I’ve been struggling with how to restart this blog, which I all but abandoned while I was living is Tasmania in February and March of 2017 at Ratho Farm, an upscale farm-stay and wedding venue sited on Australia’s Oldest Golf Course. I stopped writing, not because I didn’t find the project interesting anymore, but because I got caught up in the pure pleasure of just living there, without any real responsibilities beyond cooking for Ratho’s overnight guests and planning and executing my own pop-up dinner series of foods from the American South.
The non-blogging started just after I arrived at Ratho, and became involuntarily disconnected from technology — first because I accidentally left all my camera batteries behind, charging in my kitchen in Chicago; and then again, a few days after I arrived, when I carelessly put my iPhone and my
open Cascade Pale Ale in too close a proximity in my golf buggy.
With neither my brand new Sony A-series mirrorless camera NOR my trusty backup iPhone camera, I was forced to do something pretty great: experience the dramatic beauty of the Tasmanian Highlands with absolutely no way of documenting it beyond scribbling in my journals. It was truly a rush when I started taking everything in with my eyes, ears and other senses again and let go of seeing things as they might appear to other people later on, in Facebook videos or two dimensional pics on my blog. I also was forced to go cold turkey on GPS; thrown back in time and forced to once again use physical maps, road signs and, since I’m not one of those people who always innately knows what direction I’m going, to observe the sun and topography to figure it out.
Just living rather than documenting my life was addictive, and for that reason there are far fewer pictures of the various foods I made than there otherwise would have been. On most days, I just created, plated and served beautiful and delicious food to people without Instagram-ing a single one of them. Eventually, my camera batteries did arrive in Tassie (thanks Andrew!) and I did take a good number of pictures, especially during the pop-up dinners and, closer to the end, as farewells were imminent.
So maybe the best way of re-initiating a food blog is with a recipe! And this one could not be simpler: just 5 ingredients went into this dessert, which was requested by my friend and co-worker Margaux for her birthday:
Margaux’s French Apple Tart
What follows is my even-simpler modification of Ina Garten’s French Apple Tart:
Prepare the Pastry:
Pulse in a food processor:
2 cups of flour, 1 tsp kosher salt, 1 TB sugar
Then add to the food processor 12 TB of butter (1.5 sticks) that has been cubed and chilled till hard. Pulse 10 to 12 times until the butter bits are pea-sized. Prepare 1/2 cup of icy cold water (ice removed.) Turn the food processor on and pour in the cold water in a steady stream until the flour mixture begins to bunch together into a dough. Then stop pouring if any water is left. Flour your clean counter and put the dough there. Knead it two or three times just so it all comes together but don’t overdo it — you want to handle this dough as little as possible because overworking it will develop the gluten in the flour and that will make your crust tough. Put the dough between two pieces of saran wrap now and push into a disc shape, finish wrapping and put in the fridge for an hour. (Congratulations, you’ve just made Pâte Brisée!)
Prepare the Apples:
4-5 apples should be enough unless they are tiny. I used beautiful Cox-Pippin apples grown in the Huon Valley, Apple Central of the “Apple Isle.” Tasmania boasts some of the cleanest air and purest water on the planet. Get as close to that kind of quality as you can manage, since this stripped down recipe is all about the flavor of the apples. (Baking apples are the firm ones that don’t go all fluffy and fall apart when they’re heated, e.g. Granny Smith, Jonathan and Jonagold, Honeycrisp, Braeburn, Pink Lady and Winesap.) So they don’t have a chance to get brown, wait to slice the apples until you’ve pulled the pastry out of the fridge to warm up just enough to roll it out. This is also the time to Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit/204 degrees Celsius.
Slice apples vertically through the core and use a paring knife to notch out the stem and tail ends and use a melon-baller to cut out the seeds/core. Next, lay them flat sides down on a cutting board and slice them into 1/4 ” (6 mm) slices crosswise. Just like Ina Garten, I don’t use the very top or bottom slices because they tend to be a bit less pretty when fanned out on the tart. Ina’s apple slice rejects probably go into some kind of fabulous Calvados cocktail or autumn sangria. Mine went into the Ratho Farm chook bucket, treats for the royal residents of Australia’s oldest chook house! Australianism alert: They call chickens chooks there.
Rolling out the Pastry:
You want to use as little flour as possible when rolling out the pastry. I roll mine out between two pieces of parchment paper. You can do that or, if you don’t have parchment, LIGHTLY dust the counter and your rolling pin. Not a blanket of flour! Roll the dough into the shape your pan is, about 1/4 inch (6mm) thick. I rolled mine INSIDE the 10″ by 14″ sheet pan I was cooking it on, between parchment, which limited the amount of cutting/shaping I had to do later. If you’re rolling a circle, start from the center of the disk and roll out. Keep moving the disk so it doesn’t stick to the counter.
Making the Tart:
Now it’s time to get decorative! However you decide to place your apples, overlap them slightly. As you can see in the birthday tart pic, I made a couple bold diagonal rows and filled in around them. Leave a touch of space between the fruit and the edge of the tart. Sprinkle the tart evenly with 1/2 cup granulated white sugar. Don’t get all health conscious now. Use the whole 1/2 cup or you won’t get the caramelization you need. Then “dot” which is a funny verb mostly used in recipes, with 4 TB of unsalted butter. You can use cold butter cut into little cubes and evenly distribute them like tiny butter dice. Or you can use soft butter from your butter dish, distributed in little bloops all over the pastry — it’s all about to melt together anyway in the most delicious caramel-alchemy.
Baking the Tart:
If you had never made this recipe before you might think there’s an unforgivable range of cook times for this tart: 45 to 60 minutes. For baking, which is science, that seems like a big gap. But ovens aren’t always right on temperature-wise, and maybe you were cutting your apples a little thicker than you thought. Here’s when this tart is really done, sometime after the 45 minute mark: when the edges of the apples start to go a bit dark brown. You can probably leave it in a bit longer than you think you can, too, and that’s when the little magic crispy bits of caramel start to form flakes around the edges. The juice may run from the apples and burn on the pan. Don’t sweat it, (or take all the heat out of your oven opening the door to stare at it, either.) If your oven has hot spots, turn the pan around halfway through.
Serving the Tart:
Serve this either warm from the oven or room temperature with something creamy on the side, if you like that sort of thing. I made a simple honey whipped cream. A Calvados (apple brandy) whipped cream would also be great, or a premium vanilla ice cream worthy of this tart.
With so few ingredients, it’s tempting to want to add cinnamon, or ginger or even a micro-dusting of cardamom for a mysterious sophistication to this tart. I wanted to do that, but when I asked Margaux about these ideas she said simply “If you want.” Despite her polite manner I could tell she did not really want me to, so I didn’t. The resulting apple flavor here is just so pure, as long as I can get the same quality of ingredients, I doubt I’ll ever make it another way.