“Pessimism is as American as apple pie - frozen apple pie with a slice of processed cheese.”
- George F. Will, political commentator and pundit
I love a good apple. Unfortunately, I rarely get to eat a good apple anymore. Just like tomatoes, the supermarket apple has fallen so far from the tree that it is one papilla beyond palatable. It may look like an apple, but it sure as hell doesn’t taste like one.
The only solace I have found for my apple blues has been at my mother-in-law’s house. She has a couple of organic heirloom apple trees and in the fall, I must consume a bushel of apples a week. The down side is that it comes only once a year and, well, I have to see my mother-in-law (sorry!). Why is there such a scarcity of good apples on the market? There is really no good excuse for it. Apples are one of the world’s oldest cultivars, and according to pomologists, there are about 7,500 types of apples across the world – 2,500 types in North America alone. Going to my local supermarket yields me 4 types of apples. That’s it. Going to the farmer’s market yields a lot more, but that would demand that I have a farmer’s market to go to (sad, I know). I am now stuck with 4 varieties of apples until next summer.
How did we get here? Simple. Industrialization of food. The rise of food commercialization in the 1950’s winnowed 2,500 apple varieties to about 16 regularly available types, especially bred for their retail viability – that is high yield, uniformity, disease resistance, and shipping and storage practicality. Apples used to be grown on smaller, single-owner farms that catered to local preferences and geography. Thanks to the consolidation of food retailing and distribution as well as the growth of mass orchards, apples have come the McDonald’s of produce – same choices and quality (bad) regardless of location.  Corporations are not the only actors complicit in this lack of choice. Ninety-four percent of the 41 billion dollar produce market goes to supermarkets, compared to a paltry 1.5 percent of direct farmer to consumer sales, in the form of farmer’s markets and the like. That’s the same farmer’s markets that offer heirloom and old rootstock apples and the same farmers that could, with greater demand, diversify the availability of apple stock.
What’s the big picture? You could say, well, heck, I like Golden Delicious apples and if you can make a lot of them for cheap, what’s the problem? The problem is that the lack of varieties for apples decreases the gene pool for the entire species, resulting in lack of hardiness, smaller yields and greater disease susceptibility for future generations of apples, regardless of variety, thus raising the cost of apples in the long run. You may get that apple for cheap now, but 50 years later, you will be paying a lot more, environmentally and economically, for that apple. The small picture – the one with my taste buds written all over it – is that these apples are god-awful compared to old stock varieties. Have you ever tried to make an apple pie out of Gala apples? Like cardboard mush with sugar? Even if you were to bake with Granny Smiths, the traditional pie apple, the flavor is pretty one-dimensional. Pies made with a combination of heirloom apples not only hold their shape better, but they also have a depth and nuance that standardized apples will never have. Ask anyone with an heirloom apple tree in their yard – which apple would they rather eat? Compared to the almost lemony tartness of Ashmead’s Kernel or the spicy undertone of a Razor’s Russet, that one-month old imported Chilean Red Delicious never had a chance.
At the risk of annoying George F. Will, today’s recipe is the classic French apple tart, Tarte Tatin. Tatin is the diva of apple pastries because there is really not much more to it beyond apples. I prefer it to the apple pie because it does not have the sickly sweetness of most American apple pie recipes. Furthermore, the recipe avoids one of the more annoying things about baking – the long list of equipment and ingredients. You just need apples, sugar, butter, flour, a skillet, bowl and a rolling pin. Really. That’s it. Traditional apple for the tart is the Calville Blanc d’Hiver, which, frankly, is really hard to find beyond France (although American 18th century cooking books do refer to this particular variety). I suggest you substitute any local apple that is tart and holds its shape, e.g. Downing Tart, Rhode Island Greening, or Spitzenberg (the same apples that Jefferson cultivated at Monticello). If cost is an issue, go to your neighbor’s yard and ask if you can some of their windfall apples. The only thing it might cost you is a slice of Tatin.
