I remember my mother’s first tarte Tatin. She made it, as she did all desserts in that period, from Maida Heatter’s New Book of Great Desserts. It was a dramatic dessert to be finished at the table: the pan gets turned upside down and the fruit—usually apple or pear—emerges, nestled in the center of the non-soggy pastry, glistening and superb. Legend has it that a Mademoiselle Tatin, during lunch rush, baked an apple tart upside down. I’ve always preferred the story I read in Maida Heatter: Tatin was created when a waitress who was carrying a tart slipped and fell. I was a clumsy child, so the story appealed. To this day, I remain a clumsy adult.
I grew up in the prosaic, middle-class suburb of Trumbull, Connecticut. Usually it was my father who cooked; his Chinese dinners were studies in thrift and speed, made from items in the refrigerator gone past their sell-by date. Most nights we sat down to the same stir-fried reiterations of garlic, soy sauce, and ginger served with rice. My mother’s repertoire, on the other hand, executed on the rare occasions when my father allowed her into the kitchen, was decadent and fanciful. I craved her risotto, her popovers dripping in butter, her Cornish hens gratinéed with Gruyère, and her silken crêpes folded over apricot jam. Where my mother truly excelled, however, was with her desserts.
My mother’s tarte Tatin was not as beautiful as many of the desserts that she made from my childhood, with a crust that was rustic and craggy around the edges. But I loved it, not only for the contrast between the rich crumbs and the tartness of the fruit, but also for its dramatic, upside-down finish, and the tension right before one unmolds when you realize that it is beyond your control.
My mother and father had married early and for love, but in many ways were ill-suited. My father was adoring and charismatic, but also could be coarse and domineering. My mother made desserts was because it was the one thing in her life that my father could not touch. And when a marriage unravels, no matter how carefully you plan, there are bound to be unexpected hiccups along the way.
The same year my mother married another man, she found a new recipe for tarte tartin. The original Maida Heatter was quite fiddly; it was cooled for a number of hours and, after it was flipped, was finished with an apricot glaze. The butter and sugar were gently heated and not allowed to brown, to ensure that none of the fruit would stick to the pan. My mother’s new recipe allows the sugar and butter to fully turn to caramel, and the whole thing is flipped a few minutes after it emerges out of the oven. My mother confessed to me that she liked the what-the-hell attitude of the recipe. “So what if the fruit sticks?” she said to me. “So what?” I should also add that this was around that time when she had started to drop curses in her conversation, watch Bruce Willis movies, and appreciate bourbon on ice.
Like me, my mother is clumsy. Tasks that require basic hand-eye coordination elude us. We trip and fall at least twice a month. We struggle to walk in a straight line and, on top of this, have been known to get lost for an hour in a parking lot, looking for the car. Once, after a rather grand party, she shrugged on her coat and, thinking it was the exit, sailed straight into the closet. I suppose that is why I cherish her Tatin, which gets better every year. Each time I eat it, I still think about how delightful it would be if this dish—which has become my mother’s signature—was the result of some hapless waitress in nineteenth-century France. —Mei Chin
Where and when were you born, mother? And where did you grow up?
I don’t know, daughter. End of December, 1950. In the port town of Anping. about a twenty-minute car ride to Tainan. I was in Tainan until I was eleven and then we moved to Richmond, Virginia. I think that’s enough background, don’t you think?
What was your favorite food growing up?
You like vinegar.
No, you can’t just say “my mom loved to drink vinegar when she was young.” That’s not right. Let me see, my favorite food. It’s like whatever’s just yummy. You know, I love tofu, I love tofu nau. Tofu nau is that soft tofu bean curd I had as a child almost every morning. And I think you can still get it in Chinatown, but most of this stuff you get from Chinatown now is sweetened with sugar water, which I don’t like. But I like the salty kind that has some dried shrimps in it with pickles and bits of youtiao—oily, fried crullers. You chop the youtiao up real well and put it on top for the crunch. We used to have that before running off to school. You can get it from a vendor. And that’s delicious. Another thing is the Chinese shaobing, a flaky flatbread. It’s rectangular shape and after you’ve pan-fried it, you can actually stuff a youtiao inside.
Another thing I loved as a child was having a contest with my older sisters to see just how many bowls of mapo tofu we could eat. Really hot mapo tofu. I loved that. I’ve always liked hot food and pickles. The suan cai pickles with daikon and little hot peppers and spring scallions, which are not the scallions we use now, but crispy, beautiful spring scallions with the long beans and some cabbage—it’s just my favorite. Just things with really strong flavors. Hot food. I love hot things. My comfort food is tofu and eggs and a big dish of bitter greens, sautéed. It makes me very happy.
Another thing I love are crabs. And that’s was in Virginia. In Virginia you get the blue crabs by the bushels. You get a big bushel of it them and each us would have seven or eight in just one sitting. We just steam them with lots of ginger and vinegar. And then if there were female crabs, your grandfather would do the roe. He would take all the roes out and he’d make little steamed buns with just the roe inside.
Did you like Western food?
I just loved watching cake-mix commercials on TV, and how a cake would rise in the oven. So I think within half a year of being in America we went to the supermarket and got a mix. It turned out to be a total disaster because we actually bought frosting and we baked the frosting, because we didn’t know English. Also I remember trying to follow recipes when you barely know any English, and the recipe calls for shortening, and I checked the Chinese-English dictionary and they only give you “short,” “shorten.” To make it short? It made no sense. I think it was a year before we were able to make brownies from a box.
I’d say it was when I was in my mid-twenties I began to take an interest in cooking. And you know the story of how I got into it. Because I married Pop, and Pop was a bully in the kitchen, and I just wanted so much to do something he couldn’t do. And so I started with baking. I loved the idea of giving pleasure, especially through making dessert. Making dessert is something that’s superfluous, and I always feel that things are superfluous give us pleasure because one doesn’t expect them.
When did you start making tarte Tatin?
I was going through a lot of Maida Heatter. I think her book was my first bible. Queen Mother was the first cake, and it was a huge success—it’s easy to make, and people just go “ooh and “ahh” over it. It’s very encouraging to do Queen Mother’s cake. And then after that, it was her lemon meringue pie And then I read about tarte Tartin, and she said how difficult it was to turn it over and make it look good. So I liked that challenge, I think.
I was still cooking through Maida Heatter’s book when I found Molly O’Neill’s [version in the New York Times], and I tried it, and wow, it was astonishingly good. It was simpler to make, it looked so gorgeous, and people went “ooh-ah.” So it became one of my staples.
The reason why you love your tarte Tartin is because you know you’re really good at it. Nothing to do with sentimentality or personal attachment to it—nope. You just know that you’re really good at it.
It became my standby. That’s what it is. But, as you know, I love to experiment with lots of other kinds of baking and stuff. And that’s fun, too. Okay, Mei, all done?
Mei Chin is a writer living in Dublin and New York. Annping Chin is a lecturer at Yale and the author of The Authentic Confucius and Four Sisters of Hofei.