Yes yes, I know it is now mid-March and the title of this blog says February. I am pleased to say, despite failing to post a blog in February I did all the cooking in the correct month at least (well the second attempt was in March)! In this shortest month of the year I came back from my honeymoon, packed our flat, moved to Brisbane, started a new job, found a place to live up here AND baked. No wonder February disappeared in a flash!
So when I moved up to Brisbane I moved in temporarily with my folks while I looked for somewhere for Brendan and I to live. Considering they were letting me stay with them I thought I’d bake something for them, and that my mum can eat. My mum has a salicylate intolerance which means there is a long list of foods to be avoided – in particular fruit, vegies, and spices.
I decided to attempt a tart tatin, and to make it mum-friendly, made a pear tarte tatin. A tarte tatin is an upside-down tart. You bake caramalised fruit under a pastry sheet and then flip it over to serve. The oft-repeated tale is that two sisters (the Tatin sisters) ran a hotel in France and one overcooked/burnt the fruit for an apple pie and in an attempt to save it inverted it and served it to her guests who loved it. Other food historians suggest that the tart has existed in the Sologne region of France for hundreds of years and while this story may have an element of truth to the events, there is contention about whether it was ‘invented’ by the sisters.
Regardless, it looks amazing when I’ve seen them, and the challenge this month is to make my own puff pastry from scratch for it (and also make caramel, something I realised was another new trick while I was standing in front of the saucepan waiting for it to heat up!). The process wasn’t entirely smooth, and I invented a new dessert along the way, as well as trying the tarte twice. I promised I’d explain my failures as well as successes, so here goes!
Thanks to a lovely farewell gift from Jane, I have a gorgeous ‘Cakes Not Crises’ note book in which I’m making notes of the debates I have with myself and the recipes I ultimately end up using (and, of course, notes on how successful they are!). So that’s lovely and exciting because means I can continue using it after the project as well!
I started by researching. Mum walked past and said “once an academic… always an academic” as she saw me at the dining table surrounded by books and my ipad.
While the basics–caramel, fruit, pastry–remain the same, there are lots of variations on the ‘best’ way to make a tarte tatin (the boldly named “how to cook perfect tarte tatin” on The Guardian has prompted an illustrative storm of controversy in the comment thread on these variations). I read my parents’ old version of the Larousse Gastronomique, their Australian and New Zealand Cookbook, a cooking techniques cookbook that had some advice on puff pastry, and joepastry.com’s advice on laminating pastry (that the excellent Byron linked to me and which is terrific!), as well as a bunch of well-known bakers’ websites for their tarte tatin recipe. In the end I came up with the following version.
- 500g flour
- about 1 1/4 cups of water
- 1/2 tsp of salt
- 500g of good quality butter
- 200g (white refined) sugar
- 50ml of water
- 50g of butter
- between 4 and 7 pears (depends on the size of your pan and the size of the pears)
(water and salt not pictured)
Part 1: Puff Pastry
Several considerations for the pastry. The first was that I decided to make ‘proper’ puff pastry rather than ‘rough puff’. The full deal involves incorporating the fat as a whole piece rather than ‘rough puff’ which allows you to chop up the fat and incorporate it within the flour from the start.
I also had just moved to Brisbane, and if my hair was any indication the puff pastry making process would not go well in the humidity! Luckily my sister has an apartment with air-conditioning which she and her housemate generously let me cover with flour for the day.
Puff pastry puffs because of layers and layers within the pastry of alternating dough and butter. Different kinds of delicious treats require/encourage more or less lamination (folding to create layers). The most important secret with puff pastry is to not let the butter ‘melt’ into the pastry while it is being made as this will defeat the purpose of the layers. So temperature control is crucial (hence the humidity worry and aircon). Once made the pastry can be cut into portions and frozen for later use.
I went essentially with the Larousse puff pastry recipe, and followed the (fantastic) steps from Joe Pastry. LOTS of steps coming up, but the volume is more for precision than complexity of tasks.
- 500g flour
- about 1 1/4 cups of water
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 500g good quality butter (take it out of the fridge a little while before using it so it softens a bit (not too much!))
1. In a large bowl (Larousse tells you to do this just on a bench, but lets be honest, I would end up with floury-water on the floor if I tried that) put the flour and salt. Make a well in the middle and gradually add the water. You may need all the water, you may not quite need it all, see how you go.
2. Mix together. Once its mostly together turn it out on a floured bench and knead until “smooth and elastic”.
3. Let sit for 25 minutes.
4. While it is resting get your butter and place it on a layer (or two) of cling wrap. Joe Pastry tells you to add a scattering of flour over the butter to help its consistency but I totally forgot as I was doing it. Cover it with another layer (or two–two helps avoid holes once you start bashing).
