There are two kinds of pastry lovers. The first orders a pastry and savors it in a moment of bliss, oblivious to the world. The second orders a few pastries and enjoys bites of each, acutely attuned to the flavors and textures, as their gears turn and they “figure it out.”
Though we all have moments of being both types of people, here at The Culinary Institute of America, we do spend a lot of time trying to “figure it out.” As chefs and culinary students, it is impossible to eat a sweet treat without analyzing its components. Not out of judgment (because we definitely know how to enjoy a decadent pastry) but for inspiration.
Very often, a professional dessert contains easy-to-prepare ingredients using professional tools and equipment. That gives us unique shapes, towering heights, and finished products that are difficult to replicate in the home kitchen. The small tart pans used to create the base of this dessert can be hard to find and expensive to buy, so we’ve revised this recipe to be prepared as one large tart in a basic 10-inch tart pan.
Of course, that’s not to say that you can’t make this Caramel Apple Tart recipe using individual tart pans, if you’d like. If you find molds like the ones in our photo, you may need more tart dough to make eight or 10 portions, since they’re so deep. So in that case, you’ll probably want to double your tart dough and pastry cream recipes, just to make sure you have enough.
Pastry cream is one of the most common professional pastry components, so you’ll be happy to master the technique. Chef Melissa Walnock says, “Pastry cream is simple, but easy to overcook. Once you have combined your liaison of eggs, sugar, and cornstarch with your hot dairy, you need to cook it on low while whisking constantly to make sure your eggs don’t overcook.” If you don’t nail this the first time, you’re not alone. Just pass the mixture through a strainer or cheese cloth to remove those lumps.
You’ll be making caramel twice in this recipe, and by the end, you may feel like an old pro. We added a little water to the method here, which is Caramel 101. It takes a little longer than starting with dry sugar, but it helps keep the sugar from burning. The amount doesn’t matter much — just add enough so it’s like wet sand. If you add too much, no big deal. It just takes a bit longer to cook, since the objective is to evaporate all of the water. You can share that little behind-the-scenes nugget with your friends when they ask you where you bought this very professional tart.
Caramel apple tart
Start to finish: 2 hours 45 minutes (Active time: 45 minutes)
Vanilla Tart Dough (see recipe)
Caramel Pastry Cream (see recipe)
4 prepared oatmeal cookies, crumbled
1 teaspoon confectioners’ sugar, or as needed
Caramelized Apples (see recipe)
Preheat the oven to 400 F. Prepare vanilla tart dough and, once well-chilled, remove from the refrigerator to soften slightly, about 10 minutes. On a lightly floured surface, roll the dough to about 1/4-inch thick, then transfer it to a 10-inch tart pan. Gently press the dough into the pan (the dough is fragile, but any cracks or tears can be pressed back together or patched with excess dough), and trim the edges. Use a fork to prick the dough all over, then refrigerate for at least 1 hour, or up to overnight.
Line the chilled crust with lightly oiled parchment and fill with pie weights or dried beans. Partially blind bake the crust until it is a matte, pale golden color, 15 to 20 minutes. Lower the oven temperature to 350 F. Remove the weights and parchment and bake until lightly browned, about 10 minutes more. Remove the crust from the oven and place it on a rack until completely cooled.
Transfer the cooled pastry cream to a bowl and beat it with a wooden spoon until it is creamy, about 1 minute. Fill the cooled pan with the pastry cream and spread it using an offset spatula.
In a small bowl, toss the oatmeal cookie pieces in the confectioners’ sugar until lightly coated. Set aside.
Arrange the apple pieces, allowing excess syrup to drip off as you go, onto the top of the tart until the cream is completely covered. Sprinkle with oatmeal cookie pieces and serve at once.
Vanilla dart dough
Makes 1 disc, enough for one 10-inch tart
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup confectioners’ sugar, sifted
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine the butter and sugar. With the mixer on low speed, cream together the butter and sugar until well combined, 4 to 5 minutes. Raise the mixer speed to medium and mix, scraping down the sides of the bowl as necessary, until the mixture is well combined and light in color, about 5 minutes.
In a small bowl, whisk together the egg and vanilla. With the mixer on medium speed, gradually add the egg mixture to the butter mixture and mix, scraping down the sides of the bowl as necessary, until the mixture is smooth and well blended, 3 to 4 minutes.
Turn off the mixer and add the flour, cornstarch, and salt all at once. Pulse the mixer until the dry ingredients are moistened and then mix on low speed for 1 minute, or until just combined. Do not over mix.
Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface. Shape the dough into a 5- to 6-inch disc and wrap it tightly in plastic wrap. Refrigerate for at least 1 hour, or preferably overnight, until firm.
Caramel pastry cream
1/2 cup sugar, divided use
2 cups milk, warmed, divided use
Pinch of kosher salt
3 tablespoons cornstarch
3 large eggs
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
Place 1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons of the sugar in a medium saucepan with tall sides. Add just enough water to make a sandy consistency, about 3 tablespoons. In a medium heat-safe bowl, combine the remaining 2 tablespoons of sugar, 1/3 cup of milk, salt, cornstarch, and eggs, and whisk to combine. Set aside. Line a medium baking dish or rimmed baking sheet with plastic wrap. Set aside.
Bring the sugar-water mixture to a boil over medium heat, stirring constantly until the mixture begins to boil, then cook without stirring until the sugar turns golden brown, about 6 minutes.
Carefully add 1 2/3 cups of the milk, stirring to combine. Be careful, as the mixture will rise in the pan and splatter. Remove from the heat.
Gently pour about 1/4 of the hot milk mixture into the egg mixture, whisking constantly. Whisk in another quarter, then return to the stove. Pour the egg mixture into the pot, whisking constantly.
Over low heat, bring the mixture to a simmer, whisking constantly, until the mixture has thickened considerably, about 3 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the butter. Pour the mixture into the prepared baking dish. Cover with plastic wrap directly on the surface of the cream and refrigerate until cooled completely.
10 to 12 Granny Smith apples, peeled (see note)
2 cups sugar
1/2 cup apple cider, warmed
1 cup corn syrup
Use the small end of a melon baller to create spheres or half-spheres from the apples. Set aside.
In a medium saucepan, combine the sugar and enough water to make it sandy, about 1/3 cup. Bring the sugar-water mixture to a boil over medium heat, stirring constantly until the mixture begins to boil, then cook without stirring until the sugar turns golden brown, about 7 minutes.
Carefully add the apple cider, stirring to combine. Be careful, as the mixture will rise in the pan and splatter.
Add the apple pieces and cook, stirring occasionally, under the apples are tender, but not soft, about 5 minutes. They will continue to cook as they cool, so they should still feel a bit firm. Remove from the heat and add the corn syrup, and stir to combine.
Pour the apple mixture onto a rimmed baking sheet and set aside to cool completely before using.
Chef’s Note: If you prefer a less dramatic presentation, 6 medium apples will be enough to cover the top of the tart in one even layer.