I’ve never kept it a secret that I’m a winter girl at heart. My favourite foods usually involve pastry or suet, I mean, I love lard for goodness’ sake. However, I will admit defeat in favour of summer fruits. This season can claim proud responsibility for the best fruits of the year. One of those fruits is the much underrated apricot. Eaten raw, an apricot from the supermarket is nothing special. But how about this – once cooked, they collapse into soft supplication, a vehicle for caramel and spices, and are best served in something naughty and highly unsuitable for that crucial ‘summer body’. This spiced apricot tarte tatin might do the trick.
A few weeks ago, I ate the best apricot of my life. Gaylord and I went to visit his best friend Fafoo. She and her partner Jérémy, two of the most generous people I have ever met, who are also terrible over-feeders, and their 1-year-old son Mathéo were staying at Jérémy’s father’s vineyard in the countryside, amidst the dusty deserted stretches of open fields and mountains. A steady humming and fluttering of insects, along with the barking of the dogs, was the musical accompaniment to the peacefully hot days and nights sitting outside on the terrace, playing dice and eating laden spreads of lasagna or calamari and gratinéed oysters – oysters topped with cheese and creme fraiche and grilled until bubbling, a new dish for me and one that I was surprised to find I liked immensely. (Thanks to food tech lessons, catering health and safety level 2, working in professional kitchens, and general anxiety, I’ve never been good at throwing caution to the wind when it comes to lukewarm shellfish, so I was wary. However, they were, of course, fully cooked and honestly now my favourite way to eat oysters. I might now become a bit more daring (she says before being served a partially-cooked scallop.))
This is the second time Gaylord and I have visited the vineyard, and, despite the heat, we eat like pigs at the trough thanks to Fafoo’s cooking and the glut of fresh vegetables growing in rows around the vineyard. There is only one down side to this gourmet holiday – each time I come away with every inch of my skin sporting a new bulbous mosquito bite. Spray does nothing. Bite cream does a big fat nothing. As I said I am a winter girl. But anyway, let me get on with those apricots.
One day, the guys went to the nearest city to buy food and supplies, leaving Fafoo, Mathéo and I behind. Cheeky Mathéo is already a teenager in baby-form and can raise his eyebrows suggestively in the perfect imitation of a roguish Casanova. I am helpless to his charm. We all are. To sedate him, Fafoo fed him fruit. Both the toddler and I each received a half of the pinkest, ripest apricot I had ever seen. At first, I thought Fafoo had said apricot but meant peach? I’ve seen apricots – they are small, hard and look like orange rocks.
With the first bite I felt more certain it was, in fact, a peach – what apricot is this sweet? Juice ran down my wrist. The flesh melted on my tongue. But with each juicy mouthful, the distinct tartness of apricot came through underneath that ripe sweetness. I finished my half, then looked at Matheo’s, wondering if he was willing to share.
Coincidently, one of my bucket list dishes of 2022 is apricot tart. I’d had Mary Berry’s wobbly patisserie perfection in mind, apricot humps snugly quilted in shortcrust pastry, hidden away with a little marzipan filling. However, I’m in France. I had leftover puff pastry in the freezer. Apricot tarte tatin was the better choice.
Tarte tatin is the classic French upside-down tart. According to legend, one night chef Stéphanie Tatin, who was famous for her apple pie, suddenly realised there was no pastry underneath the caramelising apples in the oven. She hurriedly placed pastry on top, and once cooked, turned it upside down.
We’ve all experienced kitchen clumsiness – just watch Bake Off and you realise how easy it is to use salt instead of sugar – so this story may be possible. Either way, the more rustic French pastry was born. Apple is the most commonly used tarte tatin fruit, however, summer is here and so are ripe apricots. Not only that, but they soften so beautifully and omit so much fresh juice into that dreamy spiced caramel that it is layered with fragrant flavour.
