Autumn means apples. More specifically, apple picking. At least where I come from. Though, unfortunately, not where I currently reside.
After what felt like days spent in futile research for locales in the Berlin area suited for selber pflucken, I managed to find a small farm where one is allowed to roam the orchard, chomping and picking away through rows of Boskoop and Elstar. I only truly realized how typically American apple picking as an autumn activity is after noticing that there were more English speakers than German at this small orchard about an hour and a half outside of Berlin.
Now, many of you from the Northeast of the United States are familiar with that wholesome tradition of bounding out into the wild countryside on a sunny October weekend, in search of the kind of apples you just don’t find in the supermarket. You want not only to pick the apples yourself, but also to be guided out into the orchard by a friendly, suntanned farmer (ideally in the back of a hay-filled pickup truck or similarly-decorated vehicle) and given a hand-hewn wooden crook with netted basket on the end, to pluck the best trappings at the top of the tree. The apple trees should be large enough to climb, their branches dripping with red or golden-colored fruits. While onsite, you should eat apples from as many different branches as you possibly can without paying for them. If that means taking one bite, and throwing it aside, so be it. That’s the glory of apple picking. Because if you don’t eat it, its fate will be on the ground, in apple mushdom.
But the process of actually picking the apples is only the start, and, dare I say, a minor part of the experience. I have already mentioned farmer- driven hay rides. But let us not forget a stop by the cider house, to watch the rotten apples being churned to delicious cider (it’s not just for kids!) right before your very eyes. Buy a few bottles to bring home (you’ve rented that expensive car, after all – better fill it), and drink one on site, to wash down the two or three apple cider donuts that you will inevitably purchase and immediately consume. But, please, do me a favor and skip the fudge counter in the gift shop. You really don’t need all that white sugar after eating three apple cider donuts on top of countless apples back in the fields. You will only regret it later when the sugar crash hits during the car ride home.
Kitsch? Yes, maybe a little. The lowest on the totem pole of apple picking locales are simply over-priced traps for wide-eyed city folk wanting a day out in the fresh air. The best of them, typically lying far outside the reaches of the New York or Boston metropolises, are colorful, unpretentious hillside orchards marked only with a ‘U-PICK’ sign. A pile of half-broken baskets, a big scale, and maybe a couple of ladies selling fresh donuts and apple cider from the leftover harvest is really all it takes by way of ‘customer experience’. If the focus is on the farm itself, and caring for the apple trees, the decision to allow the public to come and self-pick being an option, the rest should follow naturally.
Long story short, I didn’t need the Disneyland of Apple Picking to satisfy my longing for a New England fall day. I won’t say that what we found was disappointing, but a bit lackluster when compared to what I know apple picking to be in my past. Nevertheless, we came home with a stash that’s still hanging around, with varieties I have never tasted before, from tiny plum-sized sour apples to huge and sweet crunchy ones.
I have already written about my own (and – if I may say so – superior) apple pie. But this pie is currently being challenged by its French stepsister, the Tarte Tatin. My friend Benoit, with a fine reputation for down-home French cooking (see previous canelé post), baked a classic Tarte Tatin to contend with my American-style apple pie. I’m not kidding; there was actually a well-attended competition. Complete with secret ballots. While the vote was close, I won’t say who the victor was, but only that I have secured his simple, mouth-watering recipe to share with you all here.
Benoit’s Tarte Tatin
For the tarte dough:
-1 ¼ cups all-purpose flour
-1/2 tsp salt
-1/2 tbsp. sugar
-125 grams (one stick US, or 8 Tbsp) chilled butter, in small cubes
For the apple part:
-6 medium sized apples, peeled, cored and cut into quarters
-a pinch of cinnamon
-6 Tbsp (approx. 95 grams) butter
-1 cup (approx. 200 grams) sugar
1. Preheat the oven to around 200° C (almost 400° F)
2. Begin by preparing the tarte dough. Combine all dry ingredients in a large bowl and cut in the small cubes of butter with a pastry cutter or two knives. When the butter is pretty well incorporated (crumbly feeling), drizzle some of the ice water, little by little and mix dough with hands. Add enough until dough just comes together without being wet or sticky. If too dry and crumbly, add a little more water. Shape into a flattened disk and wrap in plastic wrap. Chill in the refrigerator for at least one hour.
3. Prepare the apples: peel, cut into quarters and remove seeds as needed. If you like, you can sprinkle with a splash of lemon juice so that they do not brown.
4. Prepare the caramel. Add the butter to an oven-proof skillet and melt. (Note that an oven-proof skillet is the ideal pan to use for Tarte Tatin. I don’t have one, so I simply used a medium sauce pan for the caramel and apple layer, pouring it out into a parchment-lined spring-form pan for the baking part. Though this is not the true Tarte Tatin way, it worked fine and the cake was still pretty when flipped.) Once butter is melted, stir in the sugar with a wooden spoon. Cook until the syrup bubbles and caramelizes, and turns a chestnut brown color, stirring occasionally. Benoit reminds to be sure it doesn’t darken too much or it will impart a bitter flavor to the end result. Remove from heat.
5. Arrange apple pieces in a layer over the caramel (largest on the bottom). Arrange the remaining pieces over the top. Sprinkle with cinnamon. Return the skillet to the burner at medium high heat and cook for about 15 minutes, covering after the first five. Every few minutes press down on the apples and baste them with the juices. When the juices are thick and syrupy, remove the pan from the heat. You will probably start to smell the caramelization of the apples here.
6. On a lightly floured surface, roll the chilled dough into a circle, approx. 5-mm (3/16-inch) thick and 2.5-cm (1-inch) larger than the top of the pan. Lower the dough over the apples in the skillet, pressing the edge of the dough between the apples and the inside of the pan. Cut 4 small steam holes on the top of the dough.
7. Bake the Tarte Tatin for about 25 to 30 minutes, or until golden, with crispy caramel pieces bubbling up from under the edges. Take it out of the oven and let cool for 10 or 15 minutes, just long enough so that you can handle it. To make it look like a Tarte Tatin you need to turn it out onto a plate, so that the apple layer is on top.
8. Put tarte aside for a few minutes to let the caramel seep down and cool off a bit more. Serve with a spoonful of crème fraîche or ice cream.
psssss: if you made it this far, I will share with you the results of the apple pie vs. tarte tatin competition…. apple pie by ONE VOTE! oh, YES.