Thursday, February 23, 2006

Tarte Tatin

I made a pretty good Tarte Tatin a few days ago. If I may say so myself.

First, I caramelized the apples in butter and sugar for a long time over fairly high heat. I bit my finger-nails as I waited for the characteristic burnt-sugar smell. The apples looked done well before that but I wanted a dark caramel, and was prepared to risk burning the apples in the attempt.

Then I tucked the dough over the top. I used a fairly large proportion of whole grain flour, which made the pie even more rustic. Perhaps I'll cut back a little next time.

Then I baked the pie. I left it as is for a few hours, then gently warmed it in the oven before turning it over.

Before I served it, one of our guests said his mother makes the best Tarte Tatin ever. Did this make me nervous? Not a bit. That's how confident I felt about my pie! For once.

Tarte Tatin Recipe

Update April 9: I made the recipe yesterday and found the top of the apples weren't caramelized enough. So I've increased the sugar amount from 80g to 100g.

Update April 16: After making it for Easter I've added a few comments here and there

Ingredients for 6-8

1 recipe pie dough (pâte brisée or basic pie dough or purchased dough, not too sweet. Some use puff pastry, I never have tried). I think, but I don't entirely rember, that I used: 1 ½ cup flour -- of which a small part can be whole wheat -- mixed with ¼ tsp salt, into which I cut and quickly pinched with my fingers ½ cup cold butter in small pieces, after which I added a little cold water to bind it all together, keeping handling to a minimum.
1.2 kg or 6 or 8 medium size apples of a tart variety. I don't know the name of the kind I used -- you can see it in the photo above -- but I hear Granny Smith is good too.
Lemon juice (optional)
• About 60g butter (or a ¼ cup), or more if you dare
• About 100g sugar (1/2 cup)
If you're tempted to reduce the sugar or butter amounts, beware, I already significantly reduced them from the recipe I worked from (sorry I don't remember the source).

Prepare the pie dough, roll it out between two sheets of parchment paper to a circle a little wider than the pie pan. Using scissors, cut the dough with the paper to the right size and place it in the refrigerator for 30 min to a day.

Cut the apples into quarters, peel and take out seeds
Sprinkle lemon juice to keep them white

Preheat oven to 190°C (375 F)
Melt the butter in a heavy skillet that can go into the oven. I used a copper-coated tarte tatin dish, but a cast iron skillet must work as well.
Sprinkle the sugar evenly over the butter.
Arrange the apples in circles on top, round side down but slightly at an angle to fit more into the dish.
Fit smaller pieces wherever there seems to be a hole.

Turn the heat on medium-high, and cook until caramel is quite dark. You can rotate the pan around and tip it so the caramel spreads evenly. Some recommend turning the apples over with the tip of a knife to coat all sides with caramel. I've tried it but don't really see the point unless you are concerned the apples themselves are burning a little. Try one or two to see if they look burnt and if not, don't bother.

Once you start smelling burnt sugar (almost an unpleasant smell) take the apples off the stove and let them cool a little. The burnt sugar gives a slightly bitter taste to the caramel that contrasts nicely with the sweet apple flavor. You can add a few left-over apple pieces in thin slices on top of the caramelized apples, to add thickness to the pie (update April 16: actually, I don't recommend adding apple slices. The problem with adding apples after the fact is it creates too much juice, and the juice waters down the caramel, so that the apples may taste of caramel but they won't have that nice syrupy glaze) (Update to the update, a few hours later: wait. Maybe the excess juice was because the caramelization went too fast today. I was surprised that it only took about 10 or 15 min. to caramelize, probably because I used my strongest burner.)

*** In the past I've made the recipe to this point several hours or even the day before continuing with the rest, and the result was fine, though I don't know if I recommend it if you want the best looking tarte tatin possible. Would have to experiment some more to say if it is a good idea or not. It might be better to do as I did in this case, that is prepare the whole tarte a few hours ahead of time and leave it in the dish (see below for instructions). ***

Remove dough from refrigerator. Wait 5 minutes for it to become a little pliable, then peel off bottom sheet of paper. Cover pie pan with dough, peel off top sheet of paper, and tuck the edges around the apples. You can use your fingers or a soup spoon to do this. It doesn't matter if it's a bit rough, it will look fine in the end. You have to work quickly as the warm apples and pan will melt the dough.