5. Get a big heavy rolling pin and BASH the butter. Its very cathartic (although apologising to my sister and her housemate for the noise while I ‘banged the butter’ caused much laughter). Once recovered from laughing, bang/bash/whack/smash the butter. You want to make sure its squishing into roughly a square/rectangle, and you can help this by using the length of the rolling pin to push in the sides periodically.
6. Once it is flattened, peel back the cling wrap and pile up the butter again and BASH it down again. This will soften the butter. If you are in a hot climate…even with the aircon on, you might find that the butter gets too soft before you get to do it again. I did it twice but it was a bit overly squishy at the end I think.
7. Put it in the fridge for a bit to harden.
8. Get the dough that has been resting and roll it out. Here I diverged in shape if not method from Joe Pastry. His dough is quite round and I couldn’t picture how to wrap the butter in it. So I made a rectangle.
10. MORE BASHING. Hit the package with your rolling pin, this is going to help spread the butter out to the edges and make your shape more regular. Turn the package periodically (to avoid sticking, and to help push the butter out).
11. Take your rectangle and brush off any excess flour. You are going to fold it in three. Take the one hand side and fold it over, then fold the other side over that.
12. Complex bit done! Take your dough envelope and put it on a tray and chill in the fridge. Again, contention over how long to leave it–anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour according to different places. Basically you want it to stiffen up again. The butter will have softened a lot from all that bashing and handling. If you have the time, leave it an hour, particular this first one. Rest, relax. Clean up, perhaps.
13. Get your pastry back out and put it on the bench. You want to roll it out into a rectangle again, but with the intention of doing the tri-fold in the opposite direction to the previous one. Recipes often say ‘turn the dough 90 degrees” or “to the right”. I’m a visual learner. I was worried about screwing up the turns but trust me, it makes sense once you’ve got the rectangle in front of you.
14. Fold it, put it back in the fridge. Wait. Take it out. Turn it 90 degrees. Repeat. For puff pastry for this tart you want to do it at least 6 times in total. If it is not too soft then in the later folds you can get away with doing two turns between refrigerating it…just keep an eye on the feeling of it–that butter can’t get too soft. As you do it you’ll see the butter ‘marbling’ in the dough; that’s good.
15. Once you’ve done sufficient turns you can roll it into a long rectangle and cut it into portions to put in freezer bags. I made 4 portions. One was sufficient for the tart, but I’d perhaps make 3 portions in the future so I had some left over/ it wasn’t quite as thin on the tart.
DONE! Clean up, have a beer, take your pastry back to your parents’ from your sister’s place, etc etc. Only don’t forget to put on your apron for the final turn and clean up like I did/ or perhaps don’t #bakeinblack.
Reflections: I was daunted about puff pastry, but the process wasn’t too difficult once I decided on a recipe. Just a lot of physical effort, and the need for time…it literally took me 6ish hours to do. I also had sore arms and had bruised the palms of my hands I discovered the next day, so clearly a good work out also!
Part 2: Caramel and Pears
Later that week I decided to make the tarte for my parents for dessert. However, I came home from work with a screaming headache so I started later than hoped. To their credit parents sat up until it was ready and we all went to bed on sugar highs!
Ok. Caramel. Unsurprisingly there is variation in how to make caramel. I consulted Larousse, the stupid guardian article, Donna Hay, and several blogs on caramel recipes. There are various kinds of caramel as well, from hard caramel to much goopier runny caramel. After looking at many recipes I decide to go a 1: .5 (sugar: water) ratio
- 1 cup refined white sugar
- 1/2 cup water
- 50g butter
1. Put sugar in pan and turn it on.
2. Add water. Do not stir (if you stir it screws up the sugar crystals as they change and apparently ruins everything).
3. Watch it slowly change from white/clear to gain golden colour. Don’t be hasty! Hold your nerve! You want it to be a rich golden colour. If you’re lucky like me, your science-minded-but-not-baking-minded dad will come and stick his face concerningly close to the caramel and help you judge the colour under the stove-light.
4. Take it off the heat and add the butter. It’ll spit a little at first but no worries. Stir it in. You can add a pinch of salt at this point also if you’d like. It will look and smell deeeeelicious!
I made my caramel first (rather than just putting the pear and sugar and water into a pan and adding the pastry)…these are the two contested ways of doing it. I also made it in a different pan and then poured it into my cast-iron skillet because the skillet had little bumps in the bottom and we were unsure if it would affect the crystal formation. Reflection: Knowing how possible it is to mess up the caramelisation process I was considering every step. Carefully didn’t let sugar stick to the side of the pan before the heat went on (because apparently if it drops back in it can upset the crystallising that’s going on). Watched it watched it watched it so it didn’t burn. And quickly quickly added the butter and stirred (realised at that moment I didn’t know if a particular implement was better/ a no-go. I used a wooden spoon. It worked well).