On this Election Day, whatever your political proclivities are, go and vote. Reward yourself with a piece of Tarte Tatin. You deserve it for doing your civic duty.
Thyme Tarte Tatin
While the standard version of Tarte Tatin is great, I think adding some thyme gives it a nice herbal twist. If you aren’t into the herb thing, feel free to omit it. You can easily substitute store-bought puff pastry for the homemade, but I think using a rough puff pastry is just as convenient (and not to mention, tastier). Most pre-made puff pastries are full of hydrogenated oil – make your own and your tongue will thank you. Also, once you start caramelizing your apples in the pan, keep an eye the pan, so the caramel does not burn. Remember to use an ovenproof, non-stick pan for the apples – unless scrubbing pans is your idea of fun.
Rough Puff Pastry (can be made a day ahead of time)
11/4 c. flour
1/4 tsp. salt
1 stick (1/2 c.) plus 5 tbs. of unsalted butter, frozen
1 tsp. lemon juice
5-6 tbs. of ice water
1/2 stick of butter (1/4 cup) at room temperature
1/2 c. sugar
8-10 large apples, peeled, cored and quartered
thyme leaves from 6 thyme branches (fresh, NOT dried)
1. For the puff pastry, sift flour and salt in a chilled metal bowl. Take a grater and grate the frozen butter into the flour, and toss butter into the flour.
2. Drizzle 5 tbs. of ice water and lemon juice over the flour mixture and stir carefully with a fork until incorporated.
3. The mixture is ready when it comes together without crumbling. If it is still too dry, add an additional tablespoon of ice water into the mixture. Do not overwork the dough as it will toughen the pastry.
4. Gather the mixture into a 5-inch square, wrap in plastic wrap, and chill until firm (30 minutes). Don’t worry if it is lumpy – that is how it is supposed to look.
5. Roll unto a floured board (marble is best) with a rolling pin into a 15 by 8 inch rectangle. Arrange the dough with the short side closest to you and fold the dough into thirds, like a letter - bottom third up and top third down over the dough. Wrap again plastic and chill for 30 minutes.
6. Arrange the dough again with the short side closest to you and repeat the rolling and folding process in step 5 (this is technically called a “turn”) and chill again for 30 minutes. Repeat this process for two more turns and then at the last turn, let the dough rest in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour, until ready to use. (At this point, you can place it in the freezer and store for 1 month.)
7. Take an ovenproof, non-stick 8-9 inch skillet and smear the softened butter on the bottom and sides. Sprinkle the sugar evenly over the butter.
8. Arrange the apples vertically in the skillet in concentric circles. Pack the apples tightly, as they will cook down. If you don’t have enough apple quarters to fill the pan, use as many as you need to pack the skillet.
9. Cook over medium heat for 20-30 minutes. You will know the apples are ready when the sugar on the edges is brown and bubbly. Take care to keep to temperature even as to avoid burning the apple-caramel mixture.
10. In the meanwhile, preheat your oven to 425°F. Line a baking sheet with foil to catch any drips (and there will be drips!). Once the apples are ready, place the skillet in the oven and bake for 20 minutes.
11. Before you take out the skillet from the oven, roll the pastry to 3/8 in. thick.
12. Take out the skillet and reduce the oven to 350°F. Scatter thyme over the apples. Drape pastry over the pan and cut to fit the skillet (the excess can be frozen and saved for another purpose). Bake for 20-25 minutes. The pastry should puff up and be golden brown.
13. Cool for 10 minutes then invert (carefully!) on a serving platter. Serve warm or cold with crème fraîche.Note: You can make your own crème fraîche easily (fermentation!). Combine 1 cup of whipping cream and 2 tablespoons of buttermilk or plain yogurt (with live cultures) in a glass container and cover. Place at room temperature for about 12-24 hours, until thick. Will keep in the fridge for a week.
 According to Eric Schossler’s Fast Food Nation, McDonald’s has been one of the main actors in the industrialization and standardization of food. Schlosser, Eric. 2001. Fast Food Nation. (New York: Houghton Mifflin Co.)