When an idea is as good as tarte Tatin, it would be nothing short of a culinary crime to confine it to apples – that may have been what the good sisters were cooking when Stephanie Tatin made her happy mistake, if you believe that particular origin story, but buttery caramel and crisp pastry are a happy pairing with everything from homely plums to exotic pineapple rings, as well as more savoury fruits such as the tomato or pepper.
Indeed, a tomato tatin, a staple of French brasserie menus in summer (if you’re in Paris, do have one at Les Philosophes for me), is an excellent way to make the most of the slightly disappointing tomatoes, although it also works with fruit that’s too ripe or too bruised to serve raw. Clearly, because tomatoes are rather different to apples, and because this isn’t a dessert, it’s not sufficient simply to substitute one for the other in the original recipe. So how do you make the perfect tomato tatin?
Although you can make a tomato tatin – or, indeed, any other kind of tart – with whatever fruit you happen to have lying around, from cherries to stripy green tiger tomatoes, I’m with food writer Sarah Beattie when she recommends using the ‘drier, meatier sort’, such as plums. The principal problem with many of the recipes I try is that tomatoes contain far more liquid than apples – they’re about 94 per cent water, if Google is to be believed – much of which is released as the fruit cooks, leaving the pastry below sadly soggy once the tart has been upturned for serving.
Fortunately, plum tomatoes are somewhat less well-hydrated than the average, and more amenably shaped for this purpose than the similarly fleshy beef variety, but you’ll still benefit from removing the skins, to allow more water to evaporate, and the jellied seeds, then cooking the tomatoes briefly to release their juices, as suggested by Cara Mangini in her book The Vegetable Butcher.
Alternatively, if you have more time on your hands, but don’t want to spend it clawing at tomato skins, you can slow-roast them before baking, as Anna Jones does in a recipe based on the one served at her wedding, and as Harry Eastwood also does in her book The Skinny French Kitchen, writing that ‘if you’ve never sun-dried your own tomatoes, you’re in for a real treat: they’re amazing.’
My own classic tarte Tatin recipe is topped with a thick layer of fudgy caramel, which, it must be admitted, goes better with apples, pears and their ilk than tomatoes. All the recipes I try for the savoury kind, balance the necessary sweet element with vinegar, with Tamasin Day-Lewis eschewing straight sugar altogether in her book The Art of the Tart, preferring a sticky, reduced mixture of balsamic vinegar and madeira or port, which glides off the whole cherry tomatoes she uses, and melts away.
Lindsey Bareham’s Big Red Book of Tomatoes whisks together balsamic vinegar with sugar, salt and oil to make a dressing, which is then poured over the tomatoes before baking, drained off afterwards, and poured back over just before serving, to keep the pastry as crisp as possible. It’s pleasant, but feels more like a warm tomato salad than the sticky tart I’m after. A more successful approach from Mangini reduces the oil, vinegar, sugar and tomato cooking juices to make a thick, jammy sauce, which is then drizzled over the finished tart.
Diana Henry’s recipe contains the most conventional caramel, made by boiling together water and sugar, then stirring in butter and sherry vinegar. It’s delicious, but ends up mingling with the juices from her tomatoes and getting rather lost in the finished dish. I decide to use a similar recipe, without the water, but cook the tomatoes briefly in the caramel as I would do with apples, both to coat them in caramel and to expel some more juices before they meet the pastry.
The caramel element in Jones’ recipe comes from thinly sliced red onions, slow-cooked with honey, vinegar and herbs, then spread between the tomatoes and the pastry. Henry and Mangini also include similar layers, although I try shallots, as recommended by the great Provencal-American food writer Patricia Wells, in Mangini’s tart instead, and can confirm they do the job just as well; yellow onions would also do, at a pinch, though you’ll probably need to add a sprinkling of sugar to help them along. All caramelised alliums are, of course, delicious – no news there – but they’re hardly a subtle flavour, and I find they overpower the star turn, so I’ll be leaving them out in favour of a few thin slices of garlic, which should complement, rather than compete with, the headline act.
The same goes for herbs: Mangini’s generous hand with the basil, sage and rosemary gives her tart a ‘slightly soapy’ flavour as far as my testers are concerned; if you’d like to use basil, I think it works better scattered fresh on top, as in Bareham’s version, but I’m going to stick with thyme, which performs better in the oven, adding a quieter, more savoury depth of flavour.
Bareham finishes her tart with grated Parmesan, and Henry recommends that or crumbled goat’s cheese as an optional extra – both are excellent ideas if you’d like a more substantial meal, but my heart is stolen by Jones’ crisp fried capers, ‘little flowers’, as she puts it, which pop in the mouth, adding bursts of salt to every bite.
Tarte tatin can be made with either puff or shortcrust pastry, although all the recipes I try here use the former, with the exception of Mangini’s robust, slightly sweet shortcrust, which, it must be noted, stands up better to the juiciness of the fruit and would be a better choice if you’re planning to transport the tart any distance before consumption.
However, although I prefer shortcrust for an apple tarte Tatin, tomatoes somehow seem better served by a crisper, more delicate crust – albeit one containing even more butter. I’m not someone who believes there’s much point in sweating over homemade puff pastry when there’s such good ready-made stuff out there, but I do try one of the tarts with homemade rough puff, and can confirm this also works a treat if you’d prefer to take all the credit yourself.
Lastly, Bareham’s right – this tart is better warm rather than hot from the oven. Patience is a virtue.