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Always, always order the tarte tatin

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Even after the luxurious French onion soup, a charcuterie board that rivals the one at the late Church & State (the one that would forever change the way we measure charcuterie boards in Los Angeles), the moules with a mountain of frites and the Caesar salad, I order the tarte tatin. A meal at Perle, Dean Yasharian’s French bistro in Pasadena, is not complete without one.

This may stem from a weakness for French apple pastries. When I was last in Paris, I ate two chausson aux pommes from Gerard Moulet each day for the duration of my stay. While this specific pastry and the tarte tatin are wildly different, the general idea remains the same: fat, flour, sugar and apples.

In researching my favorite dessert, I came across its unique backstory. Numerous sources, including What’s Cooking America, report that the tarte was created by accident by the Tatin sisters at their l’Hotel Tatin in the Loire Valley in the 1800s. A website devoted to the tarte tatin, tartetatin.org, says the tarte may have been created before then, but that it was popularized at the hotel. While the sisters never called the dessert tarte tatin, others referred to it as tarte des demoiselles Tatin, or the tarte of two unmarried women named Tatin.

The version at Perle has undergone many iterations, inspired by the tarte tatin at Midsummer House in Cambridge, England, where Yasharian worked for a time.

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“We would make so many per service and at the end of service ... you can’t use them a second day, so I probably ate tarte tatin every day for 11 months,” he said. “It was that good. I never got sick of it.”

The tarte tatin at Perle in Pasadena, served with cinnamon labneh.
The tarte tatin at Perle in Pasadena, served with cinnamon labneh.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

Yasharian’s tarte starts with the caramel — equal parts butter and sugar, cooked until the color just starts to turn amber. He peels and quarters the apples and dusts them with cornstarch and powdered sugar, and says that he is constantly experimenting with varieties of red apples, testing which ones will hold their shape and moisture in the oven. Recent versions have included Gala, Fuji and Honeycrisp.

He lines a baking dish with a layer of caramel and then neatly arranges the apples so that every inch of the pan is covered. He bakes them until softened and the juices run into the caramel to create a sauce. Then he scores some all-butter puff pastry and folds it around the baked apples. He bakes the tarte until he can see the caramel bubbling up around the edges and the pastry is golden brown.

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The caramel is a deep gingerbread color, removed from the oven about 30 seconds before it tips to the other side of burned. After baking hundreds of tartes, Yasharian and pastry chef Anthony Lopez say they can tell when it’s done just by the aroma. The tarte rests for a couple of seconds before it’s flipped over onto a plate and served it with a ramekin of cinnamon labneh, designed to help balance the richness of the apple-infused caramel.

Each spoonful comes with a satisfying crack of the lacquered pastry, sturdy and crisp under the tender apples. It is a necessary indulgence I hope to never give up.

43 E. Union St., Pasadena, (626) 460-8819, perlerestaurant.com


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