Plum Tarte Tatin with Chinese Five Spice Powder and Tonka Bean Creme Anglaise

I tested and photographed this Tarte Tatin a week ago when it looked like autumn was clearly on its way and I had a sudden craving for comfort food and warming spices. Yet, writing this post today, I am wearing a T-shirt and impatiently waiting for some water to turn into ice cubes so I can make some iced coffee. As it turns out, temperatures in Brussels are due to go back up to around 34 degrees Celsius next week. But colder temperatures are on their way, so you should bookmark this recipe for a Plum Tarte Tatin because it is both easy and delicious and the perfect thing to snuggle up with on the coach and a cup of coffee on a rainy afternoon.

When I was preparing this, I asked my followers on Instagram whether they were Team Shortcrust or Team Puff Pastry when it came to Tarte Tatin. And the unanimous answer was Team Shortcrust. Now, both shortcrust and puff pastry are perfectly acceptable when it comes to making Tarte Tatin. Using (all butter) shop bought Puff Pastry to quickly prepare an impressive dessert for some last dinner guests is certainly not to be frowned upon. But in my (subjective) opinion, Tarte Tatin made with Shortcrust Pastry is superior in many ways. Texture-wise it is much nicer to have a bit of crunch from the crispy Shortcrust Base against the soft caramelized fruit sitting on top. Also, Shortcrust Pastry will not go soggy and hence chewy as quickly as a Puff Pastry base. And yes, Shortcrust Pastry can be tricky at first, but I will share two great little tricks I picked up during a pastry course at Le Cordon Bleu Cookery School in London. 

The first trick is to use a technique called ‘fraisage’. What this means is that before bringing the dough together and shaping it into a disk to rest in the fridge, you smear the dough over your countertop little by little, using the heel of your hand. This helps blend the dough and creates long and alternating layers of butter and dough which results in a nice and crisp pastry. 

A second trick which makes it much easier to roll out the dough after it has rested in the fridge is to divide the dough into 3-4 pieces and knead each piece until pliable. You then bring the separate pieces back together and form the dough into a disk before rolling it out. 

But back to this Plum Tarte Tatin. It’s one of these recipes for which the idea had been sitting in my notes folder on my iphone for far too long. Probably ever since I made these Hot Cross Buns and which reminded me just how excellent Chinese Five Spice Powder works in sweet applications. As I said when I wrote about the Hot Cross Buns, Chinese Five Spice Powder is more typically used in savoury cooking, but there is no reason to stop there. This spice blend typically includes star anise, fennel, cassia, clove as well as Sichuan peppercorns for a bit of heat. So the overall flavour profile is not far off from mixed spice or gingerbread spice mixes. And I am all for making the most of the contents of your spice shelf! To finish, there is a Tonka Bean Creme Anglaise, inspired by an incredibly delicious Tonka Bean Ice Cream my dad made when I was in Germany in August.

Plum Tarte Tatin with Chinese Five Spice Powder and Tonka Bean Creme Anglaise

Note: You can easily make this Tarte Tatin with other kinds of plums or stone fruits. I just happen to be partial to Prune Plums – I find their flavour more complex since they have a bit more acidity than other plum varieties. They also have a slighter thicker skin which makes for an interesting texture. Flavourwise, if you don’t have any Chinese Five Spice Powder to hand you could either leave this out or use other warming spice mixes (e.g. Mixed Spice or Quatre Epices) or any of the following (individually or combined): ground cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, cloves, star anise etc. Same goes for the Creme Anglaise – vanilla is an obvious substitute for the Tonka Bean, but you could also try making one with cardamom for example. 

Ingredients

For the Shortcrust Pastry

250g flour
Generous pinch of sea salt
125g cold butter, cubed
3-4 tbsp ice water

Milk to brush on the pastry before baking
Sugar to scatter over the pastry before baking

For the Plums

100g sugar
50g butter
1 tsp Chinese Five Spice Powder
7-10 prune plums (or enough to fill the bottom of a pie dish when cut in half)

For the Creme Anglaise 

400ml milk
½ tonka bean, grated
30g sugar
4 egg yolks
2 tsp cornflour

Directions

Start by making the shortcrust pastry (note this can be done the day before you want to bake the Tarte Tatin). Add the flour to a large bowl and stir through the salt. Add the cubed butter and dust with flour. Using a pastry cutter or a knife, cut the butter into the flour until the mixture starts resembling wet sand and the butter pieces are no bigger than pea sized. 

Using your index fingers and thumbs flatten the bigger lumps of butter into thinner strands. Next, and one tablespoon at a time, slowly start adding ice water to the dough, just enough until the dough starts coming together. You can test this by squeezing bits of the mixture in your fist and checking whether the mixture holds together. It’s fine if there are still some smaller dry bits, but the dough should start holding together in bigger clumps before you proceed to the next step. If it’s not there yet, add a little bit more ice water but try not to go overboard, 3-4 tbsp should do the trick.

Now, tip the shaggy mass of dough onto your countertop (no need to flour it first) and proceed to what the French call ‘fraisage’ (see the explanation in the blog post above): using the heel of your hands, smear the dough across the countertop little by little before bringing it all back together, shaping it into a disk, wrapping it in clingfilm and placing it in the fridge for at least 1h.

Preheat the oven to 200 degrees Celsius. 

In a small saucepan melt the sugar on medium heat. Once all the sugar has melted and turned amber in colour, add the butter. Be careful as the mixture may spit and bubble up quite violently but that will only take a few seconds. The mixture may also seize for a moment but simply place it back on medium heat and cook until you have a homogenous mix. Pour into the bottom of a pie dish. Next, cut your plums in half and remove the plum kernel. Place the plums cut side down in your pie dish. 

Lightly flour your countertop. Remove the shortcrust pastry from the fridge and set aside for 5 minutes to start coming to room temperature. Unwrap the dough, break into 3-4 pieces and knead each piece until pliable. Bring back together, then slowly roll out into a circle a few cms bigger than the rim of your pie dish and 2-3mm in thickness. 

Carefully transfer the shortcrust pastry to your pie dish and place on top of the plums (be careful here since the pie dish may be quite hot from the hot caramel). Gently press the shortcrust pastry dough against the plums, tucking the pastry in all around the outer edge of the plums and the walls of the pie dish. Cut off any excess dough and set aside.

Dock the pastry with a fork. Brush the top of the dough with milk and scatter over the sugar. Bake for 30-35 mins until the pastry is crisp and goldenbrown in colour. Set aside to cool for 5 minutes before carefully inverting onto a serving platter. Be careful with the hot caramel here (I like to use oven gloves and wear something long sleeved for this job).

While the Tarte Tatin is in the oven, make the Creme Anglaise. In a medium sized saucepan, heat the milk together with the grated tonka bean until the milk starts to steam. Meanwhile, whisk the eggs, sugar and cornstarch in a separate bowl. Pour ⅓ of the steaming milk over the egg yolks while whisking to temper the yolks. Pour this mixture back into the saucepan and, whisking continuously, continue cooking the Creme Anglaise until it coats the back of a spoon. The grated tonka bean can feel a bit gritty so if that bothers you, simply strain the Creme Anglaise through a fine mesh sieve before serving.

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