with whipped cream.

Before and After

I confess that when I first moved to Paris to study cooking, I was somewhat inflexible in terms of feeding myself.  Here I was, twenty-something, educated, professional, and, at least in my opinion, worldly. Now, this is my own small story, but I will dare say that I conformed to a rather structured, and, perhaps American, way of viewing diet and exercise: compulsive, rigorous and disciplined. This translated to a philosophy that excluded butter, red meat, caffeine, little alcohol and included fresh fruit, veggies, fish and so on. It also included a regimen of daily exercise, even if it meant rising at 5 a.m. to squeeze a workout into an active, fully-booked life. A day without exercise was unthinkable; deviation from my super healthy diet bordered on cataclysmic.

So, wouldn’t it make perfect sense that I would apply to cooking school in Paris? Not only cooking school, but the revered, classical, traditional French cooking school, Le Cordon Bleu. Goodness knows what I was thinking. Perhaps it was a subconscious acknowledgement of the starkness of my present routine and the need to just live a little; the gap of an ocean and the excuse of a new culture to step away from life as I knew it. Or perhaps it was the lack of meat protein in my diet that impacted my reasoning skills. Whatever the case, off I went to cook and eat in the land of butter, cream, pastry, runny cheese and terrines, at a school that for over 100 years held the distinguished and elite position of teaching classical French cuisine et pâtisserie.

And guess what? Nothing untoward happened. In fact, lots of delicious, sensual, pleasurable, yummy, gooey, and rich experiences befell me. The foods I wistfully admired from the sidelines of my healthy regimen back in the U.S. became the daily staples of my new Parisian life. I had an encyclopedia of cheeses at my disposal, bakeries on every street corner displayed gorgeous oven-baked breads and flaky croissants, cafés dotted every neighborhood serving comforting French bistro fare. Open air markets peppered the city, and depending on the day I could alter my route to school to pass by stands displaying a rainbow of fresh seasonal produce, glistening fresh meats and a sea of fish. Cheeses, pâtés, and more breads were prominently displayed along with a kaleidescope of cut flowers readily available for the finishing touch to the table.

For exercise I walked to school every day – literally across town – from the 18th to the 15th arrondissement. I risked life and limb crossing streets and boulevards, skirting the occasional mob of striking postal workers, protesting students and subsequent swarms of police, allowing 20 minutes at the minimum to navigate across the sweeping Place de la Concorde as I would officially cross from the right to the left bank over the Seine. Each day I would change my walking route, either purposely or more often erroneously, discovering new streets, neighborhoods, shops and cafés. I had a short list of favorite cafés where I would stop for my morning tartine (avec beurre) and café au lait (avec caféine.) Outside of the school I learned which bakeries had the best sandwiches – simple, satisfying packages with thickly sliced Comté cheese or paper-thin tongues of jambon sechée, a little butter and mustard, and perhaps a cornichon for garnish on a crusty, airy baguette the length of a forearm. So satisfying and so uncomplicated. An afternoon pick-me-up between classes or along my walk home would include an espresso and perhaps a tarte au citron – a dollop of perfectly balanced sweet, tart and very lemony curd nestled in a palm-sized shell of pâte sucrée. If I could bear to make dinner after a day of cooking in class, I would improvise a light dish with some of the purchases from the market or head out to a bistro or restaurant on my un-ending list of new places to try. Simply put, my life in Paris revolved around eating, cooking, walking and eating more.  I was very happy.  Bon Appétit.

Tarte au Citron

Lemon Tart – Tarte au Citron

Makes one 9″ tart

For the pastry – Pâte Sucrée
1 1/4 cup flour
2 tablespoons sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt
7 tablespoons chilled unsalted butter, cut in 1/2″ pieces
1 egg yolk
1 tablespoon ice water

Combine flour, sugar and salt in bowl of food processor.  Add butter, using on/off turns until the mixture becomes crumbly.
Stir together egg yolk and water in small bowl.  Add to flour mixture.  Pulse until dough begins to clump together.
Press dough into bottom and up sides of 9-inch tart pan with removable bottom.  Trim edges.  Pierce crust all over with fork.  Freeze 20 minutes.

Preheat oven to 350 F.  Line crust with foil.  Fill with dried beans or pie weights.  Bake until crust is set, about 15 minutes.  Remove foil and beans or weights.  Continue baking until crust is lightly golden, about 20 minutes.  Transfer to rack to cool while preparing the filling.

For the Lemon Filling:

6 egg yolks
2/3 cup sugar
3/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice (2-3 lemons)
6 tablespoons butter, softened
pinch of salt
2 teaspoons lemon zest

Combine egg yolks and sugar in a medium sauce pan.  Mix well to combine.  Add remaining ingredients, except for the lemon zest.  Cook over medium-low heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon.  (Do not allow to boil or the mixture will curdle.)
When the mixture changes to a bright yellow color and thickly coats the wooden spoon, remove from heat.  Pour through a fine strainer.  Discard the residue.  Stir in lemon zest.
Pour the filling into the cooled tart shell; it will continue to thicken as it sets.  Let it sit at least one hour.  Serve at room temperature or cold.