Sunday, September 23, 2007

Tarte of Gold

I haven't had the chance to catch up with the faithful Persephone of late due to our mutually harried schedules, but when she mentioned over email this week that we should do something to celebrate the onset of fall, I applauded her idea and invited her to an autumnal equinox dinner.

When I passed through the farmers' market yesterday, I kept my eyes open for ideas for tonight's dinner, not knowing if I would feature squash or not. After using squash in last night's dinner, though, I turned to my backup plan of making imam bayildi, a delectable Persian dish that features late season eggplant and tomatoes. With some garlicky bok choy and a slice of whole grain challah on the side, I knew we'd have a colorful and satisfying meal.

I also picked up a bag of apples at the market, and not just for making more applesauce. For the past few years, I've made it an autumnal tradition to bake a tarte tatin, a stunningly simple and easy French apple tart.

It never ceases to amaze me how the simplest ingredients can often result in the most glorious desserts. The shortcrust pastry uses only four ingredients -- flour, sugar, butter, and an egg -- and the filling results from melted butter and sugar combined with apple slices. That's it.

Well, in my version, that's not really all there is to it, but even I know when to leave well enough mostly alone. The only thing I like to add is a smidgen of fresh chopped rosemary leaves, and when the rosemary cooks with the apples, it balances the sweetness with a piny taste that casts your taste buds a little further into autumn.

So while the imam bayildi simmered in a pot on one burner, I cooked the apples on another.

When the apples had softened just enough, I covered them with the pastry crust and slid the pan into the oven for about 25 minutes, until the crust browned. A few minutes later, I flipped the pan upside down onto a serving platter and revealed a buttery rich dessert that would prove the perfect foil to the light and savory dinner.

I'm always bowled over by the depth of flavor in such a simple dessert, and I can't help but sink back into my chair as I savor the luxury of it all. Persephone apparently felt the same way, because she cleaned her plate slowly but thoroughly, and she barely hesitated when I offered to send another piece home with her.

The weather hasn't quite made up its mind yet as to whether fall is truly here or not, but the fresh food I'm finding now confirms the change in seasons.

And I'm more than happy to celebrate that fact with a dessert worth its weight in gold.

Tarte Tatin du Romarin

I don't really know why I'm so fond of upside-down desserts (unless it's because life has a way of turning so many other things upside down!), but this one reigns supreme over them all. I found the original recipe in Baking, a guide to nearly professional-quality baking, and other recipes I've seen since confirm the basics. Since I love to pair herbs with fresh fruit, though, I do enjoy adding fresh rosemary to the apples, and that helps to cut the sweetness. You may enjoy a sharp cheddar along with the tart (served warm), or you might just want a cup of cider or tea.

1 1/4 c unbleached or whole wheat pastry flour
1/4 c sugar
1 egg
1/2 c chilled unsalted butter

Sift flour and sugar into mixing bowl. Make a well in the center and break the egg into it. Cut chilled butter into small pieces and place them around the edge of the well. Cut through ingredients with a pastry blender until mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Gather together and knead pastry with cool hands. Shape into flattened disk, wrap in wax paper, and refrigerate at least 30 minutes.

1/2 c sugar
1/4 c unsalted butter
4 medium apples, peeled, cored, sliced
1 tsp fresh rosemary, minced

Roll out pastry to 1/4" thick and set aside.

Over medium-low heat, melt sugar and butter in heatproof 9" cake pan or deep pie pan until syrupy. Arrange apples and rosemary in syrup and cook 8-10 minutes or until slightly softened.

Preheat oven to 450 F. Cover apples with pastry, pressing pastry edges against sides of pan to seal. Bake 20-25 minutes or until pastry is golden brown.

Cool in pan on wire rack 5 minutes. Invert tart onto serving plate and serve warm.



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