Episode 3, GBBO 2012, Signature Bake

Tarte Tatin

The signature challenge for this week is the tarte tatin, a French pastry dating back to the 1880s, when the sisters Tatin, Stéphanie and Caroline, ran the Hôtel Tatin in Lamotte-Beuvron. What may have started out as a mistake became a signature dessert of the hotel and soon spread throughout France.

Basically, the tarte tatin is an upside-down pie, usually apple, with the fruit caramelized in butter and sugar on the stove before being topped with pastry and baked. After baking, the tart is turned upside down onto a plate so the fruit is on top, covered with a golden caramel sauce. If you’d like to watch Julia Child make one, here’s an entertaining video on YouTube. Just don’t pay any attention to the subtitles. Whoever wrote them obviously knew no French.

On The Great British Baking Show, four of the contestants used apples in their tartes tatin. The others used either pears, figs, bananas, or plums and cherries. I decided to use pears mixed with candied ginger and my own chai spice mix. Mary Berry said they should have a crisp pastry crust (no soggy bottoms!), usually made from rough puff pastry, and syrupy caramel. This meant two challenges for me: (1) making rough puff pastry, which I’ve never done before, and (2) making caramel, which I’ve only done twice before. (See my upside-down cake and my hidden design cake posts.)

I was excited about the rough puff pastry part, as I see it as an entrée into making full puff pastry, which I know I’ll have to do soon enough. As for making the caramel, I wasn’t too concerned, since I didn’t have any problems the first two times. However, I would soon find out I was in for a bit of a rough ride this time around. 

I started by peeling and quartering the pears. I read a couple recipes that recommended keeping the prepared fruit in the refrigerator overnight to dry it out a bit so it won’t seep as much juice into the pastry, so I brushed the pears with lemon juice to keep them from browning and left them in an open container in the fridge.

I made the pastry the night before, too, since it needs to be chilled each time it’s rolled out to prevent the butter from melting. I chose Gordon Ramsay’s recipe from BBC’s Good Food website. (Most recipes for tarte tatin I found called for store-bought puff pastry—clearly a GBBS no-no!)

The difference between pie crust, or shortcrust pastry, and rough puff pastry, I learned, is that the butter in the rough puff shouldn’t be too well-incorporated into the flour—you still want to see streaks of butter when you’re rolling out the dough. This allows for the lamination, or layering, when the pastry is cooked; as the butter melts, it creates steam that puffs up the pastry and leaves pockets of air between thin layers of dough.

Look closely for those pale streaks of butter!

I mixed the butter into the flour with my hands, so there were still rather large (½-inch) chunks of butter when I added the cold water. After letting the dough rest in the fridge for 20 minutes, I rolled it out in one direction, folded it in thirds, then made a quarter turn and rolled it out in the other direction. Folding it in thirds again, I wrapped it in plastic wrap and put it in the fridge till morning.

Following this recipe for a pear tarte tatin from SugarHero.com, I started making the caramel sauce with sugar, water and a little bit of brandy (instead of the lemon juice that her recipe calls for). While the author says to stir them together till the sugar dissolves, 1¼ cup of sugar doesn’t really dissolve in 3 tablespoons of liquid, so I was stirring for quite awhile, which was probably my first mistake. Once the mixture started forming large crystals on the surface, it was pretty much doomed to failure. So I had to start again, but this time I didn’t stir it as much. Again, however, it crystallized and soon seized up altogether. 

Sugar crystals = Caramel fail!

Feeling discouraged, and determined not to go through seven attempts before achieving success like Manisha did in this challenge, I decided to revert to the method I had used successfully the first time I made caramel—the dry sugar method. I also decided to make half a batch at a time so I wouldn’t waste as much sugar if I failed again. Ultimately, it worked, but the caramel hardened so quickly I had to melt it again in the water and brandy solution that I had originally mixed with the sugar.

I’m determined to work on my caramel-making skills, and found this helpful website after the fact that gives a lot of tips and tricks for using the wet caramel method successfully.

After finally getting the caramel right and stirring in the butter, I arranged the pears on top in the pan that I planned to bake it in. It has to be a pan that can be used on the stovetop as well, so most people use a cast-iron frying pan. Rather than putting the pastry dough on top of the fruit right away, the recipe I used calls for cooking the pears on the stove for upwards of an hour to fully caramelize the fruit and juices. I also added the crystalized ginger and chai spices at this point so the flavors would meld and the ginger would soften with the pears.

Cooking the pears created quite a lot of liquid, so I used a turkey baster to remove most of the juices, reserving them for later, before draping the fruit with my pastry, tucking the edges under the pears with a silicone spatula. Removing the excess juice and pricking the pastry with a fork before baking helped prevent a soggy bottom.

After baking it to a delicious golden brown, I let the tart rest in the pan for about 10 minutes before turning it out onto a platter. The tricky part is flipping it without burning yourself or spilling hot pears and caramel all over the place. With a firm grip on both sides of the pan and platter with a towel, however, I was able to turn it out with almost all of the fruit in place. (Unlike Julia Child!)

