How to cook the perfect French apple tart – recipe

Felicity Cloake’s perfect French apple tart. Photographs: Dan Matthews for the Guardian. Food styling: Iona Blackshaw A properly apple...

Felicity Cloake’s perfect French apple tart. Photographs: Dan Matthews for the Guardian. Food styling: Iona Blackshaw
A properly appley bake with just the right balance of gooeyness and crunch
If you look closely,” wrote the late, lamented Lyonnais chef Paul Bocuse, “France is not hexagonal but round, like a tart” – proof that, if you’re a culinary genius, you can say just about anything and people will lap it up. Bocuse is right, however, that, despite its obviously polygonal shape, France is the home of perfect, and often perfectly round, tarts: even the meanest bakery seems to turn out flawless pastry cases full of crème pat and seasonal fruit.

Unlike the tarte tatin, which must be served hot from the oven, the classic patissier’s tart can be made well in advance: ideal for impressing guests, or just allowing you to drink a little too much over Sunday lunch and still produce dessert afterwards. And, like all the best showstopper dishes, it’s surprisingly easy to execute. Not that you need to tell anyone that.

The fruit

I’m wary of getting too prescriptive here because, as Bruno Loubet notes in his book Mange Tout, we grow a huge and fabulous array of apples in the UK, very few of which ever make it into the big shops, so I echo his plea “to try different British varieties … and support the great British apple”.

That said, there’s a reason almost all the recipes I try call for “crisp eating” apples, as Julia Child puts it – cox’s orange pippins are the most frequently mentioned, though in France the closely related reinette is the standard choice, and if you find any, snap them up: the golden reinette was apparently very popular here in the 18th and 19th centuries, but is, in my experience, rarely seen today.

There are a few caveats, though: cooking apples won’t work, because you need the fruit to hold its shape when heated, and anything too mild (golden delicious, I’m looking at you) will be similarly underwhelming on a tart. Look for dryish, intensely flavoured varieties, like the aforementioned cox, or russet, early windsor or laxton’s fortune.

Most recipes also call for the apples to be peeled, cored and very finely sliced – 2mm is the usual instruction – but, in fact, I rather like the look of the peel on the finished dish, so – although it would horrify any fussy French patissier – I wouldn’t bother with the first step. (I also think 2mm slices have a tendency to become leathery: 3-4mm give juicier results.)

Pierre Koffmann keeps his apples in larger chunks in the recipe for tarte aux pommes et à la crème de lait in his nostalgic book, Memories of Gascony, and then half-cooks them in caramel, somewhat like a tatin. This is, of course, utterly delicious, but creates a rather more rustic result: “It looks more like I made that one,” observes my tester. Elegant is what we’re after here, so slim slices win the day.

A 1984 compilation of recipes from the Master Chefs of France includes a recipe from the north for a tart a l’coloche which sautes the fruit in butter before adding it to the tart, making it hard to arrange on top (hot!) without adding much to its flavour. (Rest assured we’ll make up the missing butter elsewhere.)

The pastry

Jane Grigson’s Fruit Book gives an Alsatian recipe with a brioche dough base that sounds intriguing, but sadly lies outside my remit here. Loubet and Breton baker Richard Bertinet use puff pastry, Koffmann and the Master Chefs rich, sweet pâte sucrée, and Michel Roux calls for something he calls “flan pastry”, which contains slightly less butter than a classic shortcrust, and adds water for a crisper texture.

The puff versions are the least popular: deemed to be too dry with this rather dry fruit, while the gloriously buttery, enriched sweet shortcrusts are delicious to eat, but quite difficult to work with. Roux’s sturdy, crunchy alternative gets my vote as cook, though I’ll be upping the sugar a little bit, because if you want health food, eat an apple.

Although I’m generally a fan of blind baking (insert topical Bake Off joke here), I don’t think this tart needs it: the slightly softer bottom is a nice counterpoint to the biscuity sides.

