In my house, we’re kind of geniuses when we’re asleep.
Exhibit A: This recipe for Cinnamon Bun Hot Chocolate, which (seriously) came to me in a dream, and is dreamy in every sense of the word.
Exhibit B: The dream I had the other night where I came up with a totally new mattress design. It was shaped like a modified T, and called the “Angel Wing Mattress”—perfect for those of us who like to sleep on our sides with one arm extended! It even came with special T-shaped fitted sheets. I wish I had one in real life. Now every time I sleep on my boring rectangular mattress I die a little on the inside.
Exhibit C: This Pear Tarte Tatin. A week ago, Jason told me that he dreamed about the most delicious pear tarte tatin. It was packed with juicy caramelized pears, and served with both crème anglaise and vanilla ice cream, and topped with salted caramel sauce. He also strongly suggested that I would be the wife of his dreams if I would make it for him.
Who am I to argue with a man’s dreams?
This recipe took me back to my first pastry job at an upscale bakery here in Los Angeles. Working there wasn’t easy, but it did teach me so many valuable lessons—about how to work hard, how to work clean, how to be productive in a 12-inch square workspace, how to get along with all the crazies that are attracted to back of house work, and how to make a squintillion different kinds of pastries (that’s a technical term). It also taught me to always use the best ingredients and to not cut corners.
You might not realize this, but many (I would dare say most) bakeries, even fancy bakeries, use mixes to make their cakes, muffins, and other baked goods. It’s more cost-effective, it’s much faster, and pastries from a mix tend to stay moist longer and thus have a longer shelf-life. This bakery, though, eschewed all of that. We made every element of every pastry from scratch. We only bought whole eggs and spent ages separating all the yolks from the whites to make endless batches of Italian Meringue buttercream. We didn’t use shortening in anything. We assembled fruit tarts to order, and hand-made all of the curds, creams, and mousses that filled the cakes. We also made apple tarte tatin instead of the more traditional apple pie.
The tarte tatin I learned to make is a slow beast. I’ve seen recipes online that call for cooking the apples for 15 or 20 minutes, and I’m baffled. The apples in our tarte tatin were always cooked for close to an hour and a half on the stovetop, and then finished in the oven. The resulting tart had apple halves that gleam like jewels and were so tender, a fork could slide right through them without a whisper of resistance.
I followed this same principle when making my pear tarte tatin. I used firm pears and cut them into quarters. I first made a simple caramel with butter and sugar, then arranged the pears in my cast-iron skillet, and cooked them. And cooked them. And cooked them. When they started to shrink, I’d shove them over and add a few new slices, then cook some more. Only after they were translucent and perfectly tender was the top of the tart covered with puff pastry and then baked until golden and puffed.
Before unmolding the tart, I like to (carefully!) tilt it to the side and drain most of the excess caramel/pear juice. This helps the final tart hold together better and not be as soggy. As a bonus, if you boil the juice for a few minutes, you’ll make the most amazing thick caramel pear sauce to go over the tart.
You might notice that I served it with ice cream, but not the crème anglaise of Jason’s dream. What can I say—I have my limits! That seemed a little too excessive, even for the SugarHero household. But you are free to gussy it up, or serve it as plain as you’d like.
And what of all my talk last week about saving time and making simpler desserts? I stand by that. I really need to get better about just making a batch of cookies and calling it a day. But I have no regrets over the time spent making this tart. There was something so comforting and therapeutic about it, standing over the bubbling caramel and remembering how it was to walk into my first professional pastry job, new clogs pinching my feet, nervous and excited and more than a little clueless about what was in store and where it would all lead. I never could have predicted that I would eventually leave kitchen work and end up as a food writer and recipe developer, and that I would keep the oil-splattered notebook where I wrote down all of my notes and recipes those first few weeks.
I looked through it when I was preparing to make this tart, and I had to laugh. I was so worried about getting something wrong, I wrote everything down in explicit detail. Not just ingredients and times, but the verbatim instructions of the chef training me. I even drew a diagram of how the apples should be layered in the pan for the tarte tatin! I wish I could go back to that scared young woman and tell her that everything would work out fine. Better than fine! She would have some jobs she liked, and a few she hated, but she would learn from all of them. And then she would make up her own job and somehow, miraculously, that would work out fine too. And she would still make tarte tatin on occasion. The slow way. The only way.
Pear Tarte Tatin
yield: one 10-inch tart
2 lbs firm pears (about a dozen)
1 tbsp fresh lemon juice
2 tbsp water
1 1/4 cup granulated sugar, divided use
3 oz unsalted butter, cubed and at room temperature
1 8 1/2-oz sheet puff pastry dough (half of a standard 17-oz pack), thawed
Peel the pears, cut them in quarters, and core them. In a 10-inch oven-safe skillet over medium heat, combine the lemon juice, water, and 1 cup of granulated sugar. Stir them together until the sugar dissolves, then stop stirring and let the mixture come to a boil. Continue to boil the sugar syrup. Swirl the pan occasionally so that the sugar doesn’t scorch. Cook the sugar until it is a lovely golden brown color and smells caramelized.
Add the butter cubes and stir it in. The mixture might look separated at first, but continue to cook it, stirring occasionally, until it comes back to a boil and bubbles slowly like thick caramel. Arrange the pear slices on their sides in a concentric ring around the outer edge of the pan, with the wide bottom at the edge and the tapering top pointing to the center. Try to pack them in as closely as possible. Add a second ring in the center going the other way. Depending on the size of your pears, you may need to trim the slices in the center so that they fit. Don’t worry if it’s not perfect, as the pears cook they will shrink a bit so you can always do touch-ups later.
Sprinkle the remaining 1/4 cup of sugar on top of the pears, and cover the skillet with a lid or a tight layer of foil. Reduce the heat to a little under medium and cook the pears, covered, for 45 minutes. Check them once or twice and if they seem to be in danger of burning, reduce the heat a bit more. As they shrink try and add another sliced pear or two, so that they’re packed tightly. After 45 minutes, remove the cover and cook for an additional 15-25 minutes. The pears should look golden brown along the edges, somewhat translucent, and should be tender and easy to slice through.
While you’re waiting for the pears to cook, prepare the pastry. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Sprinkle a work surface lightly with flour, and roll out the thawed but cool puff pastry dough into a 12-inch circle. It should be large enough to cover the skillet, with about a inch extra on all sides. Once rolled out, cover the pastry and cutting board with plastic wrap, and refrigerate it until you’re ready to use it.
When the pears are ready, remove the skillet from the heat. Carefully drape the pastry over the top of the skillet, and tuck the excess dough down along the inside of the skillet between the pears and the pan’s side. (I like to use a rubber spatula for this step to preserve my fingers!) Don’t worry if it wrinkles or bunches up a bit—it’s not meant to be perfect. Cover the top of the pastry with a loose layer of aluminum foil, and bake it for 15 minutes.
Remove the foil and bake the pastry for an additional 15 minutes, until it’s golden brown and puffed all around. Take it from the oven and let it rest for 10 minutes. Press a plate to the top of the skillet and gently, gently tilt it to the side so that the juices run out of the pan and into a bowl. (This step is easiest if you have a helper to help wrangle the plate.) Try to get as much juice out as possible, but be careful to not mangle the tart. Once the juice is removed, press a large plate to the top of skillet. In one firm motion, flip it upside down so that the tart drops from the skillet onto the plate, crust side down.
While the tart cools a bit, transfer the caramel-pear juice to a small skillet. Boil it for several minutes, until it thickens (it will continue to thicken as it stands). Serve slices of tart with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and a drizzle of caramel-pear sauce.
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