French Apple Tart

Few pastries are as nostalgic to me as this type of French apple pie. I spent most of the summers during my childhood in Southern France, and I remember well how the mouth-watering look of large trays of apple tart displayed in the shop windows of the bakeries and confectionery stores never failed to appeal. My father, with whom I share the sweet tooth, most notably was amongst those frequently failing to resist the tempting calls of thinly layered apple slices on a crispy layer of puff pastry and enveloped in a glossy coating of sugar and butter, so the family could always rest assured of enjoying a treat of apple tart every couple of days or so.
Being very German (at least in some of my ways), it nevertheless took me a number of years – well into my adulthood – to understand that the puff pastry makes it a requirement to consume this apple tart with fork and knife (as the French do it), whereas the little cake forks which Germans use to eat their cakes are completely useless for segmenting your slice of apple tart into bite-sized pieces without the support of a knife.

This practical issue now solved, another one poses itself: How to make this delicious tart oneself? It is true that the combination of apple and pastry may look simple enough, but the devil is in the detail: According to my rather advanced and – as far as I dare comment – quite meticulously authentic French pâtisserie book, this tart requires a croissant pastry which is similar, but not identical to a pâte feuilletée (puff pastry) – and both, in my book, are quite a challenge to the amateur pâtissier (or pâtissière). The croissant pastry may be even the more challenging as it is a yeast dough whose handling requires a little bit of experience in itself. So do not despair if you end up chucking your first attempts at making a perfect détrempe (basic dough) and/or trying to envelope the beurrage (butter packet) without making the dough break and the butter squeeze out (I read that in this case, you might save your pastry by putting it into the fridge and letting the butter go hard again, my experience however is that at this point, rather depressingly, your pastry is ruined beyond saving and your only option is to start all over again). All it takes is a little bit of practice and, trust me, the feeling of unbridled pride when you will finally have accomplished the task of making your first puff pastry is really rewarding!

This being said, I have to promote at this point that when you venture into making this pastry, watch a few Youtube videos showing you how to fold the détrempe around the beurrage as I believe that trying to put these steps into writing will not quench the want for visual demonstration. Here is a video that I particularly recommend, and which I followed (in French): Recette des croissants maison. Unfortunately, I could not really find a very good video in English, but if you watch a few of those that are available on Youtube you should get the gist of the whole procedure. Also do follow the steps described below quite closely.

All of this considered, you may now start wondering whether it is really worth it to go through all of this trouble for an apple tart. I would always say that it is, not only because this tart is quite simply delicious, but also because I really enjoy baking. If you however do not feel entirely up to the challenge or quite simply do not have the time at hand for making this tart from scratch, you might revert to the part where I explained that croissant pastry is not too unsimilar to pâte feuilletée, and from there jump to the rather obvious shortcut of how else to make this pie 😀

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Ingredients:

For the croissant pastry:

  • 250 grams of flour
  • 10 grams of fresh yeast
  • 60 ml of water
  • 60 ml of full-fat milk
  • 1 medium egg
  • 5 grams of salt
  • 30 grams of sugar
  • 125 grams of butter

For the apple sauce:

  • 500 to 600 grams of apples (choose a sweeter apple like Gala for this tart), peeled, cored and diced
  • 75 grams of sugar
  • 50 ml of water
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons of apricot jam

For the topping:

  • approximately 1 1/2 kg of apples (choose a sweeter apple like Gala for this tart), peeled, cored and cut into thin slices.
  • 80 grams of butter
  • 60 grams of sugar
  • 1 teaspoon of apricot jam

Preparation:

Preparing the croissant pastry:

