Thanksgiving, the most American of all holidays is steeped in culinary tradition. I always feel duty bound to prepare a turkey with all the ‘fixins’ but I also like to enliven my holiday table with a new dish or two that will please the crowd while not disrespecting the pilgrim/native American food lore that has grown up around this day.

This year, I decided a tarte tatin might fit the bill. A tarte tatin is caramelized fruit with a pie crust baked on top and then inverted on a platter to expose the buttery and browned fruit. The basic recipe I give is for the classic apple version, but while researching this dessert I found a number of different fruits and even vegetables you can use in the tarte. I will give a couple of variations at the end, including a pumpkin tarte – perfect for your Thanksgiving table. The pumpkin version can be either sweet or savory – dessert or side dish. Have some fun with this dessert.

The Crust

There are many different ways to make a piecrust and if you have a favorite – go ahead and use it. I like to use a traditional butter crust, but you can use puff pastry, pate brisee or an Italian tart crust made with egg. This is an upside down pie and the crust, cooked on top of the tarte, eventually ends up under the tarte so make sure it is well cooked.

The Apples

The tarte must be made with firm apples. Macintosh type apples will not keep their shape and become mushy in this dessert. Use Gala, Greenings, Granny Smith or Golden Delicious.

When you cut the apples make sure they are in fairly thick slices. I peel them and then slice thick pieces off the sides leaving the core. Squeeze a lemon over the apple slices when you cut them so they do not turn brown. You need a lot of apples for the tarte – you need to press them down firmly into the caramel.

The Caramel

There are many different techniques for making the caramel for a tarte tatin. I like to make the caramel in a separate pan, pour it into a pie plate and put the apples in it, but some recipes make the caramel by cooking the apples in the sugar and butter. The following instructions are for making it separately.

Apple Tarte Tatin

This is the classic tarte tatin created by two Tatin sisters in their restaurant at Lamotte-Beuvron on the Loire river in France.

  • 8 to 10 apples – cut into thick slices
  • 1½ cup white sugar
  • 6 tablespoons water
  • ¼ cup butter plus some for the pan
  • juice from one lemon

Heavily butter an 8-9 inch pie plate and set aside. Roll out the pie crust into a circle about one half inch larger than the pie plate you will be using. Put the crust in refrigerator on a plate that is flat and keep it chilled until you are ready to use it.

Slice the apples as directed above and coat with lemon juice. This will keep them from turning brown. Set aside.

Put the sugar and water in a medium sized skillet over low heat. Let the sugar melt into the water and then turn the heat up to medium high so that the mix bubbles. You can add a little more water if it is too thick. Do not stir but move the sugar around by tilting the skillet from side to side. Keep moving the skillet around until the syrup becomes a medium amber. It seems like this is taking a long time, but once it happens it colors quickly and you have to be there to take it off the heat before it burns. Stir the butter into the caramel until it is completely incorporated and pour the mix into the buttered pie plate.

Put the apples into the pie plate over the hot (watch out not to burn yourself) caramel. They should be squeezed tightly together. This step should be done quickly so the caramel does not harden.

Put the apples into a 400 degree oven and bake for about 30 minutes. I usually check them after about 30 minutes and press the apple down into the liquid.

Take the apples from the oven, let cool for about 15 minutes. Take the pie crust out of the refrigerator and place it on top of the caramelized apples. Tuck the edges inside the pie plate and cook for about 30 minutes or until the crust is nicely browned.

You want the crust to be cooked well because it will end up on the bottom of the tarte and you don’t want it to be soggy.

Remove from the oven and let cool for about an hour.

Place a serving dish on top of the pie plate and carefully flip the tarte over into the plate. Sometimes you have to wait a moment for the suction to let go of the apples and release the tarte onto the plate. If some remains in the pie plate just scrape it out and place it on top of the tarte.

The French say a tarte tatin should always be served warm – who are we to argue. If you want to make it ahead, make sure the serving dish can be placed in the oven to warm it up before you serve it with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream. I will confess that I find this dessert delicious even at room temperature.

Variations

Sweet Pumpkin Tarte Tatin

You will need to use fresh raw pumpkin in this recipe. You may substitute raw butternut squash if you want. The butternut squash can be cut in nice thick rounds after you peel it and makes the layering of the tarte easier. The main difference in this recipe from the apple version is the small amount of sugar and spices you sprinkle on top of the pumpkin before cooking.

  • 6 cups of peeled and sliced raw pumpkin or butternut squash
  • 1½ cup white sugar
  • 6 tablespoons water
  • ¼ cup butter plus some for the pan
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • Pinch of nutmeg
  • ¼ cup sugar

Mix the cinnamon, nutmeg and ¼ cup of sugar together and set aside. Follow the instructions for the apple tarte substituting the pumpkin or squash for the apples until you are about to put the apples in the oven for the first time. Right before you put your pie plate in the oven, sprinkle the cinnamon mix over the squash or pumpkin. Then follow the recipe again right to the end.

Savory Tarte

I have cut the amount of sugar in the caramel for this recipe and put in a little balsamic vinegar. It is still a little sweet, but most pumpkin or squash recipes have some sweetness to them.

  • 6 cups of peeled and sliced raw pumpkin or butternut squash
  • 1 cup white sugar
  • 4 tablespoons water
  • ¼ cup butter plus some for the pan
  • Pinch of nutmeg
  • 2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon pepper
  • ¼ cup balsamic vinegar

Mix the nutmeg, salt, pepper and vinegar together and set aside. Follow the instructions for the apple tarte substituting the pumpkin or squash for the apples. When you are about to put the fruit in the oven for the first time, sprinkle the nutmeg mix over the squash or pumpkin. Then follow the apple recipe again right to the end.