Wrong. It's so much easier than it looks. That's because all you really need is the ability to slice an apple paper-thin. And it turns out that there's a simple trick that allows anyone to do it, even someone without great knife skills. But we'll get to it in a minute. First, let's talk tart basics.
The ingredients of a tart are simple: apples, pie dough, sugar, butter and apricot jam. The apples are Golden Delicious, which aren't my favourite to eat raw, but which turn into a different animal — intense and honeyed — when baked. They also hold their shape beautifully when cooked.
I tried out several variations of the pie dough before settling on this butter-based one as my favourite. No surprise, really. I've always preferred the taste of butter to lard or shortening. Yes, those other fats produce a flaky crust, but I found that by going with a high percentage of butter to flour, my butter-based dough was plenty flaky.
The apple tart recipe below walks you through how to make the tart dough. And it really is so much better to make it than to buy it. Here are some tips to remember:
— Be sure the butter is very cold.
— Don't mix the butter into the flour too thoroughly. Some pea-sized lumps are fine.
— After you add the water, try to mix the dough as little as possible. Water plus kneading stimulates the production of gluten strands in the flour, which will make your dough tough.
— Be sure you allow time for the dough to rest in the refrigerator, both after you make it and again after you roll it out.
— After you've rolled out the dough, ease it back into the tart tin. Don't stretch it to fit; it will only shrink back.
Now, as promised, here's how to produce paper-thin apple slices. Start peeling, halving and coring your apples. Lay each half on the cutting surface, cut side down. Using a very sharp chef's knife, slice each half into very thin slices crosswise, aiming for each slice to be no more than 1/8 inch thick.
But here's the trick. Do not slice all the way through. Instead, stop each slice when you're still about 1/4 inch from the surface of the cutting board, then lift the knife and make the next slice. Why? Because it's simply much easier to slice an apple that thinly when each slice remains attached at the bottom. If you cut them all the way through, they'd be apt to fly off in different directions.
Once you've sliced all of the apples in this manner, turn each one on its side and trim off the bottom, which frees up all the slices, but keeps them orderly. Then you can deal them out like a deck of cards, arranging them in a beautiful flower-like pattern. All done? Bake the tart and take a bow.
FRENCH APPLE TART
Start to finish: 3 1/2 hours (45 minutes active)
For the dough:
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon table salt
1/2 cup (1 stick) cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
2 to 4 tablespoons ice water
For the filling:
6 Golden Delicious apples
3 tablespoons sugar
1/2 stick cold butter, thinly sliced
1/2 cup apricot jam
2 tablespoons water
Vanilla ice cream or sweetened whipped cream, to serve
To make the dough, in a large bowl stir together the flour and the salt. Add the butter and, working quickly, use your fingertips or a pastry blender to mix the dough until most of mixture resembles coarse meal with some pea-sized lumps. Drizzle 2 tablespoons of ice water evenly over the mixture and gently stir with a fork until incorporated.
Gently squeeze a small handful of the dough. It should hold together without crumbling apart. If it doesn't, add more ice water, 1 tablespoon at a time, stirring 2 or 3 times after each addition, until the dough comes together. Do not overwork the dough or the pastry will be tough.
Turn the dough out onto a work surface and divide into 4 portions. With the heel of your hand, smear each portion once in a forward motion to help distribute the butter. Gather all of the dough together and form it, rotating it on work surface, into a disk. Wrap the disk in plastic, then chill for 1 hour, or until firm.
Once the dough is chilled, heat the oven to 375 F.
On a lightly floured surface, roll out the dough into a 13-inch round. Fit it into a 10-inch tart pan with a removable bottom, gently working the dough into the base and trimming any excess. Cover and chill for 1 hour.
Meanwhile, make the filling. Peel the apples, then cut them in half top to bottom. Using a melon baller, remove and discard the cores. Arrange the apples cut side down on a cutting board. Using a very sharp knife, slice the apple halves crosswise into 1/16-inch slices, but stopping the knife before cutting all the way to the cutting board. The apple slices should still be attached at the bottom.
When you have sliced all the apples in this fashion, turn each on its side so the bottom, unsliced part of the apple is exposed, and cut off about 1/4-inch of the bottom to remove the part of the apple that has not been sliced through. Keeping the slices together, arrange 8 apple halves like the spokes of a wheel in the chilled crust, leaving a gap in the centre of the spokes. Press down on the apple halves to spread the slices slightly.
Arrange the remaining apple slices in concentric circles in the centre of the tart to resemble the shape of a rose. Sprinkle the sugar on top of the apples, top with butter slices and bake in the middle of the oven for 45 to 50 minutes, or until the crust is cooked through and the apples are golden brown.
Meanwhile, in a small saucepan combine the jam and water. Bring to a simmer over low heat, then pour through a mesh strainer. Discard any solids.
As soon as the tart comes out of the oven, use a pastry brush to brush it with the jam mixture. Set aside to cool. Serve each portion with a small scoop of ice cream or spoonful of whipped cream.
Nutrition information per serving: 340 calories; 160 calories from fat (47 per cent of total calories); 18 g fat (11 g saturated; 0.5 g trans fats); 45 mg cholesterol; 47 g carbohydrate; 2 g fiber; 24 g sugar; 3 g protein; 85 mg sodium.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Sara Moulton was executive chef at Gourmet magazine for nearly 25 years, and spent a decade hosting several Food Network shows. She currently stars in public television's "Sara's Weeknight Meals" and has written three cookbooks, including "Sara Moulton's Everyday Family Dinners."