The secret ingredient is Maria Callas: Making Eric’s apple tart
“There is no recipe for this apple tart,” announced Eric mysteriously on that last evening at his Chennai home
Each wedding season, I think of making an apple tart again. It all started when Eric, a legendary teacher at Alliance Française in Madras, brought an apple tart with him to the tea room, a place where intense addas took place in a casual atmosphere that we imagined was quintessentially French.
It was not any old apple tart, I must insist.
“It is a legend, my grandmother’s apple tart. I cannot reveal its secret!” Eric exclaimed. Of course, it sounded much more intriguing when he said it in French: “Tartes aux pommes —un secret incroyable!”
Though I was not one of his students, Eric and I had bonded over the fact that I had been to his hometown, Dieppe, in Normandy on the west coast of France. Just as he was about to leave Chennai for good, Eric invited me and another adda regular, a young man whom I will call ‘the designer’, to his house.
Learn by watching
“I will show you the secret but you will have to learn by watching. There is no recipe for this apple tart. It is just passed down orally from one generation to the next,” Eric announced mysteriously. “Amma will make the pâte brisée,” he added, gesturing at his Tamil lady cook who was in charge of making the pastry. He bade us sit down on the sisal hemp mat on the floor. Before the ‘party’ began, we had to choose the music, of course. Eric decided that it would be Maria Callas singing ‘Casta Diva’ from Bellini’s Norma.
We listened entranced, sipping tea from small ceramic bowls. Eric explained sagely that there are various degrees of pâte brisée. “At its simplest it’s a combination of plain flour, butter and water at a 3-2-1 ratio, the golden mean of cooking. The butter has to be cold, but not frozen. The water has to be iced, just a few tablespoons. Your hands, if you are using them, should also be very cool.”
“Notice that we are making pâte sucre,” he pointed out. “We have added a tablespoon of confectioner’s sugar — what you call icing sugar — into the flour, before sifting both together.” Eric’s commentary continued. “I talked about the golden mean but now I ask you to forget it. What you need is butter, more butter. Yes, but no water, not iced, not cooled, not warm, nothing at all. That is the secret. And if you are very confident that you have a light touch with the pastry you may add the yolk of one egg.”
As Maria Callas’s golden voice wove its web of magic around us, Amma wrapped the slab of pastry in cloth and put it in the fridge. Next, she sliced two or three apples into delicate moon-like crescents before dunking them in a bowl of iced water. The oven had been switched on.
After 15 minutes, the pastry was taken out of the fridge and rolled briskly into a circular shape. Using the rolling pin, Amma lifted the pastry with a practised hand and placed it precisely on the prepared baking pan with a fluted rim.
The pastry was ready for the oven. Amma stabbed it a couple to times with a fork. When it came out after another 15 minutes, it was pale golden brown and still not fully cooked.
“This is when you add the confiture, or strawberry jam,” declared Eric as he spooned some from a bowl and glazed the pastry with the jam. Then taking the apple slices one by one, he arranged them deftly in alternating circles starting at the edge, overlapping each, till they reached the centre.
“Bon, that’s good, ready for the oven,” he said, slipping the pan into the oven. We waited as the fragrance of cooked apples wafted over the room and Amma placed the hot pastry pan on the wooden table. She then poured a mixture of fresh cream, sugar, vanilla and a lightly beaten egg into the pastry so that the liquid trickled down all the valleys and crevices, creating a flood plain of creamy egg custard.
The pan went again into the oven. “We will let the custard cook nicely and then leave the apple tart to cool for the night,” announced Eric gravely.
My companion and I looked at each other in shock. “But we thought we were here to eat the apple tart,” we cried. “We can’t sit here till tomorrow.”
“Ah, I had thought of that,” said Eric, pulling out an apple tart from his pantry cupboard. “Amma already made one for you yesterday.”
And so it was that we had more tea, more Callas, and the perfect apple tart on that last evening in Chennai with Eric.
I lost touch with the designer, remembering him only when I needed a floral decorator for my daughter’s wedding a few years later. Now a landscape designer of some note, he was more than willing to come and help.
“It has to be simple but elegant,” I kept repeating, as my Maria Callas companion set to work with his band of floral gnomes. He worked through the night. I slept.
In the morning he had created a canvas of pure delight — jasmines strung in cascades against a vast curtain of white and gold.
“How can I ever pay you back for this?” I asked, overwhelmed.
“Three apple tarts!” he replied. “Eric’s apple tarts!”
We shook hands over the deal. I took out my rolling pin. There was no recipe in any book. But there was Maria Callas singing ‘Casta Diva’. The tarts came out perfect.
Apple tart, Eric-style
For the pastry
Two cups flour to which one tablespoon of icing sugar has been added before sifting
One cup butter
One egg yolk
For the filling
Firm, slightly green, apples, finely sliced
For the custard
One cup cream
One well-beaten egg
Ideally a tablespoon of Calvados liqueur, or two teaspoons of vanilla
Follow Eric’s instructions as described above. Bon appétit!
The Chennai-based writer is a critic and cultural commentator.