My grandmother had a trick for finding things that she had misplaced. She would take a drinking glass down from the cupboard and turn it upside down on the kitchen table. While I can’t vouch for the efficacy of this technique, I can tell you that Grandma never seemed to misplace anything for long. Maybe I should have followed her example when, earlier this month, two inferior cakes stripped me of my baking mojo and spirited it away to who knows where. But instead of flipping a glass, I flipped a cast-iron pan to find what had gone missing. Curled up between caramel-drenched folds of pâte brisée and bronzed, tender pears, there it was. My baking mojo was back. Yeah, baby!
I’ve had tarte Tatin on the brain ever since October when, on a visit home to Ohio, my mother gifted me a Le Creuset skillet that she found hibernating in the basement. Squeezed between a few new pairs of socks from an aunt who sees it as her personal responsibility to clothe my 29-year-old toes, the skillet fit perfectly in my carry-on. It’s a beauty of a pan: enameled cast-iron, bright orange, and heavy enough to take out a flight attendant or two with a swift blow to the head, or so the TSA agents feared. They inspected the specimen with the utmost care, and after much huddling and murmuring on their part, and hand-wringing and innocent smiling on my part (“I’m going to make a tarte Tatin! Tee hee.”), they waved us through to our gate. Back in Boston, apple season was in full swing, and I had every intention of tackling a tarte Tatin tout de suite. But somehow, I got distracted. I churned out pandowdies, pies, sauces, and crumbles galore. I even made a couple of right-side-up tarts. Meanwhile, the tarte Tatin recipe that I had once eyed so longingly languished, forgotten in a pile of papers on my desk.
By February, more pears than apples line the basket by our fridge. The D’Anjous have been particularly fine this year, and have earned a permanent slot on our weekly shopping list. Last week, I was banging around in the cabinet when a certain orange skillet called out from behind the mixing bowls. I knew just what to do. Eli would be swinging by the Whole Foods on his way home from work that day, and I e-mailed him a one-line addendum to our list:
Please pick up three extra pears. (I have an idea.)
That evening, I cored, peeled, and halved the pears, dug a lump of pâte brisée from the freezer and, at long last, placed my orange cast-iron skillet on the stovetop. Over a medium flame, half a stick of butter sizzled, softened, and sank into a frothy golden puddle. I added sugar, and stirred until the mixture resembled one of those all-natural body scrubs that go for $30 a tub. When the butter and sugar began to color and smell faintly of toffee, I nestled the pears into the pan, gently pressed them into the amber syrup, and dusted them with cinnamon and ginger. The caramel lapped at the edges of the pears and bubbled up between them, all the while deepening in color. Then, I set the pan by the window to cool.
I rolled out the pâte brisée into a cold, canvas-like sheet, draped it over the sticky spiced pears, now cooled, tucked the edges into the skillet, and slid the whole thing into the oven. When it emerged, I waited several torturously long minutes, covered the pan with a large dinner plate, held my breath, and carefully flipped the tart. Only when I lifted the skillet from the plate did I remember to exhale. It was beautiful. The pears were glassy and shining up through the translucent caramel glaze. All around them, bits of chewy, candied sugar clung to the crust. I was, as they say, cautiously optimistic. I had been fooled before, so it was only natural that I crossed all of my fingers and toes and paused for a moment of concentrated hoping before I raised the fork to my mouth. The deep caramel flavor hit my tongue and then, as the spin class instructor at my gym likes to say during cool down, it was time for my victory lap.
I’m going to strap on the muzzle at this point because, honestly, I cannot condone your reading even a single sentence more when there's pear tarte Tatin to be made. (Except for the recipe. You should read that. Definitely.)
Pear Tarte Tatin
Adapted from Gourmet, November 2003, where it was adapted from a recipe by Betty Caldwell
This recipe is similar to a traditional tarte Tatin, only it’s made with pears instead of apples. On my second go-around with this recipe, I added a dusting of ginger, and I highly recommend it. The ginger here is not overpowering. It pipes up with a mere whisper of spice, just enough to cut the sweetness of the caramelized sugar and the pears. The tarte is also lovely without the ginger, so I’ve listed it here as an optional ingredient.
3-4 large firm-ripe pears (The original recipe calls for Bosc; I used D’Anjou. In my 9-inch skillet, there was room enough for three halved pears.)
½ stick (1/4 cup) unsalted butter
½ cup sugar
½ tsp cinnamon
½ tsp ginger (optional)
Your favorite pâte brisée (I would stay away from anything too sweet. I used half a recipe of Martha’s pâte brisée.)
Core, peel, and halve the pears. Over a medium flame, melt the butter in a 9 or 10-inch cast-iron skillet. Add the sugar, and stir to form a grainy paste (something that may or may not bring on the urge to exfoliate, as I mentioned, above). Arrange the pears, cut sides up, in the skillet with the wide, hippy parts of the pears at the rim. Sprinkle the pears with the cinnamon and ginger, and cook until the sugar mixture caramelizes and turns a deep amber. I let it cook for about 15-20 minutes, tilting the skillet every now and then, and scooching it around on the burner to ensure that the sugar caramelizes evenly. Let the pears and caramel cool completely in the skillet.
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.
Roll out the pâte brisée into a round large enough to cover the skillet, and drape it over the pears. Tuck the edges of the dough into the inside rim of the skillet. I haven’t had any problems with the liquid bubbling over during baking, but just to be safe, I would suggest placing the skillet on a baking sheet before sliding it into the oven. Bake for 30-35 minutes, until the crust is golden brown.
Let the tarte cool in the skillet for 5 minutes. Then, place a plate (slightly larger than the skillet) over the skillet and, using pot holders to hold the skillet and plate tightly together, invert the tarte onto the plate. Serve the tarte warm or at room temperature.