I have many memories of my trip to Paris. Taking a boat ride along the Seine river, touring the cobblestone streets of the Marais, sitting in the pew of the Sacre Coeur on Easter. I’m not much of a diarist but during my trip to Paris I recorded every detail so as not to forget all those moments that seemed so significant at the time but are already fading like the edges of an old piece of vellum. You can’t choose what you want to remember; as my first glimpse at the Mona Lisa slowly recedes from my mind, the memories of what I ate in Paris will remain. To my mind, food and memory are inextricably linked. Strange to some people, perhaps, but I think it makes perfect sense. If you are to truly experience a culture, you must experience its food. A nation’s cuisine is a confluence of centuries–sometimes even millennia–of tradition and history. It bears witness to whether a nation lives in wealth or poverty, whether it has been well endowed by nature. Culinary traditions teach us about a nation’s cultural level, about how people cultivated their fields and grazed their livestock, and about whether the land was crossed by main trade routes bringing in other nationalities, customs, foods, and spices. In other words, to eat a country’s food is to glimpse into its past.
Although food historians surmise that the precursor to modern pastry was the Mediterranean paper-thin phyllo brought to medieval Europe by way of the crusaders, it was the Renaissance chefs who are crediting for developing puff and choux pastries. For me, the tart is the crown jewel of pastries, and none as quintessentially French as the tarte aux pommes.
You only have to be in Paris for a very short time to realize that there is a pâtisserie on every streetcorner, the windows displaying a variety of tarts and tartelets, each crafted with tradition and the utmost care. I spent many a day in Paris with my nose pressed up to the glass of a pastry shop, trying to figure out which one beckoned the most. They all seemed too pretty to eat.
Although I have never been much of a baker, when I returned home I was determined to master the tart. No more Tenderflake crusts with all their bad fats for me. I wanted the real thing, and I wanted to be able to make it myself. Your first attempts at pastry hardly ever turn out the way you want them to, but it doesn’t take long to master a good sweet short paste. And what can be easier than filling it with some sliced apples, sugar, and a coating of apricot jam?
Which brings me to Julia Child’s tarte aux pommes. This week I continue to cook with Julia from Mastering the Art of French Cooking in anticipation of Julie & Julia, written and directed by Nora Ephron of Sleepless in Seattle fame and highly awaited by foodies everywhere. This classic French apple tart is, well–forgive the pun–easy as pie.
Tarte aux Pommes
from Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child
10-inch partially cooked pastry shell
4 pounds cooking apples (Golden Delicious)
1 teaspoon lemon juice
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1/3 cup apricot jam/preserves
1/3 cup Calvados, rum or cognac (or 1 tablespoon vanilla)
2/3 cup granualted sugar for topping
3 tablespoons butter
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1) Preheat oven to 375F. Quarter, core, and peel the apples. Cut enough to make 3 cups into 1/8-inch lengthwise slices and toss them in a bowl with the lemon juice and sugar. Reserve them for the top of the tart.
2) Cut the rest of the apples into rough slices. You should have about 8 cups. Place in a pan and cook over low heat for about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally, until tender.
3) Beat in apricot jam, Calvados, sugar, butter, and cinnamon. Raise heat and boil, stirring, until applesauce is thick enough to hold in a mass in the spoon.
4) Spread the applesauce in the pastry shell. Cover with a neat, closely overlapping layer of sliced apples arranged in concentric circles, as illustrated below:
5) Bake in upper third of preheated oven for about 30 minutes, or until the apples have browned lightly and are tender. Slide the tart onto a serving dish and paint over it with a light coating of apricot glaze. Serve warm or cold with whipping cream or a scoop of ice cream.
1/2 cup apricot preserves, forced through a sieve
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
Stir the strained apricot preserves and sugar over moderately high heat until thick enough to coat the spoon with a light film, and the last drops are sticky as they fall from the spoon (225-228 degrees on a candy thermometer). Do not boil past this point or the glaze will become brittle as it cools.
Apply the glaze while it is still warm. Unused glaze will keep indefinitely in a screw-top jar.