Every now and then when I’m tinkering in the kitchen, all the stars in the culinary constellation align just right. That’s what happened when I baked this French apple tart at a photo shoot (the talented photographer, by the way, was Dan Jones). Admittedly, I had spent close to the best part of an afternoon painstakingly arranging apple slices in a perfect concentric design. No matter. They still could have shifted in the oven, or puffed up disruptively or worse still, burned. But they didn’t. Instead they behaved and stayed put, and like real troopers took on a beautifully autumnal golden hue with wispy, burnished edges.
As for the crust, sure it looks perfectly browned, but what you can’t see is that it was also meltingly tender, buttery, crumbly and crisp all at the same time. And look more closely. Spy that luscious, almost custardy almond frangipane sitting beneath the sheet of sliced apple? This really was a tart to trump all other tarts, and that’s why I propose you shake up the Thanksgiving spread. Leave the can of pumpkin in the cupboard and grab the apples instead.
Peak season for many apple varieties is September to November. But if you buy your apples at the grocery store or supermarket, you don’t really need to worry about making sure you get them immediately after they’re harvested. Freshly picked apples have a natural waxy coating that protects them from losing water and shriveling. Federal regulations mandate that commercial apples are washed to rid them of dust and any chemical residues. This also removes most of the natural waxy coating, so processors replace it with a harmless shiny shellac or carnauba spray which prevents moisture loss, enhances “firmness retention” and slows down the apple respiration rate. I know this doesn’t sound like a good thing, but it keeps apples fresher for longer; the more an apple breathes, the quicker it ages, and deteriorates in quality.
When cooking with apples, it’s important to take a moment and make sure you choose the right variety. The ones that are best eaten out of hand, aren’t always also the best ones to bake with. I love this visual guide from Epicurious which features an extensive list of all the apples you’re likely to come across not just in grocery stores but also in farmers’ markets and specifies flavor characteristics and best uses.
Once you’ve picked your variety, make sure you select the cream of the crop, so to speak. Avoid anything with soft mushy spots, blemishes or bruises. Crisp, firm and shiny are you want. Once you get them home, keep the apples in the fridge until you’re ready to use them – and no matter what else you do, don’t store them together with bananas, the ethylene the bananas release will make the apples soften.
When prepping, the best way to stop your sliced apples from turning brown is to steep them in a solution that’s 3 parts cold water to 1 part lemon juice. Incidentally, there’s nothing “wrong” with this color change, all that’s happening is that when an apple is sliced, the cells on the cut surfaces have been damaged and the iron within the cells is exposed. Oxygen reacts with this iron to form iron oxide, which is essentially rust, hence the browning. There’s also an enzyme present in apples called polyphenol oxidase that speeds up the oxidation process. Keeping sliced apples in water makes it more difficult for oxygen in the air to reach those vulnerable cut surfaces, and if you add lemon juice, the acid deactivates the polyphenol oxidase enzyme.
French Apple Tart
Serves 8 to 10
For the crust
1- 3/4 cups, plus 1 Tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 stick unsalted butter, straight from the fridge, cubed
1 large egg yolk, lightly beaten
For the almond filling
1-1/4 sticks unsalted butter, softened
3/4 cup caster sugar
2 large eggs, beaten
1 Tablespoons Calvados (optional)
3 Tablespoons all-purpose flour
1-1/2 cups almond flour
For the apple topping
3 Granny Smith apples, halved, cored and thinly sliced, stored in acidulated water (water with a squeeze of lemon juice) to prevent discoloration
1tbsp granulated Demerara sugar
3tbsp apricot jam or preserves, warmed and strained through a sieve to remove bits
You’ll need a 9-inch tart pan with a removable base.
Pre-heat the oven to 360º Fahrenheit.
Make the crust: combine the flour and salt in a large bowl. Add the cold butter and use your fingertips to rub the butter into the flour until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs. Combine the egg yolk with 1 tbsp of cold water in a small bowl then pour over the flour and butter mixture. Incorporate the liquid into the dry mixture with a knife. Add more water if necessary to form a soft but not sticky dough. Form into a disc and wrap it in plastic film. Chill for 20 mins.
Make the almond filling: beat the butter and sugar together in a medium bowl until light and fluffy. Gradually add the beaten egg, little by little, stirring well to incorporate between each addition. Add the Calvados, if using, then fold in the all-purpose flour and the almond flour. set aside.
Remove the crust dough from the fridge. Roll out the dough on a lightly floured surface to a circle about 1-1/2 inches wider than the tart pan on all sides. Line the tart pan with the dough, cut off the excess and neaten up the edges with your fingers, ensuring that the dough stands slightly higher than the edge of the tin.
Spread the almond mixture evenly in the pastry case and chill for 10 to 15 minutes. Remove from the fridge and arrange the apple slices in an overlapping concentric pattern over the almond mixture. Start at the outside edge and work towards the centre. Sprinkle the Demerara sugar evenly over the top of the apples. Bake the tart for about 45 minutes or until the almond mixture is puffed up, golden and just set in the centre and the apples are lightly caramelized. Leave to cool for 10 minutes before removing from the pan.
Brush the top of the tart with the sieved apricot jam. Serve warm or at room temperature.