Caramel can behave like a temperamental toddler (Mathéo excluded, and no, I’m not biased, you just need to see those eyebrows waggle and you’ll agree). Sometimes the sugar just won’t melt and therefore the butter won’t meld, and even worse the sugar then crystallises. My first attempt at this spiced caramel was a battle – the sugar crossed its arms and refused to work in my favour. It solidified in the pan as the butter slowly darkened. No matter how much swearing and pan-jiggling I did, the first attempt went in the bin.
There are tips and tricks out there:
- adding a spoonful of syrup or honey or
- adding lemon juice
However, with my second attempt, my saving grace was a splash of hot water. This triggered the sugar to finally melt, the mixture amalgamated and I swirled the glossy conker-brown caramel around the pan.
How to make apricot tarte tatin
Add a je ne sais quoi to that rich toffee flavour with a pinch of salt and spice. I had cinnamon and vanilla in my cupboard which are perfect partners for apricots, but feel free to try cardamom too.
Into this spicy, salty party, you place your halved apricots. They are commonly served skin-side up, like little bums in the air, so the cut side of the fruit is firmly resting on the pastry base, but break the mould if you feel fearless and show off those cut curvy insides. Cook until soft and squidgy, remove from the heat, then quickly, carefully, cover with your rolled out sheet of puff pastry. The hot caramel and pan will within moments do its best to melt the pastry’s butter, so work swiftly, cutting away the excess pastry and tucking it around the fruit.
Bake for 30 minutes, until the pastry top is crisp and golden. Try to patiently let it cool for a few minutes then slide a spatula around the pan to loosen the tart. Lay a plate on top, and holding everything securely with a tea towel as it’s gonna be hot, flip it over. Tap the pan a few times then lift it away. On the plate, there should be a beautiful, caramel-splattered spiced apricot tarte tatin.
I suppose this winter girl can enjoy summer thanks to exceptions like tarte tatin.
Spiced apricot tarte tatin
- 1 22cm frying pan or tarte tatin dish – You need a dish which can go on the stove and in the oven. If using a frying pan, make sure it's oven-proof. My pan was also non-stick which was handy for turning the tart out!
- 50 g unsalted butter
- 50 g granulated sugar
- 1-2 tbsp hot water
- ½ tsp vanilla extract
- ¼ tsp cinnamon
- Pinch of flaky salt
- 6-7 apricots
- 350 g puff pastry Read notes at the bottom
- Preheat the oven to 200°C/180°C fan/395°F. Start by making the caramel. Melt the butter over medium heat in your oven-proof pan. Once melted, sprinkle over the sugar. Combine everything with a wooden spoon, and stir regularly as the sugar melts. Keep your eye on it as the sugar will darken, you don't want it to burn. Remove from the heat when it is a smooth deep chestnut colour, about 5-10 minutes.If the butter and sugar don't meld and the sugar remains hard for 5-10 minutes, add 1 tbsp of hot water. Stir to combine and you should have a glossy caramel.
- Add the vanilla, cinnamon and salt to the caramel, stir to combine and allow to bubble for a few seconds depending if you want your caramel to darken any further. Remove from the heat so it doesn't continue to cook and burn.
- Halve the apricots and remove the stones. Place them either way up in the pan of caramel, lower the heat and gently cook until the fruit is really soft, about 10 minutes. Make sure the heat is low as you don't want to apricots to burn.
- Meanwhile, roll out the pastry into a rough circle, roughly the height of a £1 coin. Remove the pan of apricots from the heat. Cool for a couple of minutes so the heat doesn't immediately melt the pastry.
- Working quickly, flip the pastry on top of the fruit and pan. Trim off the excess – you want it to be just the size of the pan. Tuck the pastry edges around the fruit.
- Place the pan in the hot oven and bake for 30-40 minutes until golden and crisp. Carefully remove the pan and leave to cool slightly before sliding a spatula around the edge to loosen the tart.
- Now, the moment of truth – the flipping! Take your serving plate and place it over the pan. Holding a tea towel in both hands, grab the edges of the plate and pan and quickly flip it over. Put the plate on the work surface, tap the bottom of the pan and lift it away. The tart should be sitting there! Scrape all the extra caramel out of the pan on top of the tarte tatin. Serve with ice cream.