- between 4 and 7 pears. Peel them, cut them into pieces, and if you want to follow Gordon Ramsey’s advice–put them uncovered in the fridge so they ‘dry’ a bit.
So another contentious tarte tatin debate (who knew there were so many!?) is whether you cook the fruit partly first, how small you cut it, how you lay it out etc etc. But primarily whether to pre-par-cook it. Mostly because it was late at night, and also because several recipes, including Larousse, assured me I didn’t need to pre-cook the pears I didn’t pre-cook the pears.
Part 3: Assembling the Tarte Tatin
I tipped the caramel into the pan, and had my pears I’d cut up on hand to add to the pan also. I attempted to make it look pretty, but fruit is unevenly shaped and I clearly don’t have a future in dry-stone-walling from my attempts to lock pear pieces in against each other, so it wasn’t a huge success. But I’m calling it ‘rustic’.
You want to push the pear in tightly, because it will ‘shrink’ as it cooks. So make sure they are packed in there!
The other point of note/concern is that as I put the pears in the hot caramel a bunch of juice started coming out of them. Was a bit worried there was going to be way too much liquid in the pan when it came to flipping it, but was committed now!
I’d taken a portion of the puff pastry out of the freezer as I started making the caramel, and it was soft enough to roll out. I rolled it out to the size of the pan and then carefully put it over the pears and pushed it down (carefully because of the burning caramel!) the sides. Again ‘rustic’.
It went into the oven (190C fan forced) for about 30 agonising minutes. My folks’ over light doesn’t work so I couldn’t see if it was puffing at all!
After 30 minutes I took it out of the oven. Top was lovely golden brown and it had puffed and flaked and looked tremendous.
…. Erm, nope.
What that picture doesn’t tell you is that that delicious pastry was like a pastry raft floating on a sea of pear-y caramel. Too much liquid you guys. Waaaaay too much.
Wisdom had prevailed and I hadn’t even attempted to flip this ‘tarte’. We took the delicious pastry off before it got soggy (and it was truly delicious–light, buttery, flaky, deliciousness) and I stared folornly at the pan for a few minutes.
So parents and I had caramel pears, flaky pastry and ice-cream mess for dessert, and then mum got to have delicious pears with her porridge all week.
Reflection: Clearly the pears need to be de-liquid-ed in some way before hand. I also think that I made just too much caramel so that didn’t help the liquid situation either. Next attempt I’ll par-cook the pear pieces, and make less caramel and we’ll see how it goes.
After recovering for a few weeks I tried again this weekend. Here are the things I did differently:
- I partly cooked the pears by putting them in a single layer in a microwave container and cooking them for 3 minutes before turning them onto paper towel to absorb the extra liquid. There wasn’t heaps of liquid but some did come out when I tipped up the container…also as steam.
- I made less caramel, and…
- I made a caramel that was a slightly higher ratio of sugar to water than the initial recipe. So 1/2 a cup of sugar and about 3 tablespoons of water. Wasn’t quite enough in the pan I had. I’d probably up it to 3/4 of a cup. This made a gooier caramel that semi-set when I put it in the skillet pan. But once i added the pears it loosened up a bit.
- Didn’t put quite as much pear in the dish. This meant the pastry lid came all the way down the sides.
Cooked this second version and…. IT WORKED! (mostly)!
Reflection: Less liquid made SUCH a difference. There was still quite a bit of liquid in the tart when I flipped it, and it wasn’t sticky enough to hold the pears all together or anything. But around the edges it is sticky and caramelised and the pear all through is firm but soft enough to cut with a spoon edge.
I successfully flipped this one onto the plate. Be careful when doing this. The caramel is liquid and has come out of a 200C oven! Flip away from yourself so if it ‘sprays’ it it doesn’t get you (mine didn’t spray hurrah!).
Its a pity I made the successful one on a weekend mum isn’t here, after all that! Will just have to make it again!
Overall, this was less ‘successful’ than January’s eclairs, but it was definitely something I hadn’t done before and although I hadn’t really considered the caramel when considering what the ‘challenge’ was this month, it was in many ways the most challenging part.
Also worth noting that all-up, if it had worked the first time, all the ingredients (which includes a whole bag of both flour and sugar which you don’t use all of), was just over $10 (AU). William Bartell pears are just coming into season and they are firm and flavourful and delicious (and it cost me about $4.50 for 7 of them).
The puff pastry was time-consuming and hand-bruising, but it is so flaky and buttery and because you can make a big batch and freeze it, I can definitely see myself setting aside weekend days periodically to restock our supply.
So February’s challenge was worth it simply for requiring me to learn how to make puff pastry!
There is only 2 weeks of March left now and plans are underway for my 3rd bake. Unstoppable!