Love at First…Scent
Apples… their sweet and earthy fragrance may inspire nostalgic memories of autumn’s splendor. But, for me, seeing or smelling an apple also means that it is the time for an urban gardener who stores winter produces in cold storage (in my case, a garage) to clean up the previous season’s harvests.
Two years ago, my dear friends who have been trying to eat their organically grown produce in as raw of a stage as possible let me taste their homemade apple chips made with “Rosu de Cluj” apples. In an instant, I fell in LOVE…. not only with the flavour of the first bite spreading in my mouth, but also with the delicious aroma that permeated their kitchen and whole house. The chips were irresistible! Also compelling were the appearance and the intriguing fact that these apples originally hail from exotic Romania.
Shortly after, I purchased my own Rosu de Cluj apple tree at Annie’s Orchard, knowing that I would have to wait for four years to possibly (anything can go wrong in this West Coast climate!) harvest from the tree. However, for me, it was definitely worth trying. In the same trip to the orchard, I purchased 50 lb of Rosu de Cluj to use experimentally in a variety of dishes in my kitchen.
These apples are really tasty, with sweet juice and slight tartness along with a delightful crispness when freshly eaten. Rosu de Cluj are great for baking and make beautiful apple sauce when they age (kept in cold storage for a few month). So I make apple chips when they are young, then apple tarts during the winter months. I tried several different tart recipes before settling on this one by French pastry chef Pierre Hermé. I chose this one due to its crisp texture, which marries well with the apple sauce and sliced apple pieces on top. Of course, one must serve this dessert with a scoop of ice cream! This tart was a perfect afternoon tea dessert for us after working hard in the garden during the balmy sunny weekend.
Apple Sauce (for one 8 3/4 inch-tart)
6 “Rosu de Cluj” apples or other medium sized cooking apples
2 tablespoons sugar
1teaspoon vanilla extract
1/3 cup to 1/2 cup water
A dash of lemon juice (for added tartness, if desired)
Peel, core and chop the apples. Add them to a large saucepan with the sugar, the vanilla extract, and the water. Simmer over medium heat. Turn the heat down, stir occasionally and cook until the apples becomes soft and mushy, about 40 minutes to 1 hour. Meanwhile, add a dash of lemon juice if desired after tasting. If the consistency of the sauce is too thick, add some water to adjust while cooking. Let cool.
Tart dough (pâte brisée)
To make three 10 1/4 -inch or four 8 3/4 -inch tarts
3 sticks plus 2 tablespoons (13 ounces) unsalted butter, softened
1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon milk, at room temperature
1 large egg yolk, at room temperature, lightly beaten
1 teaspoon salt
3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
To make the dough in a mixer
Put the butter in the bowl of a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment and beat on low speed until creamy. Add the milk, yolk, sugar, and salt and beat until the mixture is roughly blended (at this point, the mixture will look curdled). With the mixer still on low, add the flour in three or four additions (add it steadily- there is no need to wait for the flour to be incorporated thoroughly after each addition) and mix just until the ingredients come together to form a soft, moist dough that doesn’t clean the sides of the bowl completely but does hold together. Do not overdo it.
To make the dough in a large-capacity food processor
Place the butter, milk, yolk, sugar, and salt in the work bowl of a good processor fitted with the metal blade. Pulse on and off a few times to break up the butter and start the blending, then process until the mixture is roughly blended. Add the flour and pulse until the mixture just starts to come together. When the dough forms moist curds and clumps and then starts to gather into a ball, stop! You don’t want to overwork it.
To shape and chill
Gather the dough into a ball and divide it into three or four pieces: three pieces for 10 1/4-inch tars, four for 8 3/4 inch tarts. Gently press each piece into a disk and wrap each disk in plastic. Allow the dough to rest in the refrigerator for at least 4 hours or for up to 2 days before rolling and baking (at this stage, the dough can be wrapped airtight and frozen for up to a month).
For each tart, place a buttered tart ring on a parchment-lined baking sheet and keep close at hand. If you are using a tart pan, butter the pan and dust some flour, then remove excess flour. Work with one piece of dough at a time; keep the remaining dough in the refrigerator.
Working on a lightly floured surface (marble is ideal), roll the dough between 1/16 and 1/8 inch thick, lifting the dough often and making certain that the work surface and the dough are amply floured at all times (I found it easier to roll the dough between two pieces of parchment paper, for the richness of the dough can make it difficult to roll). Just make sure that parchment paper doesn’t get rolled into the dough. Roll the dough up and around your rolling pin and unroll it onto the tart ring (or the tart pan). Fit the dough into the bottom and up the sides of the ring, then run your rolling pin across the top of the ring to cut off the excess. If the dough cracks or splits as you work, patch the cracks with scraps (moisten the edges to “glue” them into place) and just make certain not to stretch the dough that’s in the pan (what you stretch now will shrink later). Prick the dough all over with the tines of a fork and chill it for at least 30 minutes in the refrigerator or freezer. Repeat with the remaining dough if necessary.
To bake a tart shell
Preheat the oven to 350F. Fit a circle of parchment paper or foil into each crust (cut the paper or foil large enough to extend above the top of the tart) and fill with dried beans or rice. Bake for 18 to 20 minutes, then remove the parchment and beans and bake for another 5 to 8 minutes, or until golden. Transfer the crust(s) to a rack to cool.
Apple Toppings (for one 8 3/4 inch-tart)
3 “Rosu de Cluj,” or other medium sized cooking apples, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
1 teaspoon zest of lemon
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, cut in pea-size pieces
Rub the zest of lemon and the sugar together between your fingers until sugar becomes moist and aromatic.
Preheat the oven to 350F. Spoon the apple sauce into the crust, and smooth the top. Arrange the sliced apples over the sauce and sprinkle the sugar mixture on top. Scatter the butter over the tart. Bake for about 30 minutes, or until the apples are golden brown.
Transfer the tart to a serving platter; remove the tart ring. Serve with a scoop of ice cream, if desired.