With vegetarian friends coming over for lunch, I wanted to make something special, and for some mad reason I thought I’d try making an Onion Tarte Tatin – you know, when you make it upside-down and turn it out at the end. There’s a sense of foreboding about it – rather like a soufflee I suppose (which I’ve never tried making) – you just don’t know until the last minute if it’s going to work!
I searched for a recipe and found two possibles – one by Marcus Wareing and the other Delia Smith. Although I generally like Delia recipes, this one looked a little complicated compared to the Marcus version. And Marcus’s version is labelled EASY. Delia said you could make it with shortcrust pastry, although I think generally you use puff pastry, which Marcus uses. Not wanting the faff of making puff pastry, and with none in the freezer, I opted for shortcrust as it’s easy to make. Then there’s the liquid you use to make the caramel – Marcus said to use wine vinegar and Lea & Perrins. But Lea & Perrins isn’t vegetarian, and I didn’t have a veggie version.
In the end I did a mash-up of the two recipes, and adapted it slightly in places. This is how it went.
80g butter, cubed
5 – 6 medium onions, halved top to bottom (skin on and root attached)
60g caster sugar
4 tablespooms balsamic
A few sprigs of thyme
Pastry – I made the shortcrust pastry with a few thyme leaves sprinkled through it – this was a Delia touch. Whenever I’m making pastry, it’s never usually enough. I was making the tarte in a 28cm frying pan and the pastry needed to cover the onions and ‘tuck in’ around them. So I made a big ball of pastry. I would tell you the amounts of flour and butter but I can’t remember, I do 2 to 1 and play it by ear. While it was chilling I made a 12 inch circular template from greaseproof paper. (I know! Mixing decimal and imperial! So shoot me.)
Onions – I started with 4, as they were on the large side. Although neither recipe was clear on this, there is no need to take off the outer skins yet. Add a quarter of the butter to a hot frying pan and when it starts to foam place the onions cut-side down in the pan to brown for 4 – 5 minutes. Remove from the pan when they’ve browned a bit. Once cool, cut them in half again to make wedges and remove skin layers, taking care to keep the tops and bottoms attached. This bit was fiddly and tricky! Don’t let the onion wedges fall apart!
Heat oven to 160 degrees C (fan). Clean the frying pan then put it over a medium heat.
Caramel – Now, Marcus’s instructions say: Once hot, add the caster sugar in a thin layer. Cook slowly for about 5 mins, swirling it if necessary but do not stir. Once it is melted to amber caramel, just before it starts to smoke add the balsamic to ‘deglaze’ the pan, stirring so that everything mixes smoothly.
Well! Here’s where things went a bit wrong for me. I added the liquid all at once and even though I was stirring madly within seconds it turned into one great hard lump – ugh! I had to throw it all away and start again with the sugar.
When you’re staring at this it’s truly nerve-wracking:
It melts very slowly, in patches, and I know from making caramel before (the sweet variety) you MUST NOT stir it or even touch it, or the sugar could crystallise. It’s also difficult to know at what stage to add the liquid. How do you know it it’s just about to smoke? if you wait until there’s smoke then that’s too late, right? I waited until it looked pretty much melted, and this time added the balsamic a small amount at a time, while stirring…a few small lumps did still appear, but I decided there was enough liquid to keep going.
At this point you add the rest of the butter gradually, whisking all the time. The danger here is that it might ‘split’ – where the fat and the liquid separate rather than combine. Luckily this all went smoothly, but I still had a few pesky lumps. So I fixed it the age-old way, by passing it through a colander! In so doing I now had a second frying pan on the go, and the one I’d melted the sugar in had some hard sugar stuck to the surface and I needed to soak it. At least I had a decent-looking caramel to proceed with…
You need to let the caramel sit for 5 minutes, so this was when I rolled out the pastry and using the template cut out a circle. I had to make it a bit bigger than the template as the second frying pan was a different size – ha ha!
Next, scatter a few leaves of thyme over the caramel, then place the onion wedges (browned-side down) on the caramel, packing them close together as they shrink a bit in cooking. This was where I found I was an onion short, so had to go back to step one with another onion!
Place the pastry disc over the onions and tuck the edges down around the inside edges of the pan. Make several small cuts in the pastry to allow steam to escape during cooking.
Bake for 35 – 40 mins – pastry should be brownish. Remove from oven and allow to rest for 20 mins. It should something like this:
To finish off, ease out the the edge of the tarte with a non-marking tool to loosen the pastry (the recipe I was following said to use a knife, which I did, and ended up damaging the non-stick surface!) then place a flat serving plate on top of the tarte (it must be exactly the right size and make contact with the pastry) and turn over quickly onto the plate. I got Nick to do the turning over, as I was too nervous, but couldn’t help but burst into applause when I saw it!
A joy to behold! It was delicious, but I need to practise to get it right. I’ll be making it again, hopefully with fewer bloopers!