The filling

The most interesting variation between recipes occurs between these two layers. For Roux, it’s a sharp and very buttery apple puree, made with the same apples as he uses on top. Loubet, who credits his recipe to his mother, sandwiches it with a pleasingly boozy frangipane. Bertinet mixes frangipane with creme patissiere and bramley apple puree, Koffmann makes a rich egg custard and the Master Chefs do the same, but then flavour it with white pepper and beat in both a caramel and an apple puree, proving that they do indeed have a full brigade behind them.

As the instructions are fairly vague, I’m not entirely sure I’ve got the results right, but, after twice as long in the oven as the recipe suggests, I end up with a wobbly, eggy mixture that reminds us slightly of bread-and-butter pudding. Not unpleasant, certainly, but not terribly appley, while Koffmann’s wonderfully sticky confection is apparently more like “those things you get at Halloween: toffee apples”. The Roux tart proves most popular – “this is the only one that really tastes of apples” – but it cannot be denied that almonds and apples were made to be together.

I’m torn. I could make an apple frangipane, like Bertinet’s, but this robs the fruit puree of the sharpness, which is one of its principal charms. Instead, I decide to take inspiration from that distinctly un-Gallic creation, the bakewell pudding, and use a layer of unsweetened apple puree topped with a fluffy frangipane. Cultural appropriation, perhaps, but with only the very best of intentions.

The finish

Loubet brushes his tart with rosemary-infused butter and sugar before it goes into the oven (“my generation’s contribution” to the family recipe), but again, I don’t think it needs any more in the way of either ingredient, delicious as the rosemary is. It is a nice touch, however, to glaze the fruit after baking for that perfect patisserie sheen. After all, this is a tart you’re going to want to show off.

Perfect French apple tart

Prep 30 min
Chill 30 min
Cook 45 min
Serves 8

For the pastry

250g plain flour
2 tbsp caster sugar
½ tsp fine salt
125g butter, diced
1 egg, beaten

For the frangipane

60g soft butter
60g icing sugar, sifted
2 drops almond essence
1 egg, beaten
115g ground almonds
1 tsp cornflour
3 tbsp brandy or rum

For the filling

1kg eating apples, preferably dryish ones such as cox’s
25g butter
1 vanilla pod (optional)
3 tbsp smooth apricot jam or quince jelly, to glaze

Put the flour, sugar and salt in a food processor and whizz briefly with the butter, then add the egg and just enough cold water (one to two tablespoons) to bring it together into a dough. Alternatively, rub the butter in by hand, then stir in the egg and water. Form into a disc, wrap and chill for at least 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, core and peel 400g of the apples and cut into chunks. Put in a pan with the butter, 75ml water and the vanilla pod, if using, and cook over a low heat until very soft, adding more water if necessary. Puree with a stick blender or mash well, and leave to cool.

Core all the apples. Peel 400g and cut into chunks, and slice the rest into half-moons about 3-4mm thick. Photographs by Dan Matthews for the Guardian.

Grease a 25cm, fairly deep tart tin. Roll out the pastry on a lightly floured surface to about 5mm, and line the tin with it, pressing it in without stretching it and leaving some overhang. Prick in several places with a fork, and put in the fridge to chill.
Roll out the pastry to 5mm thick, then use to line a deep tart tin, prick all over with a fork and refrigerate.

To make the frangipane, beat together the butter, icing sugar and almond essence until fluffy, then whisk in the egg. Fold in the remaining ingredients and a pinch of salt, and mix until well combined.

If you’re feeling fussy, peel the remaining apples, but you really don’t have to, then core them, cut in half and slice to about 3-4mm thick.
Fill the tart case first with the apple puree, then top with the frangipane mix and spread out neatly.

Heat the oven to 200C/390F/gas 6. Spread the pastry base with the apple puree and top with the frangipane mixture. Finally, top with the apple slices in two concentric overlapping circles, with a few in the middle, then bake for about 30 minutes, until golden brown.

Arrange the apple half-moons on top of the tart in neat concentric circles, bake for half an hour, then glaze with melted jam.

Heat the jam over a low heat until runny, then carefully brush the apples until glossy.

Felicity Cloake

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High Tech Brain: How to cook the perfect French apple tart – recipe
How to cook the perfect French apple tart – recipe
High Tech Brain
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