I don’t know what inspired me to set this goal, but three years ago I decided that I wanted to win the Galvin Tarte Tatin competition. I know I am a good home baker – my family always asks me to make the desserts for our meals together. Maybe it’s because I wanted to prove that I was as good of a home baker as a professional patisserie chef. Maybe it’s because I like a challenge. Maybe it’s because I wanted to learn something new.
But all I know is that this year I was determined that this would be the year I would win the Galvin Tarte Tatin competition.
In 2013 and 2014 I made a pate sablee – more like a shortbread crust and the more tradition tarte tatin crust. My twist was that my version was gluten free. It is delicious and came in second place and third place. But I knew to win, I needed to make a tarte tatin Galvin style – which meant with puff pastry.
That meant I had to learn how to make puff pastry. Starting in the autumn, after the end of the triathlon season, I began to practice. Some people use their off season to build a strong aerobic base for triathlon. I used my off season to learn how to build the base for a tarte tatin.
I took the Thomas Keller Bouchon Bakery recipe and worked at my puff pastry. All autumn, into the winter, and reaching my peak success with puff pastry this past January when I created a Galette de Rois which was really fit for a king.
When it came to the apples, I was not so worried. I figured out on 2013 and 2014 how to get the apple / sweet balance just right on my apples. So no change was needed there.
And then it came to pulling it all together on the day.
In triathlon, they say never to change anything on race day. And although I didn’t make any BIG changes, there were subtle changes to what I did compared to my usual tarte practice.
First – the butter. For the past year I have been using Beurre d’Isigny for my puff pastry and caramelised apples. But for some reason, when it came time to doing the shop for the tarte, I forgot to buy butter. I wound up using good ole Lurpak unsalted in my baking. But it handled differently. Smooth – way smoother than what I was used to.
Second – the actual baking. I always bake two tartes, but this time, rather than one after the other, I put both in the same oven. I think this may have impacted the rise of my puff pastry on the second tarte.
Third – the apple caramelisation. For some reason I just couldn’t get the caramel colour to my liking on the first tarte. Maybe it is because I was baking at 6am and a bit tired still, whereas normally I was baking in late afternoon in my practices. I am not sure. But my first tarte struggled.
And I was left with two tartes out of the oven. Neither really perfect. One with a puff that did not rise as much as I had hoped. Another with apples that looked less appealing than I wanted.
I was in a bind – what to do? Which imperfect tarte to choose? But I crossed my fingers and hoped that what I was worried about would be unfounded. That my tarte would be strong enough – despite my niggling worries – to take the crown.
At the start of this year, I said that no matter what happened, this would be it – my final year of Galvin Tarte Tatin. I hoped – practiced – and prayed a little too – that I would win. Because I really really wanted to win and go out on a high. The tarte making had stopped being fun, and I wanted to get back to where this all started from – a love of cooking for friends and family, and a desire to learn and practice new skills. The build up – all the months of work to be judged on one tarte on one day – it had become a chore. And – shock and horror – I had actually stopped enjoying the taste of my own baking… I wanted to be able to make something, and discover it the same way that everyone else was – with the first bite at my dining room table. I wanted to get back to the pleasure of home cooking…
When announcing the winners, Chris Galvin remarked:
“A great cook needs to be generous of heart.”
And when my name was not called, when I missed out on the podium that I had reached for with my heart and soul for the last three years, Jeff Galvin came and gave me a hug.
“Your apples were perfect. But your pastry let you down.”
I shed a few tears. Actually more than a few. Silly I know – don’t cry over undercooked pastry (or something like that).
It is not often that you get the chance to pour your heart into a goal. And when you don’t reach the goal, it is painful. Disappointing. Even more so as I had said that for me, Galvin Tarte Tatin would be a “three times and out” competition. So not only did I miss out on my goal, but I was leaving the party on a down note.
Or was I?
I learned so much through participating in the Galvin contest over the past years – not least from getting to know Chris and Jeff Galvin. There is so much to be said about practicing a skill and pursuing excellence. And that is what the Galvin Brothers – and their competition – embody – the pursuit of excellence.
A big thanks to everyone at Galvin for giving me the opportunity to pursue excellence in a new-to-me field for the past three years. I have enjoyed every moment of the process. Even the sorrows of losing came with a silver lining.