I love summer fruit. Heaping bowls of berries and cantaloupe, juicy peaches and plums – I’ve been eating my fill. But almost as though tuned to a seasonal clock, I’ve started thinking about apples, missing their crunch. I’ve started dreaming about spiced apple butter and apple pies. What I’m craving most as autumn approaches, though, is French apple tart, a refined twist on the comforting, classic apple pie.
The all-American apple pie is deep and wide, with a thick, dimpled crust that soaks up juices and spice. Maybe it’s topped with a buckling lattice or crumbly streusel. With its generous wedges of fruit tossed in cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice, it’s all about the pleasures of texture, the rich chaos of flavors. French apple tarts, in contrast, are exercises in understated refinement.
First, there’s the dough. The origins of our pie crusts lie in the hearty pies and pasties of England – hefty fare. French apple tarts use pâte feuilletée (puff pastry), one of the marvels that joined the French pantheon of patisserie in the 17th century. While we were cutting suet and lard into pea-sized pieces for our short pastry, the French were beating and folding butter into paper-thin sheets that would puff dough up into crispy layers in the oven.
The French term “pâte feuilletée” means “leafed” dough. It’s closer to the phyllo used in Middle Eastern and Mediterranean desserts than it is to traditional pie dough. It makes possible the delicate layering of Napoleons and mille-feuilles; it forms the flaky spirals of palmiers.
My ideal French apple tart starts with a thin disk of flaky puff pastry that gets crisp and brown in the oven. On top of this flat disk comes another study in horizontality: apples, sliced extremely thin, layered in concentric fans. No spices interfere with the apple flavor – just a touch of apricot jam for a glaze, or a splash of Calvados (apple brandy). It’s all about understatement.
Sometimes, though, there’s a secret deviation: a layer of frangipane (almond cream) hides between the crust and the fan of apples. This, to me, is the ultimate apple tart. I love the silkiness of the frangipane, and the magical way apple, apricot and almond taste together.
A French apple tart may be a touch fancy, but it doesn’t have to be hard to make. Preparing the puff pastry would be time-consuming; picking it up frozen from the grocery store isn’t. And from there’s it’s just about showing off the simple elegance of apples.
Tarte Aux Pommes with Frangipane
• Puff pastry crust (store bought)
• 1/2 cup butter, softened
• 1/2 cup sugar
• 1 egg, beaten
• 1 egg yolk
• 1 tablespoon apple brandy (optional)
• 2/3 cup ground almonds
• 2 tablespoons flour
• 4 apples, thinly sliced
• 1/4 cup apricot jam, thinned slightly with water (optional)
• Sugar for decoration
Preheat oven to 400 F. For frangipane, cream butter and sugar until fluffy. Beat in egg, egg yolk and apple brandy. Combine almond meal and flour and add to creamed butter mixture.
Place puff pastry on baking sheet, spoon in frangipane and arrange sliced apples on top in concentric fans.
Bake for 15 minutes, or until frangipane and pastry begin to brown. Reduce heat to 350 F, sprinkle with sugar and bake for another 15 minutes, until sugar is slightly caramelized.
Cool on a wire rack, then brush with diluted apricot jelly, if desired.