“WHY, of course, I would!” said the apple. “Just keep at what you’re doing, and never mind what people say.”
When Lady Apple speaks, you listen. And I did. I love her voice, there’s a soft drawl to it, colored with warmth, kindness, and a soothing sense of possibility. She has been urging me to keep at it, my Tarte aux Pommes, that lovely apple tart classic, also referred to as a Tarte Normande in France — Tart from Normandy.
My First Tart
My very first attempt around Thanksgiving in 2018 was wrought with tart shell angst. Its color was too aggressively brown, and I took forever to figure out how to lift the ring out of the tart — it couldn’t come loose, the tart dough had draped a little of itself over the ring during baking, and locked it into place against the sheet pan. In my struggle to dislodge my poor imprisoned tart shell with a paring knife, I had left a crack, a fine line of a dragon, trailing on its side.
Tart tragedy! That dragon just had to show up again and again.
It really didn’t help that I had chosen to make a straight-sided tart set in a bottomless ring, the kind that forces you to line the tart dough directly on a baking sheet instead of in a tart pan with a removable base. It looks like this: I’m showcasing one made by Jo, the sous chef of a now defunct French bakery out east where I was briefly an intern in 2017, a not-very-bright intern, one who had “no common sense,” to quote the French Chef, who had a faint, feral smell about him you couldn’t figure out if it was a fox or a bear …
The Old-School, Straight-Sided Tart
A straight-sided tart shell, in my mind, is more elegant and sleek compared to one made in a fluted pan — not that the fluted ones aren’t pretty, but a tart that rises up straight and tall reveals the strength of character of its baker. You need deft fingers, dexterity, and in the warm clime of Singapore, the fortitude not to swear too much in the heat of struggling with a dough that just wants to go limp on your fingers, to tear, and to just plain annoy you — not that I swear anymore, though Gordon Ramsay was my great inspiration for a long time in this department.
A tart that’s set in a fluted-pan is forgiving: when unmolded, you see the pretty fluted shapes. A tart set in a straight-sided ring, though, has none of those wavy edges to hide behind. It’s all laid bare, naked for all the world to see.
Vulnerable can be cool though, as I’ve learned lately from my two new lady heroes: author Brené Brown and Spanx founder, Sara Blakely.
Fussy, Finicky Tart Dough
Try rolling out a pâte sucrée on a marble top, or even between two parchment sheets, you’d know exactly what Dorie Greenspan means when she says it’s “finicky to roll.” Even for a girl like me, with the poorest of circulation, and close to cold-blooded, my cold fingers don’t seem to give me an edge.
I’ve learned, through the tumbles and trials in my baking journey, that physiology and how you’re built have nothing to do with excellence in the kitchen, it’s practice with a steady dose of patience — the mantra that has made Thomas Keller a success that he is, and a mantra that I have great faith in myself.
In the case of pâte sucrée, working in an igloo would be ideal, though factoring in lots of resting and chilling time in the fridge would be the most sensible.
Sweet Tart Dough
Pâte sucrée means “sweet dough,” and it’s the dough I’ve chosen for my Tarte aux Pommes. It’s a recipe straight from the kitchen of Thomas Keller’s Bouchon Bakery, finessed with this little maneuver called fraisage, from the French verb, fraiser, to smear. After you’ve mixed all your ingredients in your Kitchen Aid or Kenwood — here, I wish to fill in Breville if Santa would just stick it into my stocking this Christmas — you take out your dough lump and play with it a little, like you’re a kid all over again.
Smear It Like You Mean It
It’s so sensuous and highly meditative, smearing butter-rich dough with the heel of you hand, and smooshing all the dry ingredients into the butter till everything is evenly and thoroughly blended. And as you smear, bit by bit, your dough forms the loveliest of landscapes, wave upon wave of dunes, speckled with vanilla seeds and glistening proudly with all that butter, before you scrape them all into a pile again and repeat the meditation.
If you ever need a reminder of how life is beautiful, and how Lady Apple would ultimately bloom for you, this would be it!
I’ve always thought you should never overmix your dough because you’d excite all the gluten, but look what I found about fraisage last evening, while reading The Country Cooking of France by Anne Willan, one of the great authorities in the world of French cookery writing:
This flattening motion evenly blends the butter with the other ingredients without overworking the dough.
Sometimes, when I feel like an overworked dough, overwhelmed with an obsession to roll out a flawless, obedient disc of dough from my pâte sucrée, I’m reminded that every new tart shell I’ve made since my first one has been a new entry of improvement in my pâte sucrée log.
This log holds the key to all the new tart forays I must make, and all the happy little secrets!
Each tart shell, for instance, must not weigh too little or too much, and the thickness should hover around 3 mm, give and take 1 mm — actually, let me take that back: it’s give, never take. Anything less than 3mm, you’re in porcelain territory fit for a squeak of bah-bye.
The rose at the center of my tart may be the sole attention-grabber with that vain boast: I’m the most difficult to execute in this entire production, that makes me the most special!
Oh, Vanity, thy name is Rose!
Please don’t fall for all this rose talk. Yes, she may be belle, no doubt. Yes, there may be intricacies with the petal overlay — no petal tips should flay, for instance, or keep the petals super-tight — but between rose and shell, my shell is the one who gives me more birth pangs.
And I feel that my dear, difficult shell is the one who would give me a lifetime of lessons in mastery — mastery that would take me to the realms of oven-heat control, butter temperature, even pressure points, the kind of geek talk my masseuse would totally understand. Presently, I think I’m too timid with my fonçage — the art of lining the tart — I don’t press my dough hard enough against the inside of the ring.
But I’m so picky, so finicky, I really think our house baker should just ignore me. Good thing she does!
The Taste of Normandy
My Tarte aux Pommes journey hasn’t yet landed me in Normandy, though the tarts themselves sing a chanson Normande each time I produce one. I use these cool one-kilogram hunks of President, which make their 250g siblings look like elves. President, that glorious native of Normandy, is my butter staple at home — the other being Isigny St. Mère, an A.O.P. butter, also from Normandy.
A Flavor of South Africa
I wish I could tell you more French tales when it comes to my apples, but here, I’ll take you to South Africa, having tried various types of apples — Envy, Pacific Rose, Gala. My all-time favorites to date: South African Granny Smith (less tart than the French ones), and South African Fuji (crunchier and sturdier than the French Galas, so crunchy they’re called mati pingguo in Chinese, or water chestnut apple).
I’ve picked these two darlings for their size, their flavor profile, their resilience and mouthfeel: both aren’t mealy-fleshed, so as petals, they hold up nicely to the heat and that final brûlée blast, which lends them those lovely, brown-edged hues.
And this is the precise moment the tarte must exit the oven — right now, not 10, not even five seconds longer! This is also the time you’d hear Lady Apple sigh . . .
See, dear Viv, didn’t I tell you I would bloom for you?