By MELISSA CLARK
Published: September 17, 2008
THE flow of ideas and ingredients between the savory and sweet sides of a professional kitchen is usually a one-way street. Pastry chefs liberally borrow herbs, spices, fancy salt, vinegars, even bacon and ham from the mis en place. But when a line cook lifts the likes of white chocolate and macaroons, it's more often in service to a sweet tooth than a dinner dish. Granted, with restaurants like Tailor and Falai, this is changing. But nine years ago, when I was working on a cookbook with Claudia Fleming, who was the pastry chef at Gramercy Tavern, I was surprised to see a line cook amble over to where we were piping meringue and reach for puff pastry and sugar. ''It's for the tomato tarte Tatin,'' Ms. Fleming said. ''We serve it with lamb.''
Tarte Tatin is usually made with caramelized apples or other sweet fruit. Gramercy's dish was the first savory tarte Tatin I had seen. I made sure to wait around until they emerged from the ovens, steaming, glistening and fragrant with onions, herbs and caramelized sugar. Although it was September and the tomatoes were as sugary as candy and nestled in caramel, the tarts were tangy and meaty. The secret, Ms. Fleming told me, was a splash of vinegar and a sprinkling of briny olives.
I vowed to make the dish at home, but it took a few years to get around to it. When I did, I followed the recipe in Tom Colicchio's book ''Think Like a Chef'' (Clarkson Potter, 2000), and the tarts came out as richly flavored and buttery as I remember them. But the process of making eight tarts in ramekins is time-consuming when you don't have Gramercy Tavern's kitchen staff tucked away in the pantry. I saved them for very special occasions. This summer, every time I passed the Greenmarket's resplendent array of heirloom tomatoes, I fantasized about the juicy and intensely flavored tomato tarte Tatin. But instead of fussy little tarts, I decided I would make one big one.
I gathered up ripe Striped Germans, Black Krims and red Jersey tomatoes at the Greenmarket. When I got home I cooked the caramel in an oven-safe skillet, then tucked olives, thyme and caramelized onions amid the chunks of tomatoes. I covered it with a good all-butter store-bought puff pastry sheet and stuck it in the oven. What emerged looked as golden and puffed as Gramercy's individual tarts.
I was primed for jammy tomato taste and crisp pastry as I cut into a wedge. What I got was a mouthful of soggy pastry and sloppy, runny tomatoes that hadn't condensed as they had in the individual tarts; they had released so much juice that they flooded the crust. Converting the small tarts into one big one was more complicated than I had thought. It seemed to me that with smaller pans, more heat was able to reach the tomatoes, which helped the juices bubble and thicken. I still had pastry and tomatoes left, so making another tart was possible. I could have played it safe and baked the individual tarts. But I was determined to try my experiment again.
The second time around I raised the oven temperature to encourage evaporation and cut more steam vents in the pastry. I also used fleshier cherry and grape tomatoes rather than full-size ones, because that's what I had and because I hoped their smaller size would help them cook more completely. Thirty minutes later I had my answer. Flipped over onto a serving dish, the tart was a stunning mosaic of red, orange and yellow orbs so shiny and candied that the tart really did look like dessert. But this tarte Tatin, piquant and hearty, was safely on the savory side, which, despite puff pastry and caramel, was exactly where it belonged.
Caramelized Tomato Tarte Tatin
Time: 1 hour 15 minutes
1 14-ounce package all-butter puff pastry
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 red onions, halved and thinly sliced
1/4 cup plus a pinch of sugar
1/2 teaspoon sherry vinegar
1/4 cup chopped pitted Kalamata olives
1 1/2 pints (about 1 pound) cherry or grape tomatoes; a mix of colors is nice
1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme leaves
Kosher salt, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees F. Unfold puff pastry sheet and cut into a 10-inch round; chill, covered, until ready to use.
2. Melt butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Add onions and a pinch of sugar and cook, stirring, until onions are golden and caramelized, 15 to 20 minutes. Add 2 tablespoons water and let cook off, scraping brown bits from bottom of pan. Transfer onions to a bowl.
3. In a clean, ovenproof 9-inch skillet, combine 1/4 cup sugar and 3 tablespoons water. Cook over medium heat, swirling pan gently (do not stir) until sugar melts and turns amber, 5 to 10 minutes. Add vinegar and swirl gently.
4. Sprinkle olives over caramel. Scatter tomatoes over olives, then sprinkle onions on. Season with thyme leaves, salt and pepper. Top with puff pastry round, tucking edges into pan. Cut several long vents in top of pastry.
5. Bake tart until crust is puffed and golden, about 30 minutes. Let stand for 5 minutes, then run a knife around pastry to loosen it from pan, and flip tart out onto a serving platter. Cut into wedges and serve immediately.
Yield: 4 to 6 servings.