It all began on a warm Palm Springs night, under an umbrella-covered dining table where I sat languidly, dead from the parties of Mardi Gras that had slowly sipped the life out of my body. My mom and I sat in the chairs of Pinzimini, the new dining spot in the Westin Mission Hills Golf Resort and Spa. Despite my normal rash approval of my mothers’ occasional wine offer at dinner, tonight, I declined. Yet, when our waiter circled back around, his news enlivened my drained sensibility. He pointed over to the corner of the veranda, identifying a tall man clad in a pleated tall pearly hat as a James Beard honored chef. For those of you lost as to what “James Beard honored” indicates, the James Beard Award is the highest of national culinary awards, typically referred to as the “Oscar’s” of the food world. While Chef Joel Delmond is not a recipient of this award, he has cooked in the James Beard House, a sensational recognition of its own. In this moment, my ears perked up like those of a puppy hearing the word walk. My mother and I immediately wrapped our friendly waiter into a conversation where we relayed my infatuation with all things culinary, the blog that I began writing in Peru, my obsession with photographing meals from every imaginable angle, and so on. Before I could add another detail about peruvian cuisine, the waiter had brought the amiable Chef Joel to our very table.
My mother, Chef Joel, and I began discussing my love of food, rummaging through the details of my ever-developing blog. In his impeccable English, dusted with a distinct layer of french inflection, Chef Joel spoke of peruvian gastronomy with a striking fluidity. Though soon to get back to the kitchen, Chef Joel did not leave without sharing his information and inviting me to bake with him in the coming days. We exchanged e-mails the next day and decided on an afternoon spent baking a Tarte Tatin, an upside-down apple tart from the Loir-et-Cher region of France, along the Loire River. I later learned that the tart originates from the Hotel Tatin, where the two sisters and owners, Stephanie and Caroline Tatin, famously baked the first Tarte Tatin, the result of a horrid kitchen diaster. Fittingly, Chef Joel hails from this specific part of France and after hearing my stories on peruvian cuisine, he was anxious to share a quintessential french dish.
My afternoon spent in the kitchen was beyond any of my expectations for baking the Tarte Tatin. Not only did I learn an irreplaceable amount of information on pastry-making from Chef Joel, but he elected other members of his staff to introduce me to their large-scale operations of sushi making, pizza dough molding, and the like. When I say other members, I allude to Chef Shawn Aoki, a former Iron Chef contestant. I could not then and still cannot fathom my luck!
Rolling sushi with Chef Shawn Aoki
Learning how to handle the pizza peel
By the end of the day, Chef Joel and I had two baked Tarte Tatins. During the assembling of the first tarte, Chef Joel took me on a detailed journey through the art of pie-crust making and caramelizing. He shared tips only a pro would know like how to flour your dough before using your rolling pin, what kind of surfaces you should use for specific actions, how to caramelize for different end results (looking for a sweet and light caramel or an almost-bitter type?), the list never ends.
Letting the apples soak in water to keep fresh before baking
Constructing the upside-down tart
Top layer of the upside-down tart
Rolling the dough between two sheets of plastic to keep the dough from melting or sticking to the pin
Both Tarte Tatins slowly evolved into beautiful, really striking pieces of culinary art. Smothered in buttery caramel, the apples congealed together in a perfect geometric form, seated upon a thick base of flaky pastry crust. After many Friday afternoons and Christmas seasons spent baking, I cannot say I have made such a beautiful dish as this Tarte Tatin.
With our finished product, Chef Joel and I took the fore-picture of this blog post, a student and instructor, both grinning happily at a Tarte Tatin well done. That evening, my parents and I ate our final meal in Palm Springs at Pinzimini, electing Chef Shawn’s Tasting Menu. We couldn’t have chosen a better meal and to cap it off, we each engulfed our hardy servings of the Tarte Tatin, brought out by Chef Joel himself. I waddled home in the eighty-five degree paradise, brain full with improved pastry techniques and a stomach wide with caramelized apples.
The baked Tarte Tatin, before being flipped
The flipped and final Tarte Tatin
Unfortunately, I do not have Chef Joel’s Tarte Tatin recipe for you yet. However, in the meantime I thought that Julia Child’s rendition will do. Bon Appetit!
For the Tart Dough:
3/4 cups flour
1/4 cup cake flour
2 tablespoons sugar
6 tablespoons chilled butter, diced
2 tablespoons chilled vegetable shortening
1/4 cup ice water, or as needed
For the Tart Tatin:
6 Golden Delicious apples, cored, peeled and halved
1 lemon, zested and juiced
11/2 cups sugar
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
Whipped cream or vanilla ice cream, as accompaniment
In the bowl of a food processor fitted with a steel blade, place the flours, sugar and butter. Pulse 5 or 6 times in 1/2-second bursts to break up the butter. Add the shortening, turn on the machine and immediately add the ice water, pulsing 2 or 3 times. The dough should look like a mass of smallish lumps and should just hold together in a mass when a handful is pressed together. If the mixture is too dry, pulse in more water by droplets.
Turn the dough out onto the work surface and with the heel of your hand, rapidly and roughly push egg-size blobs into a 6-inch smear. Gather the dough into a relatively smooth cake, wrap in plastic and refrigerate at least 2 hours (or up to 2 days).
Slice the halved apples into 4 lengthwise wedges each, and toss in a large bowl with the lemon juice and zest and 1/2 cup sugar. Drain the apples after macerating 20 minutes.
In a 9-inch skillet melt the butter over high heat. Stir in the remaining sugar and cook until the syrup bubbles and caramelizes, and turns a brown color. Remove the pan from the heat and arrange a layer of apple slices in a neat pattern on the caramel in the skillet, then arrange the remaining apples neatly on top.
Return the pan to moderately high heat and cook for about 25 minutes, covering the pan after 10 minutes. Every few minutes press down on the apples and baste them with the exuded juices. When the juices are thick and syrupy, remove the pan from the heat.
On a lightly floured surface, roll the chilled dough into a circle, 3/16-inch thick and 1-inch larger than the top of the pan. Drape the dough over the apples, pressing the edge of the dough between the apples and the inside of the pan. Cut 4 small steam holes on the top of the dough. Bake until the pastry has browned and crisped, about 20 minutes.
Unmold the tart onto a serving dish (so the pastry is on the bottom), and serve warm or cold with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream, as desired.