For some years in New York City, dessert was all about chocolate. And caramel. And doughnuts. Fruit? That took a back seat.
But fruit desserts are making a comeback, and apples are leading the charge. After all, New York State produces more apples than anywhere else, except Washington. And this apple revival is helping bring back one of the best desserts to ever grace a linen table cloth: tarte tatin.
The classic tarte tatin is an upside-down tart, where fruit (typically apple) is caramelized in a pan with butter and sugar, topped with pastry dough, and baked. The tart is then flipped over before serving so its caramelized juices can trickle down to the crust.
That caramel is the tart's heart and soul. Like other caramelized desserts—crème brûlée and canele come to mind—tarte tatin takes common ingredients and turns them into something far greater and unexpected.
Tarte tatin is no mere pie: it's apples cooked down to their essence, made to taste even more like themselves with layers of burnt sugar and butter for good measure. Even those who claim not to care for apples tend to enjoy tarte tatin: its soft-yet-resilient texture and pastry crunch is a far cry from both raw apples and standard apple pie.
Though popular in New York restaurants a few decades ago, tarte tatin lost the spotlight as the city's appetites shifted away from luxe French restaurants and linen tablecloths. Now a host of new American and French restaurants are bringing it back, with some innovative techniques along the way.
The Road to Tarte Tatin
Though the tart's basic components are relatively simple, there are many ways to make a tarte tatin. Each approach has its own passionate advocates.
To Flip or Not to Flip
One of my favorites, from Rotisserie Georgette, follows the classic route: apples caramelized in a skillet and topped with a plain tart dough. Owner Georgette Farkas says, "I feel strongly that the tart should be baked upside down with its crust on top and then inverted just before serving...I confess to being tradition-bound and believe this is the traditional route." She's not alone; both Buvette and Gotham Bar and Grill also pull the bake-and-flip with their apples.
That's the classic French preparation, but hardly the only way to tarte tatin. At least two influential Frenchmen take their own spin. French pastry chef Ben Grue of Alain Ducasse's Benoit bakes Golden Delicious apples for a full three hours, pressing down on them every 15 minutes to build a dense, uniform, and deeply caramelized slab of apple. He bakes a sweet pastry crust separately and then tops it with apples right before serving.
Meanwhile, at his namesake bakery, Dominique Ansel cuts his apples into 25 perfectly uniform square slices using a special slicer. The apples are then baked in a wide pan, like a lasagna, with a caramel sauce at low temperature for four hours, then individually paired with single-serving sable breton (shortbread-esque) crusts.
The Choice of Crust
Larousse Gastronomique, one of the bibles of French cooking, recommends simple pie crust (called shortcrust) for tarte tatin. But that's actually the least popular crust in New York right now. Abby Swain, the pastry chef at Craft, uses puff pasty for her tart. "I just love the flaky, buttery, airy [features of] puff pastry. I think it's my favorite part of the dish." Gotham and Buvette also use puff pastry for their versions.
And then there's the question of how to finish the tart, traditionally a choice between crème fraîche or ice cream. Ms. Farkas is, again, unequivocal in her choice. "The subtly sour edge of the crème fraîche marries beautifully with the sweetness of the caramelized apples, whereas serving ice cream, you'd just be layering sweet on top of sweet." Dominique Ansel agrees. "No, too sweet!"
Tradition and chef's opinions aside, follow your own tastes to decide which is New York's best tarte tatin. In my research across the city, I found something to love in each preparation. Here are my favorites, from the traditional to the experimental.
Rotisserie Georgette's tarte tatin for two ($18), which is warmed up for your order, features local Honeycrisp apples baked to a deep, mahogany brown. This tart offers the most complex apple-caramel flavor of the bunch. Unsweetened crème fraîche is added tableside. Though the tart claims to be for two, it's large enough for four to enjoy small slices.
Gotham Bar and Grill
I've written before about Gotham Bar and Grill's tarte tatin for two ($28) before; it was one of my favorite desserts of 2013 and is still going strong. The tart has two standout features. To begin, it's baked to order, resulting in a blissfully buttery, fresh, and flaky puff pastry. As for the Braeburn apples, they're deeply caramelized like any good tarte tatin, but the large pieces of apple are especially plump and shapely: dense lobes you can cut through with a spoon. The tart is served with a clean vanilla ice cream instead of crème fraîche, and it's the perfect finish to a fine dining meal.
Craft's beautiful tarte tatin ($13) features nearly equal amounts of puff pastry and cooked apple. The pastry is wonderfully airy and the Honeycrisp apples are caramelized to a light blonde color, making for the lightest and least dense tart of the bunch. Salted pumpkin seeds on the side balance some of the sweetness while cardamom ice cream rounds out the dish. Closer to the holidays, the cardamom will be swapped out for a boozy eggnog ice cream.
Benoit's tarte tatin for two ($24) is an exceptionally beautiful and flavorful pastry. The tart, which like Georgette's is large enough for four people, has a uniform dark mahogany color that makes it look like a giant piece of pâte de fruit. Despite using only Golden Delicious apples, sugar, and butter, the tart has a complex flavor profile that I really like—probably owing to the degree of its dark caramelization. The buttery sweet pastry holds its crunch well against a spoonful of unsweetened crème fraîche.
Dominique Ansel Bakery
Dominique Ansel Bakery recently changed up their popular single serving tarte tatin ($6.50). What was a single Gala apple has now been replaced with a striking cube design. The new 25-layer version requires almost two apples for every pastry, and baking those thin layers in a pan with caramel sauce for four hours ensures that they're all soft and supple. The base is made from Ansel's signature sable breton crust, which is perfectly buttery and crumbly with a jolt of salt. The tart is served with crème fraîche.
Buvette, the charming French restaurant in the West Village, offers slices of tarte tatin ($8) from opening until 2:00 a.m., and if my visits are any indication, the tart has a huge following—it seems to hit almost every table. The apples (currently Gala, but they vary) in Buvette's tart are baked to a light orange-brown, like the color of dried apricot, for a mildly sweet apple layer featuring just a modest level of glossy, gooey caramel. It's the least complicated, most straightforwardly apple tart of the six recommendations here, and it's finished with a thin layer of puff pastry and unsweetened crème fraîche.