WELCOME HOME AND THE TARTE TATIN
The welcome home I receive from the customs official at Newark Liberty Airport’s border control is not terribly welcoming. Raising one eyebrow and thumbing through my passport, he begins his interrogation.
“Anything to declare?”
My head is shaking “no,” but involuntarily, my shoulders shrug. Sequestered in the middle seat of United Airlines’ row 30 for eight plus hours is to blame. My neck and shoulders are one with my ears. Border Patrol takes this as a sign of weakness. Based on his tone, I’m wondering if perhaps I really did do damage to Julia’s kitchen drawer and the authorities have been notified to detain me upon arrival in the states.
“Nothing?” he asks once more with feeling, tilting his head ever so slightly.
“You didn’t buy anything? Any gifts?”
“No, no gifts, “ I assure him summoning my finest acting skills. “Maybe some biscuits… “ I over share, “but I’ve eaten most of them.” Having not looked in a mirror since boarding a plane in Nice two time zones ago, it’s quite possible the dark chocolate smudges of McVitie’s digestive biscuits are a dead give away. I can only hope he is not going to check my teeth for remnants of the fig studded nougatine I bought in Valbonne. Mr. Border Control deigns to allow me re-entry; I wheel my top-heavy suitcase towards the exit, wondering what time it is.
Jet lag descends like a curtain at the end of Act I, forcing me to bed at 8:30 pm only to waken me at 2:00 am. I am equal parts hungry/thirsty/cranky, toying with the idea of starting my day. Coffee wins.
Wedged inside my carry-on is a magazine I purchased at the London airport as a turbulence distraction. There is a detailed recipe for individual game pies which do not call to me. One glossy page over from the game pie is a crunchy lemon loaf recipe from dear Mary Berry of the Great British Bake-Off. More intriguing to a post-Provencal traveler is an article discussing the attributes of one of the world’s favorite puddings, Tarte Tatin. I wouldn’t classify upended caramelized apples and pastry as a pudding, but the Brits have their own way of doing things. Remembering my near miss with the French authorities related to the Julia kitchen drawer incident, it’s probably best to avoid entanglement with Scotland Yard.
Pouring a third cup of coffee, I approach the article with renewed interest. There is a substantial pinch of flaky sea salt in the recipe and a gorgeously styled photograph begging me to bake this pudding. Yes, I want to bake this, but more critically I want to eat this. I explore another version, this one called a tarte.
Julia’s 1994 The Way to Cook goes into great detail as she invites you into the dark caramelized world of tarte tatin. The French approach differs from her neighboring pudding peeps, but there is one constant in both versions; the pan handling and upending is Hades hot. I am unafraid.
A tarte tatin journey is best traveled when one is sufficiently rested. If not, there is the risk of forgetting critically important details. These may include but are not limited to: sugar on top of the stove can and will burn when you turn your back on it. Once loyal All-Clad pans with handles for easy maneuvering are hotter than you remember when they exit a 400 degree oven. Upending a pan filled with bubbling apples results in runaway juices that are quite capable of burning your fingertips. Curb your enthusiasm before plunging your pinky in for a taste.
One more note: tarte tatin sounds so very French, requires so few ingredients, how challenging can this dessert be? More than you think. Your caramel may not be as deep mahogany as instructed in the recipe. The apples may shrug their little apple shoulders and slink down in the pan more than you anticipated. The upending pan/plate flip requires attention and dexterity. These are small deterrents that fade away in light of a crisp pastry bathed in caramel with a generous forkful of autumn.
It is critical to channel your inner Julia when preparing an upside down apple tart. Caramel may require fearlessness but any slight imperfections in the completed dessert do not require an apology. Mastering this tart is akin to a brush with border control; remain calm and focused. Declare nothing.
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