  1. Pass the flour through a fine sieve onto a clean work surface. Create a fountain and form a depression in the middle. Break the fresh yeast into small pieces and place them in the depression. Mix the water and the milk and warm it up slightly on the stove. Note that it should not be more than lukewarm. Add a few tablespoons of the lukewarm milk and water mix to the yeast until well covered. Add a tablespoon of sugar and activate the yeast by letting it rest for about 1/2 hour. At the end of the resting time, the yeast mix should be foamy and show signs of expansion. (Check carefully if it does so – if it does not, your yeast is not good and/ or you killed it by using liquid that was too hot. In this case, you have to redo everything from scratch with fresh yeast.)
  2. Carefully mix the flour with the activated yeast and gently fold in the further ingredients (including the remaining milk and water) for the pastry save the butter. The salt should be added last (do not add more salt than the recipe says as too much salt may kill the yeast). It is also better to take the egg out of the fridge approximately 2 hours before use in order to let it adopt room temperature. Gently knead until smooth, but knead as little as necessary in order not to overwork your dough. Should the dough be too sticky carefully add a little bit of flour by rubbing your hands with flour, but make sure the dough remains moist and fluffy – it should not become too firm!
  3. Thinly oil the inside of a large bowl, place the dough in the bowl, and cover with plastic wrap. Place in the fridge overnight (absolute minimum 2 hours, but overnight is a lot better). – This is the détrempe, i.e. the dough before adding the butter packet (or beurrage).
  4. When you take the détrempe out of the fridge, it should have increased in size and be nicely fluffy. Lightly flour a clean work surface, let the dough drop on the surface and beat out excess gas by pressing it down with the flat hand two to three times, thereby also flattening it a bit (but not too much). Take the butter out of the fridge. Let both your dough and the butter adopt room temperature during 20 to 30 minutes. The butter should be moldable, but not too soft.
  5. Roll out the dough on a floured surface with a pâtisserie rolling pin. Do not apply too much pressure. Roll into a square with side lengths of approximately 30 cm. The rolled out dough should not become too thin. While rolling out the dough, lift it every now and then and let it fall back onto the surface (this is called „souffler“ and later on prevents the pastry from retracting while baking – note that this step also applies to every following step involving rolling out the dough); this is also a way to check that the dough does not stick to the surface, so if it becomes necessary also add some flour to the surface (but always only as little as necessary).
  6. Cut the soft butter into small pieces, place it in the centre of the rolled out dough and spread evenly on the dough leaving out approximately 7 cm from each side. Fold all four sides over the center until completely covered. After each fold, dust of excess flour from the back side of the dough with a dry and clean baking brush before folding over the next side. Ensure that the folded dough is evenly thick.
  7. With the folded side towards you, gently roll out the dough into a rectangle which is approximately three times as long as it is wide. Roll only into one direction (away from you) and do not roll over the ends as the dough is most likely to break here if you apply too much pressure. Do not roll the dough too thin, it should keep a thickness of approximately 5 to 7 mm.
  8. Fold the pastry by folding the lower third of the rectangle up over the center, then fold the upper third down over the center. Before folding one side over the other, dust off excess flour in accordance with step 6. Cover in a plastic wrap and place in the fridge for 1 hour.
  9. Take the dough out of the fridge and place on a floured surface. Make sure the folds face towards you. Then repeat step 7 and 8. At the end of step 8, cover the dough in a plastic wrap and place in the fridge again for 1 hour.
  10. Roll out and fold the dough a third time in accordance with the steps above. Again make sure that the folds face towards you when you start rolling out the dough. Allow the dough to rest in the fridge for another hour.
  11. Take the dough out of the fridge and allow to adopt room temperature during approximately 30 minutes. In the meantime, you might start preparing the apple sauce (see below). On a floured surface, roll out the dough to the size of a baking tray. It should be approximately 3 mm thin. Frequently lift and turn while rolling it out in order to prevent it from retracting and/or becoming deformed later. Place on a baking tray lined with parchment paper an allow to rest (for around 1 1/2 hours) while making the apple sauce and the topping.

Preparing the apple sauce:

  1. Place the apple dices in a saucepan. Add the water, the sugar and the apricot jam. Bring to the boil over high temperature and let boil until most of water has evaporated.
  2. Puree with a hand blender. Set aside and let cool down.

Preparing the topping:

  1. Spread the apple sauce evenly on the pastry with a pâtisserie spatula or a soft (plastic or silicone) dough scraper.
  2. Cover with lines of apple slices.
  3. Pre-heat the oven to 160 degrees Celsius (fan oven). In the meantime, melt the butter in a saucepan over medium heat (the butter must not go brown), add the sugar and the apricot jam and mix well. Apply the mix to the apple topping (cover well) with a pastry brush before putting the tart into the oven.
  4. Bake for approximately 45 to 55 minutes. Check regularly that the apples do not get too dark (otherwise reduce the temperature) and that the pastry bakes well and regularly by lifting it with a pâtisserie spatula in order to check the bottom side. The apples should form slightly browned edges, in order to achieve this increase the oven temperature slightly (to approximately 170 to 175 degrees Celsius, fan oven) towards the last 5 to 10 minutes of the baking time.
  5. Let cool off a bit. This tart is excellent while still lukewarm as well as cold. In France, it is traditionally enjoyed with a thick type of crème fraîche. I believe whipped cream is also permissible when this is how you like your pie (but maybe refrain from telling your traditional-minded French acquaintances 🙂 ). Certainly, neither is a must. And, of course, if circumstances do not allow for more rustic ways of enjoying your meal, or you are quite simply an aesthete – eat with fork and knife!

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