Asking a professional cook for a recipe can be dangerous. I realized this again recently, when I tried to make a dish that my husband, Chris, recommended. Even though he was helping me, we botched it up. The best I can say is that it was a bonding experience.
It all started with a Facebook group my friend started to provide a similar sense of online community as the fantasy football league many of our significant others participate in. Instead of trading players, we’d have a different real life activity every week and then discuss it online. The second week was baking, with the main ingredient being apples.
I’m not a particularly good baker. Unlike my regular cooking, where I use little in the way of processed food, cake mix and Cool Whip are both fundamental ingredients in my recipes. While Chris isn’t a professional baker, he did quite a bit of it in culinary school. He recommended an apple tartin, which didn’t sound too hard.
But Chris’s recipes are a lot like my grandmother’s – vague, assuming you have a level of knowledge that you don’t, and largely based on intuition. This particular recipe included the instruction “bake at 375 and then turn down to 315.” When I asked Chris, “For how long?” he just said, “Until it’s done” like some Zen cooking master.
So I recruited him into helping me. My first task was to peel and cut up apples. Boring, but totally doable. Except that slicing apples involves cutting surprisingly close to your fingers. The worst part was that my nervousness made it difficult to grip the knife, which meant it was actually more likely I’d slip and cut myself.
The next step was making caramel by scratch, which theoretically isn’t difficult. Caramel is just melted, cooked sugar. Easy, right? In reality, it requires a lot of patience and a careful hand. If you get distracted or stop stirring for very long, the caramel burns. If you aren’t careful with the spoon, the caramel can splatter and burn you instead of the pan.
We then placed the apple slices on the caramel, with me being far more cautious than him. I didn’t want my fingers coated with incredibly hot, melted sugar.
I left the last step up to him, as he was the one who said we had a pie crust in the freezer. That was true, but not how I expected. Rather than store-bought pie crust, we had a hunk of pate brisee, handmade French pie crust. While this sounds sophisticated, it’s also far harder to work with. (Although it’s easier than the original culinary school recipe, which recommends puff pastry.) Chris struggled to roll it out without cracking it. Once he rolled it out, he plopped it right on top of the apple and caramel mixture. Ideally, the pie crust should be cool, so it holds its shape as it bakes. Because it was so difficult to roll out, ours was warm and collapsed a bit.
After about a half-hour and a lot of checking – that’s what happens when the recipe doesn’t indicate a time – we took the tartin out of the oven. Unfortunately, it confirmed our fear; we had in fact burnt it. In retrospect, Chris realized that we did two things wrong. First, he didn’t remember the recipe perfectly and wasn’t paying the closest attention when he wrote it down in class. We added some butter after adding the apples, although we were supposed to add half a stick into the caramel itself. Second, we left the apples sitting in the hot caramel for too long. While we were futzing around with the crust, the caramel burnt.
But trying to go beyond your comfort zone allows you to learn from your mistakes. I learned that perhaps asking Chris for recipes isn’t a good thing, but I’ll probably do it again anyway.
Recipe: Apple tartin
– Medium-sized frying pan
– Sugar – depends on size of pan
– 4 tbs butter (if you use a small pan, use a little less butter)
– 4 medium apples (we used yellow delicious, but that’s just what was available at the orchard)
– 1/2 tbs of cinnamon
– 1/2 tsp of nutmeg
– Pie crust (store-bought is fine)
1) Peel apples and cut them into slices of similar width.
2) Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
3) Toss the apples in lemon juice to prevent them from turning brown. Toss them in the cinnamon, nutmeg, and 2 tablespoons of sugar.
4) Cover the frying pan with a thin layer of sugar. Turn the stove up to medium. Move the sugar around with the back of a spoon, ensuring it melts evenly.
5) Keep adding sugar and melting it until you have about two inches of caramel in the pan.
6) Once all of the sugar is melted, break up the butter and add it to the caramel, mixing it in as it melts. Put the stove on low, or if the caramel is starting to brown, turn it off. The pan will stay hot.
7) (Or, if you don’t want to deal with making caramel, you can probably skip steps four through six and just melt store-bought caramel. Chris claims this is a travesty, but I think it might work.)
8) Place the apple slices on top of the caramel in the pan. Create two layers of apples. Making it look pretty is nice, but not necessary.
9) Place the pie crust on the entire thing.
10) Bake in the oven for a half-hour.
11) Take out of the oven and flip the tartin over onto a plate, so the apples are facing up. You can sprinkle the apples with a little powdered sugar.
Have you ever attempted an ambitious recipe and gotten in over your head? How did it turn out?