October 10, 2012

Caramel Apple Tartlets with Walnut Crumble

This is a very meaningful recipe to me; it's been my go-to dish for various important moments in my life, from being the winning dessert at the 2011 Share Our Strength Great American Baking Contest to, as of October 11, being featured on CBS Better Mornings Atlanta. It is so comforting and is the epitome of this time of year, so I hope you love it just as much as I do.

I start with my basic pie crust. Yes, you can buy a roll at the store and cut it into rounds, but why do that if you can make your own? It's surprisingly easy and can be made in minutes. I use butter, not shortening or lard, because it is much more flavorful and is still pretty flaky and light. Again, always use unsalted butter so you can regulate the salt content. I cut it into rounds that fit a mini muffin tin, and mine needs to be about 2 1/2 inches in diameter to reach the top. Yours may be different, but it should be close to that so that you keep the balance of flavors and the bite-size portions.

Now for the apples. I cut mine in a very small dice so that they cook perfectly and you bite into more than one piece when you eat the tartlets. To add a punch of flavor, I toss them in some sugar and fall-esque spices like cinnamon and nutmeg. This part smells SO good by the way. If you are feeling a little daring, splash in a few spoonfuls of apricot brandy. It is my secret ingredient and gives it a complex flavor without overwhelming the apples. You certainly don't have to do this, but it does add something special.

After piling the apples into the tartlet shells, I drown them in caramel sauce, the same one used in my Pumpkin Cinnamon Buns. It bakes into the tartlets and perfumes them with that sweetness unique to caramel. I drizzle more on after they are cooked, but adding some before baking flavors the whole tartlet and gives it a delicious stickiness.

But where are the walnuts? They are a crucial part of this recipe, and I pile them high on top of the tartlets in two ways. The crumble has chunks of walnuts as well as walnut flour. Walnut flour can be difficult to find and very expensive, but it is so easy to make your own. Simply grind up some walnuts in a food processor or chop them very finely by hand until powdery. Just make sure that they are cool when you do this or you will end up with walnut butter (think peanut butter made with walnuts). I also mix in some chopped walnuts to add crunch and nuttiness.

This is by far one of my favorite recipes. It reminds me of some of my favorite cooking experiences, and it just tastes fantastic. It is perfect for fall because I associate apples, walnuts, caramel, and all those delicious spices with this time of year. They are the perfect size, too, since they are so small. The flavors are simple yet sophisticated, and they are all wrapped up in one perfect bite!

1 Recipe Pie Crust (See Below)
1 1/2 tsp Cinnamon
1/8 tsp Nutmeg
1/8 tsp Allspice
1/8 tsp Cloves
3/4 Cup flour
1/2 T Walnut Flour
1/2 Cup Chopped Walnuts, Toasted
7.5 T Butter
2-3 Golden Delicious Apples
3/4 Cup + 3 T Dark Brown Sugar
3/4 Cup Heavy Cream
1/2 Vanilla Bean or 1 tsp Vanilla Extract
1/4 Cup Apricot Brandy, Optional
4 1/2 T Sugar
Pinch Salt

Pie Crust:
1 1/4 Cups Flour
1/4 Cup Sugar
1/4 tsp Salt
1 Stick Butter, Chilled
1 Egg Yolk

Pulse the flour, sugar, and salt in a food processor until combined. Add the butter and pulse until small pieces remain. Combine the egg yolk with a tablespoon of cold water and add in. Pulse until it begins to form a ball, adding more water as necessary. Chill.

Roll out the pie crust and cut into 2.5" circles. Place in a greased mini muffin tin and chill.

Combine 3/4 cup brown sugar, the heavy cream, vanilla extract or vanilla bean pod and seeds, and 3T butter in a small pot. Bring to a boil and cook until thick, stirring constantly. Set aside to cool; remove the vanilla bean pod, if using.

Combine the flour, remaining brown sugar, 3T sugar, walnut flour, and salt. Add 4.5T butter and the chopped walnuts. Chill.

Core, peel, and dice the apples. Toss with the brandy (if using), remaining sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, and cloves.

Preheat oven to 375F.

Place a spoonful of apples in each dough-lined cup. Drizzle with caramel and top with some crumble. Bake for 10-15 minutes or until golden and bubbling. Cool completely, then drizzle with more caramel.

Makes 20

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