I had a music potluck to go to yesterday. I started thinking Friday night about what I would make: it came down to orange pound cake made with orange juice and zest, a repeat of the St. Patrick’s Day knishes sans Canadian bacon in deference to vegetarian singers, or a pear tart tatin. Those of you who read about our grocery finds a few posts ago will recall that I bought three pounds of Bosc pears. I have roasted pears to eat as dessert and I have included roasted pears in a few winter soups, but I had never before made a tart tatin. I was somewhat swayed by the thought that I had one pie crust waiting in the fridge. I was also swayed by the fact that I greatly prefer pie to cake and I love fruit desserts.
As it turned out, the pie crust in the fridge was a little too crumbly and a little too small and I ended up making a whole new batch: now we have old leftover crust and new leftover crust. Oh well: making and eating things with pie crust does not trouble us in this household.
While I used my Mom’s never-fail pie crust recipe for the tart tatin, I used the method and ingredients for the most part described in Chez Panisse Desserts, with one change, two additions and one error, which may have proved beneficial.
Alice Waters and Lindsey Sher give the ingredients as one 10-inch circle of pie dough or puff pastry, 1/2 cup sugar, 2 Tbsp unsalted butter, about 5 medium Bosc or Winter Neli pears and an optional tablespoon of rum, Cognac, brandy or Armagnac. I used salted butter, eight small Bosc pears, and rum. I added 1/2 Tbsp of vanilla extract and a sprinkling of ginger. Waters and Sher say to bake the tart at 400 degrees, which I would have done, except, despite reading the recipe, I had set my oven at 350.
If you don’t have pie crust on hand, you’ll have to make that first. You will find my Mom’s recipe here. If you make it, you will have three more crusts, or at least two and a half because Mom’s recipe makes four crusts (It is hard to make less with her recipe because it calls for a whole egg).
Once you have gotten your pie crust made, set it to chill in the refrigerator while you prepare the other ingredients. It’s up to you whether you want to peel and core pears first or make caramel first. At any rate, you will be peeling and coring pears. You can use halves or quarters in the tart. I used halves, which looked quite nice. I put the tablespoon of rum and the half-tablespoon of vanilla in the bowl with the peeled, halved pears.
I then got out a cast iron skillet and set it on medium heat. I added the butter and sugar to the skillet and stirred with a wooden spoon until the caramel turned light brown, at which time I removed the pan from the heat and continued to stir. The caramel continues to darken: you keep stirring it so that it turns evenly instead of darkening in any hot spots. Mine came out a lovely, reddish brown.
Place the pears in the caramel in a circle with the narrow ends pointing to the center. I had a small, pear-less circle in the center, which I filled by cutting the last pear into smaller pieces. I put my pears cut-side down, although Alice and Lindsey say to put the rounded side down. You are going to flip this dessert over after it is baked, so, whichever way you do it, it is going to come out the opposite. My brain does not like to think in reversals (it gets confused). Do what you like. When you have got your pears looking all pretty and symmetrical, you are going to put the pastry over the top. Before I did this, I poured the leftover vanilla-rum mixture over the pears and sprinkled them with perhaps 1 tsp powdered ginger. I folded the crust in quarters, then unfolded it over the fruit, tucking the edges down into the sides of the pan since this crust will end up being the tart base. I also, as instructed, pushed the dough gently into the pears — it forms a slight wave pattern, molding around the curves of the pears. Cut a few slits in the crust and transfer the tart to your hot (or not so hot) oven.
I checked my tart after 30 minutes — that’s when I discovered my temperature error: plenty of browned juices bubbled up, but the crust was not brown. I cranked the oven up to 400 and let the tart bake for another 20 minutes until the crust was properly browned. My error with the oven temperature may have caused deeper caramelization of the fruit, which I happen to like, and had no ill effects on the caramel or the crust, save needing extra time for browning.
When the crust has browned to your satisfaction, remove the tart from the oven and let it sit for a few minutes — the pan will be really hot. When you are ready for the next step, take a plate larger than your skillet, place the plate on top of the pan and carefully invert the skillet onto the plate. With any luck, your tart will come out whole. If a pear or two get left behind, just use a spoon to transfer them back to their place on the tart. If you have lost a bit of crust, you will have the pleasure of sampling the caramel-infused crust: the caramel layer transforms basic pie crust into a new delight.
Mom dug out the top of a popsicle mold, which we plopped in the center of the tart to hold the wrappings away from the fruit. I wrapped the tart in two layers of aluminum foil and carted it off on the bus in the rain to my friend Elaine’s house. The singers consumed every scrap of the tart. Toni had three pieces. Elaine, who does not like Bosc pears, had two. Elaine said she would like the tart made with stone fruit. I said I thought it might be delicious with fresh figs. We have to wait for those fruits, but some pears are in season now. I was pleased with how easy it was to make a dessert that had intimidated me (the caramel, the flipping, the careful arrangement of the fruit, would the crust withstand the weight of the tart and all of that caramel? Would it leak?). Trust me, friends — if I can do it, you can do it.
Food Notes: If you are afraid of pie crust, you can also make this with frozen puff pastry. I recommend, however, that you visit your nearest crust expert to overcome this fear. Most pie bakers would be glad to help you learn to make pie crust.