inspired by Wilsons
For the dessert course we are leaving London and I am taking inspiration from further afield.
I’m heading to Bristol, without leaving my kitchen. Lockdown friendly imaginary travel only at the moment.
Do you ever get a sense that you will love a place, even if you’ve never been there? You see it on TV, or hear about it from friends. Well that is how I feel about Bristol.
I’ve been meaning to visit for years. As soon as we can travel again, it seems like a good place to start. Not to far away. No aeroplanes required. That seems like an achievable goal for 2021 doesn’t it?
Long before Michel Roux Jr and Fred Sirieix headed there for the Christmas Special of “Remarkable Places to Eat” I was forming my own list of places I wanted to eat in the city.
And top of my list is Wilsons.
Owned by Jan Ostle and Mary Wilson, this restaurant is everything I look for in somewhere to eat out. Small, independent, sustainable. Not to mention the food looks delicious. A lot of the produce is grown at their own market garden on the edges of the city, with meat, fish and other ingredients sourced locally.
There has been a photo of their tarte tatin saved on my phone for months. This is the dessert I would order.
This is also something I have always wanted to cook.
So for my fantasy birthday meal the dessert is from a city I have always wanted to visit, from a restaurant I’ve always wanted to eat in. And a dish I’ve always wanted to cook.
Here we go.
Why do I think it’s taken me so long to try and make a tarte tatin? I guess the answer is that I’m still a pretty nervous pastry chef.
Funny isn’t it? Ask me to make pastry to wrap around a fillet of beef and I’m fine. Ask me to take some of the same batch of homemade pastry (which this is) and put it with some butter and sugar and I’m a nervous wreck.
Do I prefer eating savoury food? Probably. If I had to pick two courses in a restaurant it would almost always be a starter and a main. Dessert is often skipped, or shared if someone twists my arm.
Do I prefer cooking savoury food? Definitely. But really that decision has been made for me. Because any cooking instincts I have go out of the window as soon as you add sugar into the mix.
Yesterday is the perfect example. I made a Beef Wellington. And I didn’t follow a recipe. I read about six different ones, compared oven temperatures and quantities and then picked the bits I liked the sound of most.
And the wellington turned out really well. Because I understood each step and what I was aiming for.
Well all I can say is that by the end of the morning I had read at least a dozen different tarte tatin recipes. Everyone from Raymond Blanc to Jamie Oliver. Even Michel Roux Jr himself.
And I was none the wiser. In fact I was completely and utterly bewildered.
Some use puff pastry, some use shortcrust. One chef would half the apples, another would cut them into wedges.
This method calls for the caramel to be made just with sugar, and then once golden brown you stir in the butter. That method melts the butter and the sugar together from the start.
Some chefs cook the apples in the caramel on the stove. Some don’t. One doesn’t even make a caramel. They simply layer up apples, sugar and butter before putting in the oven to let that do the work.
Do I let the apple mix cool before adding the pastry? Do I put the pastry on top when it’s still bubbling on the hob? Is it a hot oven, a low oven, a middle shelf or a bottom shelf…?
You see my predicament. For something so deceptively simple – apples, butter and sugar – no one seems to agree on how to make one. In fact they wildly differ to the point of methods being unrecognisable in any way.
What I should have done (hindsight really is a wonderful thing isn’t it?) is picked one method and stuck to it.
I didn’t do this.
The closest I had to a recipe was following Felicity Cloake’s “How To Cook The Perfect Tarte Tatin” in the Guardian.
But I also add in bits from here, take out the odd step.
Basically I’m completely winging it.
To start with I’m using rough puff pastry, not shortcrust. I already have some pastry hanging out in the fridge. I deliberately made too much for yesterday’s beef wellington. So that’s good to go (and I know it’s OK).
So all I have to worry about it apples, butter and sugar. That’s it.
I don’t use the suggested mix of Cox and Granny Smith. I have no idea what type of apples I have.
Mine are a real mix of sizes and varieties, thanks to Oddbox rescuing lots of lovely fruit from supermarket rejection, but by halving the smaller ones and quartering a few larger ones I end up with evenly sized apple chunks. Whatever apples they may be.
I also don’t leave them in the fridge overnight to dry out once chopped (sorry Felicity). But I do take her tip of melting the sugar with a splash of water to make a caramel, and then stirring in the butter.
I don’t have much experience of making caramel, but I think I’ve always heated the sugar first. So I’m trusting my instincts. Or Felicity’s.
So far so good.
I take the caramel off the heat and stir in the butter and a pinch of salt. I add the apple chunks (trying my best to make concentric circles around the pan) and then put it back on the heat for five minutes until the apples start to soften.
Then it’s off the heat again to cool as I roll out the pastry and cut a circle out that is slightly bigger than my small frying pan (a plate worked wonders here).
The pastry goes back into the fridge to chill on a baking sheet until my apples cool down.
Felicity says to heat the oven to 200°C which I interpret as 180°C fan. Then the pastry gets tucked on top of the apples and in it goes for 30 minutes.
The trouble with a tarte tatin is you have no idea what’s going on underneath that pastry. After half an hour the pastry is golden and crisp. But that is irrelevant really, as it will be the base of the tart and no one will ever see it.
It comes out of the oven, I leave it to cool for a few minutes and then try to turn it out.
This is by far the most nerve wracking bit.
Will it come out? Might I drop it? Will I burn myself with caramel?
Trust me you need confidence to do this.
So I’m not sure if it’s my slightly shaking hands, or my slightly mixed up tarte tatin recipe, but it doesn’t all come out in one go.
The pastry easily comes out. Just not all the apples follow…
Rather than a sticky caramel holding all the apples together (and more importantly, to the pastry) I have a runny caramel butter sauce that coats the apples, but doesn’t stop them sliding all over the place.
A bit of quick reconstruction (taking the hot caramel apples off the work surface and out for the pan and putting them back on the pastry where they belong) and I have a passable looking tarte tatin. And slightly burnt fingers.
It looks quite good now. Perhaps no one will ever know?
If I didn’t write it down in a food blog that is. Oh well.
Happily, it tastes lovely. But it would wouldn’t it? Apples, butter, sugar. It may be trickier than expected to get them to stick together, but it’s not rocket science flavour wise. Rich and sweet and fruity. Works every time.
Another reason to go to Bristol and eat at Wilsons. Ask them how on earth they make their tarte tatin.
Because I still have absolutely no idea.