Stories / Recipes

Upside-Down is the Only Way to Do Apple Pie

James Beard's take on tarte Tatin

James Beard

November 26, 2019


James Beard's tarte Tatin photo and styling Judy Kim

In his iconic tome, Beard on Food, which was first published in 1974, our namesake wrote prolific prose on a vast landscape of culinary topics, from a lesson in chicken anatomy to a sandwich manifesto to a internationally inspired ode to apple pie, which we share with you today. Humorous, erudite, and timeless, this collection of essays remains an indispensable resource for the home cook. Stay tuned for more! 

Beard on Food: Upside-Down Apple Pie

Apple pie has been a tradition in this country for more than two hundred years, and in England long before that. Lovely fresh apples cooked to juicy tenderness, delicately flavored with sugar, perhaps a little bit of lemon peel, butter, nutmeg, or cloves, harbored in a crisp, flaky crust—that’s the kind of apple pie that dreams are made of, but how often do we get it? The type we tend to find in restaurants and at lunch counters nowadays, with a bottom crust as tough as cardboard, filled with badly cooked apples spiced with too much cinnamon, seems to be the norm. It is not very good eating.

The answer, of course, is to make your own. For a few weeks I had fresh firm green apples that cooked beautifully, and I had fun making pies. I tested a couple of recipes that I think should redeem the reputation of the apple pie. The first is borrowed from the French tarte Tatin—and while it is not the authentic recipe I often wonder if anyone can claim that, because every one you find in a French cookbook is completely different. Some are superb and others not so good. Anyway, I decided what I was going to strive for, and the result came out pretty well, even if it does break with tradition.

Tarte Tatin is baked in a skillet with the bottom crust on top and inverted onto a plate soon after it comes from the oven. You have to handle it quickly and carefully, or the juices will run all over you and the apples with their luscious caramel topping will slide off the crust. To make the pastry for the crust, mix 1 cup flour and 2 tablespoons sugar with 1/2 cup (1 stick) very cold butter or margarine, cut into small pieces. Add 1 egg yolk and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Work the fat into the flour and egg mixture very quickly with your fingers or a heavy fork (or do it in a mixer with a paddle attachment), breaking up the fat and mixing it with the flour until it is the size of small peas. At this point, you may or may not need additional liquid. Judge carefully. If you add too much liquid, you’ll have to add more flour, and that makes a tough crust. If you do need liquid, add a little ice water, a tablespoon at a time, work it in, then see if you can pull the dough into a ball with your hands. If not, add a touch more water. The idea is to get a light ball of dough that can be rolled out without crumbling or breaking apart. Pat the ball rather flat on waxed paper, wrap it up, and chill in the refrigerator from 30 minutes to 2 hours.

When you are ready to make the tart, let 1/2 to 3/4 cup sugar melt in a heavy iron or aluminum 8-inch or 9-inch skillet over medium heat until it turns a delicate brown. Remove pan from heat. Arrange on the melted sugar 5 to 8 apples, peeled, cored, and cut in quarters or sixths. The exact number will depend on the size of the apples and the skillet; you need enough to fill the skillet and mound up in the center. Sprinkle them with 2 to 3 tablespoons sugar, and dot with 4 to 6 tablespoons butter, cut in tiny pieces. If you wish, sprinkle with a few grains of nutmeg or cinnamon. Personally, I prefer not to spice the apples for this tart.

Carefully roll out the chilled pastry to a size that will fit inside the skillet. Then, since the exertion of being rolled may make it shrink a bit and you don’t want that, let it sit for 5 to 10 minutes to rest (while you are preparing the apples). Lay it over the apples, tucking it down inside the skillet. Make about three holes in the top with a skewer or sharp knife. Bake in a 350-degree oven from 1 to 1 1/2 hours, until the crust is brown and firm to the touch and the apples possibly bubbling up a bit around the edge. Remove from the oven and let it stand 2 minutes, then run a sharp knife around the edge of the tart and invert it onto a plate rather larger than the skillet. Do this quickly and deftly so the apples don’t fall off. Should they shift position, push them back into place with a spatula.

Cut into wedges and serve warm or tepid. It’s much better that way than cold, and it must be eaten fresh. With it you might have thick heavy cream, sour cream, or whipped cream, perhaps flavored with a little grated nutmeg.

For another, simpler version of this tart, fill a well-buttered ovenproof glass dish with the apples, cut as before. Sprinkle each layer with granulated sugar, little bits of butter, and a few grains of nutmeg or cinnamon. Add 1/3 to 1/2 cup applejack. Roll out the crust, wet the edge of the dish, and fit the crust over it. Crimp the edge, if you wish, make a couple of steam holes on top, and brush with 1 egg yolk beaten with 2 tablespoons heavy cream. Bake at 450 degrees for 10 to 12 minutes (this is to prevent the crust from sinking), then reduce the heat to 350 and continue baking until the crust is beautifully browned and the apples cooked through. Serve the warm or tepid tart from the baking dish, accompanied by applejack-flavored whipped cream or vanilla ice cream. (If you’re going to have ice cream, add a touch more applejack to the apples before cooking so the flavor comes through against the ice cream.)

The combination of apple pie and ice cream is another American custom of long standing, and a delightful one, too.

Get James Beard's recipe for Tarte Tatin.

Read more essays from Beard on Food.