You could order a special tarte tatin pan for this splendid tart, but I use, as I have for years, a 10-inch black iron skillet that’s about 2 inches deep. A similarly sized skillet, maybe an enameled iron skillet (Creuset, for instance) would also do, but whatever you use, it should be able to go on the stove top as well as into the oven.
Anjou pears are lovely, but other varieties are fine too—comice or Bartlett. It’s important that they should be firm and somewhat underripe so they don’t collapse in baking.
This will make one 10-inch pie, about 8 servings.
Start by making a pâte brisée (French for shortcrust pastry). You can make this ahead but it should be refrigerated for at least half an hour while you prepare the rest of the tart. You can also make it a day or two ahead and keep it, well wrapped, in the refrigerator until you’re ready to make the tart.
- 1 ¼ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
- Big pinch of fine sea salt
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 1 stick (½ cup, 4 ounces) unsalted butter, chilled
- 2 or 3 tablespoons ice water
Add the flour, salt and sugar to the bowl of a food processor and process very briefly, then add the butter, cut into chunks and process again, briefly, just until the ingredients are combined and have the texture of coarse cornmeal. With the processor running, add a few tablespoons of ice water through the feed tube. Continue adding water until the dough just holds together. Be careful not to overprocess—you’ll need a minute or less for the entire procedure.
Turn the dough out onto a very lightly floured pastry board and pull it quickly into a ball, then knead it just one or two strokes and flatten it to a circle about 6 inches across. Cover it with plastic wrap and set in the refrigerator while you proceed with the rest of the recipe.
For the tarte:
- Juice of half a lemon
- 1 tablespoon plus ½ cup sugar
- 5 Anjou or other pears—2 to 3 pounds
- 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 2 or 3 bay leaves
- 1 tablespoon chopped candied ginger
- 1 tablespoon pear brandy or pear eau de vie
Combine the lemon juice and the tablespoon of sugar in a bowl large enough to hold all the pears. Add a couple of tablespoons of water. Select one pear that has a nice round bottom that will fit in the center of the tarte, peel it, cut it in half, core it, and add the halves to the bowl. Peel each of the remaining pears, cutting them in quarters, coring, and adding them to the bowl.
Turn the oven on to 350ºF (180ºC).
Take a 10-inch round pan, a tarte Tatin pan if you have one or a heavy ovenproof skillet such as a black-iron skillet. Generously butter the bottom and sides, using all the butter to make a thick layer, especially on the bottom. Sprinkle the remaining sugar all over the bottom and sides, turning the pan to coat it evenly with sugar.
Now, set the round-bottomed pear in the center, cut side up. Lay the bay leaves, flat on the sugared skillet. Then, working around the edges, arrange the pear quarters in circles, pointed ends to the center, covering the entire bottom of the skillet. Fit extra slices of pear in and around the slices so that the bottom is completely covered with pears and you can’t see through. Set the skillet over low heat just until the butter melts, then turn the heat up to medium or medium-high and continue cooking until the sugar starts to brown and bubble up around the slices. Do not stir the pears. This may take as much as 20 or 30 minutes.
While the pears are cooking, roll out your pastry into a 12-inch circle. When the sugar is browned and caramelized, remove the skillet from the heat and sprinkle the candied ginger and the pear brandy over the top. Set the pastry circle on top (be very careful—the skillet is hot!), using a table knife to tuck the overhang gently down all around the edge. Set the skillet on a rimmed sheet pan, to capture any overflowing juices, and transfer to the preheated oven. Bake for 30 to 40 minutes, or until the pastry is golden. Remove the skillet from the oven and let it rest about 15 minutes, then run a knife around the edge. Set a round serving platter over the top and very carefully, using pot holders to hold the hot skillet, turn it over. Some of the fruit may stick to the bottom of the pan but just pry it up with a spatula or palette knife and add to the tart.
Serve the tart warm with vanilla ice cream or vanilla-flavored whipped cream.