La Tarte Extraordinaire

By Beacon Staff

One of the most famous French desserts, Tarte Tatin, was discovered by accident.

Legend has it that the Tatin sisters, who lived in the Loire Valley, were trying to make a special dessert for their father. As they cooked their apples in sugar, something went awry and they improvised by creating an upside down tart, with caramel on the bottom and a pastry crust on top.

I love tarte des desmoiselles Tatin (the tart of two unmarried sisters named Tatin).

So as I was reading through some old cooking articles one day, I came across a variation based on this dessert by the very creative chef, Tom Colicchio. This is the same Tom Colicchio who is chief judge on the Bravo TV series, “Top Chef.” He turned an iconic dessert into a savory first course, by souring the caramel with sherry vinegar and using cherry tomatoes as substitutes for the apples.

I couldn’t resist the temptation to try this dish.

One of the more intimidating aspects of the original Tarte Tatin is the arrangement of the apples in the pan. You need hearty baking apples, first of all, and they must be sliced evenly and then arranged in concentric circles on top of an amber caramel. The pastry is then tucked into the pan around the edges before it finishes in the oven.

The savory version, however, has a lot less internal structure and needs only an oven-proof skillet and not necessarily one made from cast iron. The resulting dish has an almost Provençale kind of essence because of the combination of tomatoes, olives, onions and fresh thyme leaves.

You begin with two or three medium-sized red onions, cut in half and then sliced in “half moons,” which are then caramelized in a bit of butter as deeply as possible without burning.

In the oven-proof skillet, make a simple syrup and turn it into caramel by heating the pan, adding three tablespoons of sugar and three tablespoons of water. Swirl the pan – do not stir – until the caramel turns deep amber. Then, very carefully, add a tablespoon of sherry vinegar. Keep your face away from the pan, because steaming vinegar is pretty unpleasant.

The other reaction you will notice is that the caramel will “seize,” meaning that the vinegar will harden some of the sugar. But that’s okay. It’s going to spend some time in the oven and will melt again.

Scatter a pint of whole cherry or grape tomatoes (the heat will burst them while they’re baking) and top that with chopped Kalamata olives (pitted, of course), dust with some freshly cracked black pepper (the olives are salty enough), then scatter the caramelized onions on top of that.

Now comes the part that intimidates a lot of would-be Tarte Tatin makers: You need to place your pastry dough on top of the mixture and then tuck it in around the sides of the pan. (I used a sheet of puff pastry, rolled it out and cut out a circle about an inch in diameter larger than my pan, but you can also use your favorite pie dough recipe.) Then make a few slits in the dough to vent the steam.

Place the dough-covered pan and its contents in a 400-degree oven for either kind of pastry, and bake for 30 to 40 minutes until the crust is puffed and golden brown.

Carefully remove the pan from the oven and run a paring knife around the edges to loosen the crust. Make sure the whole tart is moving easily.

Now comes the most intimidating part for many cooks: You’re going to have to invert the tarte on your serving platter. But if you’re a little nervous about doing that, you can always put a lid over the pan, invert the tart onto the lid, and then slide it onto your serving plate.

Let it cool for about five minutes before serving. Not only does it look beautiful, but it tastes fantastic. And it proves, once again, that Tom Colicchio, the author of “Think Like a Chef,” was really thinking when he came up with this great savory variation of a famous dessert.