Among all the fruits in the world, I’m probably most apathetic towards apples. Perhaps it’s the time it takes to finish one – I like my fruit in quick nibbles – or its crunchy texture, that I start to tire of ploughing through the juiciest red orb even before it turns into an oxidized pulp. Another culprit for my apathy could also be that schoolteacher who told us 12-year-olds that, nutritionally speaking, apples ranked at the bottom of the list and we’d be better off meeting our caloric quotas with fruits like bananas.
Whatever the reason, I find myself drawn to apples when cooked into a soft mush as opposed to fresh off the Farmer’s Market stand. As a kid, I very much enjoyed (and still do – guiltily) McDonald’s apple pies, crunching through their crisp skins as I waited for its piping hot filling to scald my tongue. Apples are rarely used in Chinese cooking except for the occasional soup, so these pies were a real treat. They allowed for a few treasured minutes of self-absorbed exploration in The World According To McDonald’s. Its surface, dotted with bumps of various sizes all crystallized in the cooking process, transformed into confetti with each firework-inducing bite. It made a jolly good mess, but I didn’t care. I was too content with the thick, sugar-coated cubes of soft apple encased within its crisp exterior to bother about anything else.
Fortunately, my infatuation with fast food eventually abated with time – I’d like to attribute this to maturity, but the media and its appearance-conscious pressures had no small part to play either. Although this apple tart recipe from my mother-in-law won’t exactly fit in with a weight-loss diet, it’s made from fresh ingredients, contains absolutely no high-fructose corn syrup and can be adapted to meet your dietary needs by substituting brown for white sugar, for instance. M grew up with this tart, and till today he can easily finish half a tart in one sitting if you’re not careful. It’s to him what my McDonald’s apple pie was to me, although I’m pretty sure he’d easily devour far more slices of this tart than I could with the apple pies of my childhood.
The recipe below makes enough for either a 10-inch tart or about four 4-inch tartlets, depending on your preference. After making both versions, I’m more inclined towards the tartlets as their smaller sizes make it easier to ensure an evenly cooked crust. While the directions and images accompanying the recipe are for a big tart, the same process applies to tartlet-making and I’ve made notes distinguishing between the two types of tarts where applicable. We also used margarine instead of butter in the crust as it’s more stable and less likely to melt into a greasy mess, but feel free to use butter if you’re comfortable working with it.
Makes enough for one 10-inch tart or about four 4-inch tartlets
5 ounces/ 140 grams all-purpose flour, plus additional for dusting
2 ounces/ 55 grams margarine or butter, cut into cubes
¼ teaspoon active dry yeast
pinch of salt
¼ cup water, very cold
In a medium bowl, stir together the flour, yeast and salt. Add the margarine cubes then, using your fingers, quickly rub them into the flour until each cube is completely covered with flour.
Make a well in the flour, then drizzle the water and use a fork to mix the liquid with the dry ingredients. Using your hands, work the dough to fully absorb the liquid until you get a texture that’s firm but pliable and not sticky. Add more water (if the dough is too crumbly) or more flour (if the dough is too wet) to achieve this consistency.
Shape the dough into a ball, then refrigerate, covered with plastic wrap for at least 45 minutes before assembling the tart. At this stage, the dough can be kept tightly covered in plastic wrap in the refrigerator for up to a week.
3 medium apples, halved, cored and thinly sliced (2, if you’re making tartlets and I recommend slicing them with a mandolin at its thinnest setting)
½ ounce/ 15 grams vanilla sugar or ¼ teaspoon vanilla extract
3½ ounces/ 100 grams granulated sugar plus a pinch
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon corn starch
3 large eggs
3/4 cup/ 200ml heavy whipping cream
Preheat the oven to 400F/ 200C and grease the pan to be used.
Combine the granulated sugar, cornstarch and vanilla sugar or vanilla extract in a bowl, then whisk in the eggs, one at a time. Add the whipping cream and whisk until the mixture is a pale yellow. Set aside.
After 45 minutes, remove the dough from the refrigerator and flatten it on a floured surface with both hands. With a well-floured rolling pin, roll out the dough, flipping it after 2 to 3 strokes of the rolling pin while keeping it well-floured.
When the dough’s just about a millimeter thick, transfer it to the buttered tart pan by draping it over the rolling pin, then unfolding it on the tart pan. Use your fingers to gently press the dough into the pan’s corners. If you’re making tartlets, use a 6-inch cutter to cut out the crusts then gently press it into the tartlet molds. Remove any excess dough by either rolling the pin over the tart pan or snipping it off with a scissors.
You’re likely to have leftover dough at this point – we like to roll it up into a ball and bake it alongside the tart in the oven for a crisp, tasty dough to savor. It’s also a helpful indicator to tell when the crust is done.
Arrange the apple slices in a circle starting at the edge of the pan and work your way in until all the apples are assembled and the pan is full. If you’re making tartlets, layer the apple slices in a fashion that suits your fancy until it reaches the top of the mold. Sprinkle a pinch of sugar and the cinnamon over the apples, then pour the egg/whipping cream mixture into the pan.
Bake in the pre-heated oven for 30 to 40 minutes, depending on the strength of your oven. The tart is ready when its surface has caramelized and turns a golden brown. Leave to cool for at least 15 minutes before slicing and serving. The tart is best eaten on the day it’s made.