Popular tart has a French accent


Wednesday, October 11th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6


By Donna Lee / The Providence (R.I.) Journal Food Editor

With autumn, apples come into their own in New England. Simply seeing the newly picked apples at roadside stands can make us long for a wedge of warm apple pie.

The same is true in northern France, where chef Pascal Leffray of Chez Pascal in Providence grew up.

Instead of an all-American apple pie, however, the French would bake a tarte tatin. This upside-down caramelized apple tart is homey and rustic, beautiful in its simplicity.

"It is very much a bistro dish," says Leffray, who serves wedges of the tart warm with creme fraiche or ice cream at the bistro he and his wife Lynn operate on Hope Street.

Butter and sugar are cooked in a heavy skillet until they form a rich caramel. Then the apples are simmered briefly in the sauce. A pastry crust made with butter is then tucked over the apples and the tart is baked until the apples are tender, yet still holding their shape.

When inverted on a serving platter, the apples -- glistening with caramel glaze -- sit on top of the flaky pastry.

The free-form edges of the crust, upturned like a cup, catch some of the juices.

The tart, popular throughout France, was named for two sisters named Tatin. They lived in Lamotte-Beuvron in the Loire region of France and served the dessert at their hotel during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The International Dictionary of Desserts, Pastries and Confections by Carole Bloom gives the dessert's full name as La Tarte des Demoiselles Tatin.

Chef Leffray, who moved to the United States in 1982, says that the tart began as a mistake. The sisters meant to have the pastry on top. Instead, the tart landed upside down, and people liked it that way.

Chef Leffray uses no cinnamon or nutmeg in his. He cannot understand the American infatuation with cinnamon.

"Cinnamon kills the taste of apple," Leffray says. "The French do not use cinnamon much. If I ever use cinnamon in cooking, I only use a little. In American apple pie, all I can smell is cinnamon!"

His wife, who is American-born, smiled. "Cinnamon is Pascal's pet peeve."

He uses Golden Delicious apples because they hold their shape when cooked. If apples are too soft, they collapse when the tart is turned out.

Leffray has the apple tart on the menu of his cozy French bistro in autumn and winter.

Sometimes he instead offers tarte aux pommes, an open-faced tart of sliced apples baked on an oblong of puff pastry, a dessert popular in French pastry shops.

Leffray grew up on a small farm outside Chartres in northern France, where his parents still live. They raised their own vegetables, rabbits and fruit trees. His mother filled the shelves with homemade jams and preserves. In October, they made cider from their apples.

At Chez Pascal, Leffray brought out a bottle of Calvados, the dry apple brandy of Normandy in northern France. Inside the narrow-necked bottle of amber brandy was a perfect whole apple, like a ship-in-a-bottle mystery.

Leffray explained that the twig bearing the apple blossom or tiny apple is slipped into the empty bottle and the bottle is left on the tree until the apple has grown inside.

Calvados, a fine after-dinner drink, is also used in cooking, like brandy. Leffray serves pork roast with apples flavored with Calvados.

He reminisced about other treats his mother made in apple season.

"When I was a kid, she would make baked apples," Leffray recalls. For these, she cored the apples, leaving the skin on, filled the apples with homemade strawberry or black currant jam, and baked them until tender. She also made apple beignets -- crisp, hot apple fritters served with a dusting of confectioners' sugar. For these, she cored small apples, sliced them about a half-inch thick, dipped them into fritter batter and deep fried them.

At Chez Pascal, Leffray serves an appetizer of sauteed duck foie gras with apples, with a port demi-glace.

A salad combines watercress, Belgian endive and apples tossed with a vinaigrette, walnuts and crumbled Roquefort cheese -- a wonderful interplay of sweet-tart, salt, faintly bitter and nutty flavors.

"I can't take that off the menu. People love it!"

And for devotees of apple pie, French style, chef Leffray makes this upside-down apple tart.

Chef Leffray makes a pear tart in the same manner.

TARTE TATIN

(Upside-Down Apple Tart)

Pastry:

1/2 cup butter

1/4 cup sugar

2 eggs

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

Pinch of salt

Filling:

10 to 12 small Golden Delicious apples

3/4 cup water

1/2 cup butter

2 cups sugar

Creme fraiche for serving, or ice cream

Pastry: Dough can be made in a food processor. Mix butter, sugar and eggs until well blended. Add flour mixed with salt; process just until mixed, no more than 1 minute, or dough will be tough. Form dough into a ball and refrigerate for 1 hour. Roll out to 1/4-inch-thick circle.

Peel apples, cut in half and core.

Pour sugar into a heavy 10-inch round baking pan or cast-iron skillet. Add water and cook over medium heat until the sugar begins to lightly caramelize to a deep butterscotch color but is not too brown. Remove from heat and stir in butter.

Arrange apples in caramel, placing them upright one after the other around the edge of the pan. They should be packed in tightly enough to stay in position. Add more apples if needed to cover surface of the pan.

Replace pan over heat just long enough for the caramel to bubble over the apples. Remove from heat.

Place crust over the hot apples and carefully -- to avoid burning your fingers -- tuck dough down inside the pan to create an edge. This edge will later hold things in place when the tart is flipped over.

Bake in preheated 350 degree oven 30 to 40 minutes or until apples are soft. If the dough begins to brown too quickly, cover with foil until apples are done.

Remove from oven and allow to sit at room temperature for 2 hours to set the caramel.

Place a plate larger than the baking dish over the pan. Before flipping it completely, any extra unset caramel can be drained off at this point.

Flip tart onto serving plate. If you drained off any caramel, you may cook it in a saucepan and until slightly thickened, then pour it over the apples.

If desired, sieve a dusting of confectioners sugar over the cooled tart.

Serve with creme fraiche or whipped cream.

-- From Pascal Leffray, Chez Pascal, Hope Street, Providence