Following the advice of Elizabeth, the recipe’s author, I used the reserved juices to make a lovely caramel sauce to pour over the tart and served it with vanilla ice cream. Delish!

Ginger and Chai-Spiced Pear Tarte Tatin

Rough Puff Pastry source: BBCGoodFood.com
Adapted for American bakers
Pear Tarte Tatin recipe adapted from SugarHero.com

Rough Puff Pastry

  • 1¾ c. white bread flour
    • 1 t. salt
    • 1 c. + 2 T. unsalted butter, room temperature but not soft
    • 5 oz. cold water (approx.)

  • Directions

    1. Sift the flour and salt into a large bowl. Roughly break the butter into small chunks, add them to the bowl and rub them into the flour loosely with your fingers. You need to see bits of butter. Make a well in the flour mixture and pour in about 3 ounces of water, mixing until you have a firm, rough dough, adding more water if needed. Cover with plastic wrap and let rest for 20 minutes in the fridge.
    2. Turn out onto a lightly floured board, knead gently and form into a smooth rectangle. Roll the dough in one direction only, until three times the width, about 8 x 20 inches. Keep edges as straight and even as possible. Don’t overwork the butter streaks; you should have a marbled effect. Fold the top third down to the center, then the bottom third up and over that. Give the dough a quarter turn and roll out again to three times the length. Fold as before, cover with plastic wrap and chill for at least 20 minutes before rolling to use.

    Pear Tarte Tatin

    • 2 lb. firm pears (I used 4 bosc pears)
    • 2 T. lemon juice, divided
    • 1 c. sugar
    • 2 T. water
    • 1 T. brandy
    • 6 T. unsalted butter, cubed and at room temperature
    • 1½ T. crystallized ginger, diced
    • 1½ t. chai spice*
    • 1 batch of rough puff pastry (see above)


    1. Peel the pears, cut them in quarters and core them. Brush with 1 T. lemon juice and leave, uncovered, in the refrigerator overnight.
    2. Use the sugar to make a caramel sauce using whichever method works best for you. For help, see this website: finecooking.com/article/the-science-of-caramel. If you choose to use the wet method, add 2 T. water and 1 T. lemon juice to the sugar.
    3. When the melted sugar is golden brown and smells caramelized, stir in the butter cubes. The mixture will look separated at first, but continue to cook it, stirring occasionally, until it comes back to a boil and bubbles slowly like thick caramel. Stir in brandy. Pour into 10-inch, oven-safe skillet.
    4. Arrange the pear slices on their sides in a concentric circle around the outer edge of the pan, with the wide bottom at the edge and the tapering top pointing to the center. Try to pack them in as closely as possible. Add a second ring in the center going the other way, if room. If they don’t all fit, that’s okay. As the pears cook, they will shrink a bit so you can always add more later.
    5. Sprinkle the candied ginger and spices on top of the pears, and cover the skillet with a lid or a tight layer of foil. Reduce the heat to a little under medium, and cook, covered, for 45 minutes. Check them once or twice, and if they seem to be in danger of burning, reduce the heat a bit more. As they shrink, you can add another sliced pear or two, so that they’re packed tightly. After 45 minutes, remove the cover and cook for an additional 15-25 minutes. The pears should look golden brown around the edges and somewhat translucent and should be tender and easy to slice through.
    6. While you’re waiting for the pears to cook, prepare the pastry. Sprinkle a work surface lightly with flour, and roll out the chilled puff pastry dough into a 12-inch circle. It should be large enough to cover the skillet, with about an inch extra on all sides. Once rolled out, cover the pastry and cutting board with plastic wrap, and refrigerate it until you’re ready to use it.
    7. Preheat the oven to 400°F. When the pears are ready, remove the skillet from the heat. Remove any excess juices with a spoon or turkey baster and reserve for later use. Carefully drape the pastry over the top of the skillet, and tuck the excess dough down along the inside of the skillet between the pears and the pan’s side. (Use a silicone spatula for this step to preserve your fingers!) Don’t worry if it wrinkles or bunches up a bit—it’s not meant to be perfect.
    8. Prick the surface of the pastry several times to keep it crisp, cover loosely with aluminum foil, and bake for 15 minutes. Remove the foil and bake the pastry for an additional 15 minutes until it’s golden brown and puffed all around.
    9. Take it from the oven and let it rest for 10 minutes. Press a large plate to the top of the skillet, and grasping both sides with a towel or hot pads, in one firm motion, flip it upside down so that the tart drops from the skillet onto the plate, crust side down.
    10. While the tart cools a bit, transfer the reserved juice to a small skillet. Boil it for several minutes until it thickens. (It will continue to thicken as it stands.) Serve slices of the tart with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and a drizzle of caramel-pear sauce.
    11. *To approximate my blend, use ½ t. cinnamon, ½ t. ginger, ¼ t. cloves and ¼ t. cardamom.

    Next week: Mary Berry’s Treacle Tart

    13 thoughts on “Tarte Tatin”

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