Taken from The Lost Orchard by Raymond Blanc (Headline Home, £20)
You know by now that, for me, Maman Blanc makes the best apple tart in the world.
When I was growing up she would make it regularly during the apple season, and she always made it look so simple: just some shortcrust pastry, rolled out with some apples from the garden sliced in concentric circles on top, a few dots of butter and a sprinkling of sugar, and then into the oven it would go, where the apples slices would fluff up and caramelise beautifully, yet still hold their shape.
Sometimes, just before it was ready, she would take out the tart, pour over a beautiful custard and then put it back into the oven to finish off. If you want to do this, just whisk 1 medium egg with 50g caster sugar and 100ml whipping cream – you can add a splash of Calvados if you like! Then 10 minutes before the end of the cooking time, pour in the custard.
I can still remember coming home from school, or from helping my father in the garden, or my grandfather in his orchard, and when I opened the door of our house it would be filled with the exquisite aromas of the tart baking. Of course, simplicity is deceptive, because Maman was a great cook and she made the best pastry, but she also had wonderful Reinette Grise du Canada apples from our tree.
We put 112 apples to the Maman Blanc tarte test to see how well other varieties would do, and the two most outstanding turned out to be Lord Lambourne and Captain Kidd, slightly ahead of Blenheim Orange, Devonshire Quarrenden, George Cave, Orleans Reinette and Red Windsor, which of course are not easy to find in shops these days. But equally outstanding was the Cox's Orange Pippin, while Braeburn will also make a beautiful tart.
You can use this recipe with plums, apricots and cherries in season, too.
100g unsalted butter, diced, at room temperature
200g plain flour
Pinch of sea salt
1 medium egg (preferably organic or free-range)
1tbs cold water
For the apple filling and glaze
3 dessert apples, such as Cox's Orange Pippin
15g unsalted butter
15g caster sugar
1½tsp lemon juice
2tsp Calvados (optional)
Icing sugar, for dusting
To make the shortcrust pastry, have the butter at room temperature so that you can distribute it evenly within the flour – this is what gives the pastry its flakiness.
In a large bowl, rub together the flour, butter and salt gently with your fingertips until the mixture is crumbly and has a sandy texture.
Make a well in the centre. Add the egg and water and work them in with your fingertips, moving them in little concentric circles. Flours differ in their absorbency, so if the dough feels too wet add a little flour; if too dry add a little water.
At the last moment when the egg has been absorbed, bring the dough together and press into a ball. Turn out the dough onto a lightly floured work surface and knead gently with the palms of your hands for 10-20 seconds until you have a homogeneous dough, but be careful not to overwork it or it will lose some of its flakiness and retract during baking.
Break off 20g-30g of the dough, wrap it in cling film and put into the fridge to chill. Wrap the remaining dough in some more cling film and flatten it until it is about 2cm thick – this will help it to chill more quickly. Put this into the fridge, too, and leave it to rest for 20-30 minutes. This is important because you have worked the gluten in the flour, and so the dough will be elastic at this stage. Resting it in the fridge makes it more pliable, easier to roll and will help minimise shrinkage in the oven.
When the dough has chilled, lay another sheet of cling film – about 40cm square – on your work surface. Unwrap the large piece of dough, place it in the centre and cover with another sheet of cling film of similar dimensions. This allows you to roll out the dough without adding extra flour in order to stop it sticking to your work surface.
Roll out the dough to a circle, 2mm-3mm thick. Have ready a flat baking tray and lay a sheet of greaseproof paper on top. Lift off the top layer of cling film from the pastry and discard it, then lift the dough by the lower cling film and drape it over the tart ring.
Remove the remaining cling film and ease the dough into the ring. Now take your little ball of dough from the fridge and, still in its cling film, use it to press the dough gently into the shape of the ring. Trim the pastry by running a rolling pin over the edges of the ring.
Now, press between your index finger and thumb all around the edge of the tart ring just to raise the edge of the pastry 2mm above the ring, to compensate for the slight retraction of the pastry during cooking.
With a fork, prick the bottom of the pastry case. This will help the even distribution of heat when the tart is in the oven. Put into the fridge again for about 20 minutes to relax the pastry.
Preheat the oven to 200°C and put a baking stone or baking tray onto the middle shelf to heat up.
Peel and core the apples and cut each one into 10 segments. Arrange these close together in overlapping circles in the base of the tart case.
In a small pan, melt the butter and sugar, then take the pan from the heat and mix in the lemon juice and Calvados, if using. Brush this mixture over the apple slices and dust liberally with icing sugar.
Slide the tart from your tray directly onto the preheated baking stone or tray in the oven and cook for 10 minutes, then turn down the temperature to 180°C and bake for a further 20 minutes until the pastry is light golden and the apples are beautifully caramelised. (If you are adding custard, pour this in 10 minutes before the end of cooking time.)
Remove from the oven and leave to stand for about 30 minutes before serving as the tarte will be at its best when barely warm.
Remove the ring and slide the tarte onto a large, flat plate. Dust with a little more icing sugar to serve.
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