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Puff pastry, caramel complement autumnal apple harvest desserts

I've been searching for the perfect apple tart recipe for years, but every one I try falls just short of my ideal, which is not really an overambitious thing: I'm looking for overlapping shingles of thinly sliced apples on a delicate, light crust - nothing more.

Just picked from the trees, the apples have real fragrance and a crisp texture right now, so I want to keep it simple enough to let their flavors come through. And I don't want any fillings or glazes to come between the apples and the sugar because when those two hit the hot oven I'm hoping that the apple juices and sugar (and butter) mix together to make a kind of apple caramel.

So that's basically what I'm after: a caramel apple in open-faced tart form. It also has to be quick to make because I want to serve it warm from the oven and that means I have to bake it while I'm making dinner.

Should be easy, right? Should be, but my pickiness has led me down dark hallways before.

Because you always go with what you know, I had been lining the sheet tray with a basic pie crust. But with just a thin layer of apples on top, it was kind of bland, and a little dry. A richer, puffier dough, more like Danish dough, would taste so much better, but I don't want to get out the yeast that Danish dough requires just to make an apple tart.

I've considered puff pastry, a dough that I learned in cooking school but have never attempted since. After an afternoon's project of rolling out, folding and then re-rolling a dough stuffed with a thick tablet of butter until (many hours later. . . . ) you have a rectangle of dough that sports layers of buttery blankets thick enough to keep the Princess lofted high above the pea. This stuff has spring, too. When baked, a 1/2 -inch thick layer of puff pastry dough can rise to a height of three inches!

I have moments of ambition in the kitchen, but that's a project that requires follow-through and commitment.

So when I found a recipe for quick, or shortcut, puff pastry in a book I was browsing, I stuck a scrap of paper in it. And thankfully I remembered it now, in apple season.

You just mix together a pie-crust-like dough, albeit one with a higher butter ratio than is usual, and bring it together with a little sour cream. Then you give it an abridged puff pastry treatment, rolling it out and folding it just twice, so that you have a few dozen layers of dough which will rise about an inch when baked.

That inch of buttery, delicate dough was just what the apples needed. Now that I've finally found the right crust, and the right apple (Sweet-sixteens! I love them . . .) I would say that this apple tart project is over. But it was so worth the wait.

Apple Tart

Maida Heatter's Quick Puff Pastry

1-1/2 cups flour

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 sticks (1 cup) cold butter, cut into cubes

1/2 cup sour cream

5 apples, peeled and cut in half

4 tablespoons sugar

juice of 1/2 lemon

1 tablespoon white wine or apple cider

For glaze: 2 tablespoons peach or apricot jelly

Combine flour and salt in a mixing bowl. Add the butter and cut in with a pastry cutter until the butter is the size of very small peas (work it a little longer than you do for conventional pie dough). Add the sour cream and stir with a fork until the dough clumps. Pour into a gallon-sized plastic bag. Working from the outside of the bag, gather the dough into a disk. Remove dough onto a lighly floured board and form into a rectangle. Chill for one hour in the refrigerator.

We will give the dough two "turns" or the process of rolling it out and folding it into thirds.

Bring the dough out of the refrigerator and give it the first turn: Roll the rectangle into a rectangle twice its size, keeping the same basic proportions. Fold the top of the dough toward you, about two-thirds over. And then fold the bottom half up over the folded dough. It's like folding a business letter in thirds. Refrigerate for 30 minutes.

Give the dough another turn, repeating the above process. This time, fold the dough in half again, like a book, and refrigerate for at least 45 minutes, or until thoroughly chilled.

Combine the sugar, lemon juice and white wine in a large bowl. Peel the apples, cut in half and remove cores. Slice thinly crosswise into arcs and place in the bowl. Turn gently to cover with the sugar mixture.

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.

Roll the dough out so it's an inch larger than a standard sheet tray. Place the dough on the tray. Arrange the apples in four overlapping rows down the tart, leaving a two-inch border on all sides. (Reserve apple-marinating juice.) Fold the edges up over the apples, making decorative pinched corners if you like.

Bake at 425 degrees for 40-45 minutes, or until the pastry has turned deep golden brown and the apples are tender.

Put the jelly in a small saucepan and heat over medium heat, adding enough of the apple marinating liquid to thin it out a bit. Brush this glaze on the warm tart and serve immediately, with whipped cream.

Baked Caramel Apples

From How to Eat, by Nigella Lawson

8 cooking apples, such as Haralson or Sweet 16

10 tablespoons butter

2/3 cup light brown sugar

1 cup apple brandy or apple wine

juice of 1 lemon

1/2 cup light cream

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Core the apples and, with a sharp knife, cut a line round each as if circling the equator. Put them in a roasting pan. Press in the butter and sugar, alternately, in the holes and press any excess on top. Pour the apple brandy or wine and lemon juice into the pan. Put them into the oven and cook for about 50 minutes or until soft.

Remove the apples to a plate or dish and pour the cooking juices and liquid into a saucepan. When you want to eat dessert, put the saucepan on a high heat. Let bubble till the liquid is reduced and thickened; it should be like a gooey sticky syrup. Stir in the cream and let bubble again for a few minutes and pour this fudgy sauce over the apples. Serve right away.