According to Larousse Gastronomique, tarte Tatin is an ancient speciality of Sologne, a region in north-central France, but was made famous by the Tatin sisters, who ran a hotel in the region in Lamotte-Beuvron. Nevertheless, popular mythology has it that one of the sisters created the dessert by accident when she burnt a pan of apples on the stovetop. To try to save them, she covered the pan with pastry and baked it in the oven.
The first step in making tarte Tatin is to get your oven warmed to 190C. At this heat, the pastry will puff and the apples will cook in the same amount of time.
Choose a pan that will fit in your oven - an ovenproof cast-iron or heavy-based stainless steel pan holds heat well and is designed to cook on the stovetop as well as in the oven, which is what you will need for this recipe. For perfect caramel, your pan should be shiny-clean and unweathered - if eroded, it will taint the flavour of the tart.
Shortcrust pastry is traditional, but many modern recipes use butter puff pastry. Either is fine. They will take about the same amount of time to cook, but the puff will produce a lighter, flakier base while the shortcrust will have more bite.
We love Carême puff pastry, which is sold as a ready-rolled sheet. (Alternatively, you can make your own using our puff pastry recipe.) Cut a pastry round slightly larger than your pan to allow you to tuck the edges in, then place it in the fridge while you prepare the base of the tart.
Some recipes call for caramelising the sugar with the butter, but we've found that the sugar is less likely to crystallise if you begin with sugar alone. Use caster sugar, because it melts and caramelises quickly and evenly. Scatter it evenly over the base of the dry pan, and keep a close eye on it. When it starts to melt and caramelise, swirl it over the heat (don't stir it) for even cooking.
Once you have a nice dark caramel, scatter the butter evenly over the sugar (the caramel will foam up so be careful). Swirl the pan to mix in the butter, then remove the pan from the heat.
You want a tart, strongly flavoured apple that holds its shape during cooking: the Granny Smith is ideal, and the pink lady is a good alternative.
Arrange your peeled and quartered apples neatly around the pan, presentation side down, and place one or two quarters in the centre as well so the base is completely covered. Pack them together tightly, because they'll shrink during cooking.
Working quickly, arrange the prepared pastry round on top of the apples - you don't want the pastry to soften from the pan's heat or it will become difficult to tuck in. Use a spoon to tuck the edges in, and be careful not to burn yourself on the hot caramel. Score the pastry to allow steam to escape during cooking so the pastry doesn't become soggy.
Now it's into the oven to wait until the pastry is puffed and dark golden - don't be afraid to let the pastry become quite dark for a rich flavour. You want to be sure that the apples are cooked through and the layers of pastry are flaky.
Remove the pan from the oven and rest the tart for a minute or two, then shake it to make sure the apples and caramel aren't stuck to the base. If necessary, return it to the oven to cook a little longer until the base loosens.
Place your serving plate over the pan, then, holding the plate and the pan together firmly, and protecting yourself from the hot handle and the hot carmel with a tea towel, quickly and carefully flip the pan upside down to invert the tart onto a plate. It's a good idea to practise this step first with an empty hot pan and a plate to get used to the motion. Serve the tarte Tatin hot from the oven.