My father has the most beautiful cast-iron skillet. He's had it for nearly his entire life and in accordance with cast-iron dogma, he's never washed it with soap. Once, however, I did.
I had tried to make tarte Tatin -- the classic, French, upside-down apple dessert that is meant to be inverted dramatically onto a plate -- only my tarte Tatin refused to release itself from the skillet. It remained firmly stuck, no matter how hard I chipped at it.
Ever since, I've been slightly terrified to make another tarte Tatin, but I love the dessert. I decided to come up with my own version, different enough from the traditional recipe to avoid what I had come to think of as my tarte Tatin jinx. My first step: swapping Bartlett pears for apples.
Bartletts are the most common variety of pear grown in California. They have not changed much since their discovery in a Berkshire church garden in 1770. Mild, sweet, and buttery, with delicate skin, Bartletts are the first pears to appear in markets. Bosc and Comice pears come next, showing up in September and October and reaching their peak just before the holidays. Anjous are true winter pears -- they are harvested in October and November, but can be kept in cold storage for up to seven months.
When choosing pears at the market, opt for firm fruits that haven't been squeezed or scuffed by overly eager shoppers. After a few days on the kitchen counter, the once-firm pears will be fully ripe and bruise-less. You'll know a pear is ready when its stem end yields to gentle pressure.
Bartlett, Bosc, Comice, and Anjou pears are all varieties of the so-called European pear, Pyrus communis, a species that is likely native to Western China. Ginger and star anise go wonderfully with the sweetly floral pear flavor, so I thought to include these Asian flavors in my dessert. Lastly, I decided that miniature, muffin-sized tartelettes seemed less imposing than traditional, skillet-sized tarte Tatin. Their adorable shape turned out to be perfectly proportioned for special, individual desserts or handheld afternoon snacks. In the end, I liked them so much that I'm not sure I'll ever try tarte Tatin again. Bartlett Tartelettes were born!
Pear Tartelettes Tatin
Makes 9 tartelettes
1 frozen sheet puff pastry
1 whole star anise
1 two-by-two-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and thinly sliced
1 two-inch-wide strip lemon peel
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 1/3 cups granulated sugar
4 tablespoons (½ stick) cold, unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
½ teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Pinch of Kosher salt
2 ripe Bartlett pears
Preheat oven to 400ºF.
Generously butter a muffin tin.
Remove puff pastry from freezer, defrost it just until it unfolds, then cut 9 circles from the puff pastry. The diameter of each circle should be the same as the diameter of each muffin cup. (A standard ½-cup measuring cup works well as a makeshift circle cutter.) Place the puff pastry circles in a single layer on a plate, prick each with a fork in several places, then chill them in the refrigerator until needed.
Pour 1/3 cup water into a small, heavy-bottomed pot. Add star anise, ginger, lemon peel, lemon juice, and sugar. Without stirring, cook over medium heat for 8 minutes, or until the mixture turns deep amber in color. Remove from heat, then stir in butter, vanilla extract, and salt. Set aside to cool for a few minutes.
Meanwhile, cut the pears lengthwise into quarters. Using a small spoon or melon baller, remove the cores and any fibrous stems. Slice the pears into 1/8-inch-thick slices.
Evenly distribute the spiced ginger caramel among muffin cups, discarding the star anise, ginger, and lemon peel. (There will be approximately 1 tablespoon caramel in each muffin cup). Arrange about five slices of pear on top of the caramel, fanning them out in a beautiful pattern. Top each cup with a puff pastry circle. Bake tartelettes for 25 minutes, or until pastry is golden brown.
Let tartelettes cool in the muffin tin for 15 minutes. Using oven mitts, cover the tin with a rimmed baking sheet, grasp the tin and baking sheet together, then flip to invert the muffin tin. Give it a strong rap on the counter and lift muffin tin away, allowing the tartlettes to fall onto the baking sheet. If some fruit sticks to the tin, simply ease it out and return it to its proper place atop the tartelette. Serve immediately.
Pick your own pears with our guide to California's U-Pick farms!
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