Bake for 20 min.

Let the pie cool for a few minutes then place a plate on top, and flip the entire dish and plate to turn over cake. It should unmold easily as long as it is still warm. If any pieces of apple get stuck to the dish, just replace them in the pie.

If you serve the pie a few hours later (which is what I did here), leave it in the dish without turning it over. When you are ready to serve, warm up the pie in a medium oven (100 or 150°) for 15 minutes, turn it over to unmold and serve. Waiting till the last minute to turn it over ensures the crust stays crunchy.

Alternate Approach

Today I saw this beautifully illustrated recipe which uses a different approach for caramelizing the apples. The advantage of this recipe is you can better control the caramelization process, and also perhaps it isn't as important to use a heavy pie pan as you don't cook the caramel in the pie pan itself. But I still think I'll stick to my version as I like the idea of the apple juices forming a caramel together with the sugar.

Still Life with Onions

I meant to photograph a savory dish for a change (tagine of lamb with prunes and almonds), but never got farther than these onions and garlic. Fearing the neon light of the kitchen would be brutal I tried using candlelight.

I feel frustrated that I can't even tell if this is a good picture. In any case I like the dark ominous shapes in the background. These are the sharp knives I plan to use...

This by the way is the same shot with the light on. Still no flash though.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Fun with Cropping

Photos in cook books are often a tease. They don't show you much, and yet they make your mouth water. Let's see how little I can show here yet still make my bread rolls seem delicious...

Which by the way they weren't. Oh sure, they tasted OK, but kind of dull and a bit too much like baking powder. Not yummy like something home-baked should taste, though eating them fresh from the oven and with lots of butter was quite pleasant.

The recipe came from Gourmet Magazine's anniversary edition that came out last December.

I think the vertical shots work better as they show depth of field.

Oh all right, here's a full shot:

I realize this exercise would have been more interesting if I had taken all the cropped bits from the same photo. Oh well.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Lesson 1 in Photography: Backgrounds

As an exercise last weekend I photographed old-fashioned shop signs, of which there are a great many in Zurich's old city center.

I learned a lesson, so simple and obvious I'm almost embarrassed to state it: Pay attention to the background! (I mean really watch out for it)

Look at this sign. Can you see it? Me neither. I wasn't paying attention to the background.

Here I tried harder, but the background is still too busy.

OK, so here I was able to get the outline of the sign, but it's squeezed between buildings, and the bright sky has sucked out all of its color and detail. (Oops, I hadn't realized I was photographing in "macro" mode for these three photos, that doesn't help.)

Again, this sign is lost in the background.

Ah, now here's a better one of the same sign:

With the following photos I really thought I was being careful with the background, but I guess it wasn't enough.

For both of these I could have taken just a small step to the side to separate the subject from its background...

Hmm... Which one of these two is better?
OK, I'll admit, I tried my hand at editing. I guess it makes the eye focus on the main subject. I won't be doing it often though, it takes too much time. And it does feel like cheating to me.

I also realized it's OK to leave out part of your subject in order to get a good background. This photo came out pretty well for instance, even though I hesitated to leave out some of the beautiful wrought iron of the sign:

Trying to fit it all in meant having the house in the background, and that spoilt the shot.

Finally the problem I had with using the sky as a backdrop is I lost a lot of the color and detail of the subjects. Is there some setting I should use to get a good shot of details despite the brightness of the sky? I guess that would be the time to use fill-in flash. I tried but was too far from the signs.


Oh goody, Valentine's Day gave me an excuse to make more cut-out cookies...

The light here is not very good... Is the shot blurry? I don't think so. The focus was on the front-most hearts. Still, I wish the Canon photo-management software could give me a value for camera shake on each photo I take. It gives me all the shooting info, a histogram to show the proportions of dark and light in the photo, and where the focus was. But no info on blurriness. And unless there's text, I don't always know if a shot is blurry or not.

It makes a big difference to move nearer to the window.

I like the depth of field in this shot. Front and back hearts are blurry, middle ones are in focus (I hope). The photo was taken with the widest aperture possible with our current (kit) lens, 3.5.

The cookies came out a little puffy. Funny thing is the new recipe I tried, from Cook's Illustrated, touted a special "reverse creaming" mixing technique to avoid puffiness, and I applied it as carefully as possible. Well I've never had a problem with puffy cut-out cookies, and this time I did! But I've also never used so much butter in a cookie recipe...

