Friday, November 6, 2015

Today's lesson is Apple Tarte Tatin

"Today's lesson is Apple Tarte Tatin."

Shit. Shit. Shit.
That sinking, swirling feeling of the first day of class.
What am I even doing here? Eveyone knows what they're doing and I don't know jack shit. Raw apples, burnt sugar and chewy dough. All I can do is hope to not caramelize a towel while I set myself on fire.

Six strangers perched on cork-topped metal stools around a stainless steel table, non-slip shoes shuffling against flour bins stowed beneath. Beating out the butter for puff pastry, taking too many notes on everything Marin says. The dough goes smoothly enough, maybe - no way to know until everything is out of the oven. Six turns later and it's back in the fridge while we're peeling apples, hoping the slices are just the right size.

Butter in the pan.

A fine layer of sugar.

The apples, arranged with far too much thought and worry.

Is it time yet? What color is the liquid? It's too blonde. Shit, it's probably burnt, everything is going to taste like fire.

The dough is rolled and docked before cutting to fit the top of the pan. Tucked over top of the apples, the full pan carried so carefully to the convection uprights. Students, adults in white poly-blend chef costumes, hover in front of the doors, eyes on their own pan, monitored carefully through the amber glass. Small talk started earlier with cracks about apples and politely crude puns about "puff" and now matures into comments and compliments as the caramel begins to crown around golden pastry.

No one knows what they're doing any more than I do. Turning out the Tatin turns into a collaborative process, egging on each other as each group practiced flipping from pan to plate without catching their arms with flying caramel.

Pans back on the fire! Spoons of creme fraiche thrown in and swirled with the enthusiasm of a cook who has some idea what that is and has certainly used it before. Then over top the Tarte, somehow now resembling a real dessert.

Tender apples, bathed in a tangy caramel, resting on a buttery nest of finely layered, crisp pastry.

We are relieved. We are elated. We are empowered by our sudden failure to fail.

If I can do this, I can do anything.

"Today's lesson is Apple Tarte Tatin"

Again? I feel like we've done this a dozen times. We hear Marin talk over top as we converse across the tables, executing a process that now feels amateurish in the face of St. Honore and sourdoughs of recent lessons. Rough Puff and Tarte Tatin are just a fill-in, a placeholder for some lesson that Chef forgot to write.

It he just messing with us? The recipe reads to me like an Early Reader book does to a highschooler. I can't believe I am paying money for this credit-hour just to turn out the same fucking thing as day one.

Here at the table there is one who has the same jitters as on the first day. What about the dough? Are these apples the right size? Last time it was too light but also kind of burnt and she doesn't want to screw up again.

We stand together on the line. Give the pan a little jostle, swirl the liquid without touching it. No, no, it's still too light.

Trust me that you won't burn it.

Where's your dough? You're right, that's a bit too big, just give it a quick trim. You're fine.

Wait, before you top it off, take a look. See down the side there? That's the color you need to look for. Remember that color.

Lay on the dough and remember where you end up in the oven - don't let some bitch take your pan later.

Look at the edge again, how are your bubbles? See the color on your dough? That there on the edges - wait til it's that way all the way across the middle. No, it's not burnt. Baked things are supposed to look baked.

As she places the plate over top the pan, all five at the table wait to see.

There it is, again. A luscious pattern of apples atop a lofty pastry now sinking to a crisp crust under it's sweet burden, waiting for the caramel coup de gras.

Back to the heat, just for a moment. Put your heavy cream in that pan and let it go. No, no, wait til you're completely terrified that it's burnt. It won't be, just wait.

Give yourself time.

Peeling these apples over and over on our own is indeed a placeholder. It is a task waiting to be overtaken by the opportunity to teach, to support another in finding their own talent.

We return to the table after cleaning our pans and scouring mistakes from the stovetops, another success for some matched by first time success for others. We have a new confidence in each other.

You're going to be perfect. It's going to be great.

"Today's lesson is Apple Tarte Tatin"
Tarte Tatin for Two
or one, if you're ambitious

one large or two small tart baking apples
2 tablespoons butter, dairy or non-dairy
1/4 cup sugar
cinnamon, coriander and ginger, to taste

puff pastry (homemade or store bought)

a splash of whiskey or rum
1/4 cup creme fraiche, dairy or non-dairy, if you remember to get it, or not

First, preheat oven to 400 degrees. Or preheat to 375 degrees, realise after you've put the pan in that you meant to go higher and crank the oven then.

Then, forget to buy flour. Sprinkle your work surface with granulated sugar and roll puff pastry out to 1/4-inch thick. Cut a circle just large enough to cover the top of your pan - you can turn the pan over to use as a guide. Dock the pastry with a fork and set aside.

Peel and core apples and cut into 1/2-inch slices.

In an oven-safe pan, melt butter over medium heat. Sprinkle sugar over top in an even layer and heat to dissolve. Arrange apple slices in a concentric pattern to cover entire pan and continue cooking. Dust tops of apples with spices as you wish. The apples will give up some of their juices to the caramel and begin to soften. Wait until the liquid in the pan reaches a light- to medium-amber color, place prepared round of pastry over top. Realize at this point that you should probably have used that second apple instead of giving the slices to your dogs.

Bake until golden brown and lovely, about 20 minutes.

Turn out the tarte onto a serving plate - place the plate upside down over the top of the pan and - very carefully - flip the whole thing. The plate will immediately become quite hot, so use lots of oven mitts. Turn the pan upright immediately; remove any apples that resisted the flip but do not scrape all of the good bits out of the pan just yet.

Return your pan to the stovetop and add a splash of whiskey to deglaze. Stir in creme fraiche and cook over medium-low heat until a thick sauce forms. Don't forget that your pan was just in the oven - don't touch the handle directly.

Pour caramel over top of the Tarte. Allow to cool just slightly before serving.

Alternatively, serve with vanilla ice cream, freshly whipped cream or a dollop of just plain creme fraiche.