Here too the lighting was electrical, from an overhead lamp, so not very interesting. But at least I was able to avoid using a flash.

I had fun drawing on the cookies with melted chocolate. I used to have trouble getting the right consistency of chocolate to do that, but with my exercises in tempering I've learned you have to have a very light touch when melting chocolate so it doesn't get too thick or lumpy. For instance, melt over small quantity of water, and turn off heat well before chocolate is melted.

I also wrote some personalized messages on very large hearts. They came out well, but it would be a bit embarrassing to publish these.

Pink Santas was the closest I could get to a Valentine's Day-themed box.

Oh, and by the way, the cookies were good, though a bit too rich for my taste.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Practice with Shutter Speeds

Last weekend I went out to practise taking photos. It was hard at first, because I didn't have an objective, so I randomly photographed buildings or close-ups of the snow. And then I started taking pictures of running water to see what impact changing the shutter speed can have. And I also took pictures of old-fashioned shop signs (next post, perhaps). It helps to be on the lookout for specific subjects.

1. Fast shutter speed (1/250), shows the drops of water, background is blurred (aperture 5.6)

The problem is since the focus is on an object in the foreground (the fountain and water) that is quite small, it seems like the whole picture is out of focus.

2. Slow shutter speed (1/15), (aperture 20), gives an impression of movement in the water and the background is more in focus. Unless there's movement of course.

3. Very slow speed (0.3 sec, aperture 36). I like the look of the water or the person moving in the background, but I think I also moved a little so the whole shot is out of focus. Camera shake is my bane.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Tempering Chocolate

I've always heard you have to temper chocolate if you're going to melt it for dipping, and I wanted to give it a try. I used the Joy of Cooking method which is a little different from the one described in the link above, but close enough. These came out pretty well: the chocolate is shiny and smooth. I tested a few without tempering, ie just spreading chocolate as soon as it was melted on the cookie. Once both were dry, the untempered chocolate was not as attractive and somewhat sticky to touch.

About the photo: Interesting how changing the white balance has an impact on how the cookie seems to be made. The photo here is taken in "cloudy" mode. The chocolate seems less dark, the cookie more golden, than the photo taken in "automatic white balance" above. And yet today is a cloudy day. I took the photo near the window. I think the "cloudy" setting is really a way to make it seem like the sun is shining when it's not. It definitely gives a warmer hue. (Is hue the right word? I have to learn the difference between hue, color, tone, saturation etc...)

Editing: Is it Cheating?

I've been browsing various websites that give tips on photography.

I love reading tips such as where to place the sky-line in a photo, how to control exposure to create a soft or sharp background, or how to edit out the blue tinge of landscapes that are photographed from a mountain or plane.

But I get very uncomfortable with much of the editing advice. How much editing is too much? One site shows how you can replace a blah sky with a sunset-filled background. Another shows how you can edit out wrinkles on a subject. (This last one actually has good advice in general, I just didn't agree with this particular makeover technique).

Isn't there a tacit understanding between the photographer and his audience, that what he is showing you is beauty that exists, but that required his power of observation and photographer's skill to be made apparent to all viewers?

Thursday, February 02, 2006



This is how, until recently, I would have photographed these mini chocolate cupcakes I made. Yuck.

I think the following is an improvement, though I still have a lot to learn.


Flash is Bad

I don't mean Flash animation software. Though I subscribe to usability guru Nielsen's opinion on this.

I mean flash photos. It seems flash kills the mood of photos. So I've made a point of trying to photograph without it. The problem: I can't keep still when I click. So my shots are mostly blurry.

Examples with our point-and-shoot camera:

See, flash is bad:

But no flash means blurry photos:

These are a bit better, but still blurry:

My solution for the moment with our more advanced Canon 350D EOS Rebel camera is to avoid using the zoom, or to increase film speed to 1600 iso. Here are some I took yesterday (a friend going to France asked me for a photo of the pack of decaf coffee I asked her to bring back to me). But they still seem a little blurry.

100 iso, focal length 18 mm:

1600 iso, focal length 55 mm, white balance "cloudy":

I also discovered the impact of fiddling with the white balance: the previous one was set on "cloudy", whereas this one is set on "fluorescent". (800 iso, focal length 45 mm, white balance "fluorescent")