Brown Butter Apple Tart

January 28, 2015

When she has the kitchen all to herself, Phyllis Grant of Dash and Bella cooks beautiful iterations of what solo meals were always meant to be: Exactly what you want, when and where you want them.

Today: Sometimes the only thing to do is to make an apple tart. Phyllis's, rich with vanilla bean, brown butter, and apricot jam, is the one you want. 

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I ask my grandmother what kind of soup she wants. I need her to eat. Butternut squash? No response. White bean? Nose scrunch. Split pea with a ham hock? Her big smile brings me relief. She wants soup. She is still here. But the tone in the nun's voice is enough to push me up and over into tears: We are not God, you know. But she is close.

My friend Margi tells me that hospice knows. I don’t want to believe her. But it is enough to send me to the phone. To call my parents. To tell them to fly home.

I am not hungry but I need to make a tart. I move into my kitchen for the day. 

I take dough out of the freezer, brown and cool some butter, tell my son that if he doesn’t take a bath he will have to move out before the first of the month.  

I pick up a rolling pin and wack wack wack the dough until it is soft enough to handle. I roll. I try to let her go. I roll. I try to let her go.

My son dives underneath the bath water to see how long he can hold his breath. His silence brings me running to the rescue. He is absolutely still, floating face-down in the water. I scream. He pops up with a laugh. What, mom? What? You worry too much. 

As I arrange the apple slices in concentric circles and paint them with vanilla bean-flecked brown butter, I hear my dad telling me about this tart he had in Paris, somewhere slightly northeast of the Église Saint-Germain-des-Prés. It wasn’t gooey like a tarte tatin. It wasn’t doughy and gelatinous like a pie.

My daughter climbs up on the dresser to tape a series of cupcake photos to her wall. The house-shaking crash -- drawers and clothes and child flying -- sends me running.

I’m just trying to keep everyone alive.

I go back to my safe kitchen and finish up the tart with egg wash and turbinado sugar. I slide it onto a hot pizza stone. Thin and crisp. That’s what my dad always said he loved about that tart in Paris.

I smile. This might be the closest one yet.

My parents land late. They are stressed. Anticipating death.

They find apple tart on their kitchen counter. They eat it with wine and cheese, turning it into dinner. 

There is nothing else we can do.

Brown Butter Apple Tart

Serves 6

1 recipe of your favorite tart or pie dough (or puff pastry)
6 to 8 Granny Smith apples
3 tablespoons salted butter
1/2 vanilla bean, halved and scraped of its seeds
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 egg
3 tablespoons heavy cream
4 tablespoons turbinado sugar
3 tablespoons apricot jam, any large chunks of fruit finely chopped up

See the full recipe (and save it and print it) here.

Photos by Phyllis Grant 

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Gloria Garcia
    Gloria Garcia
  • Chad Connell
    Chad Connell
  • Karen
  • Inna Shingin
    Inna Shingin
  • Brandi
Phyllis Grant is an IACP finalist for Personal Essays/Memoir Writing and a three-time Saveur Food Blog Awards finalist for her blog, Dash and Bella. Her essays and recipes have been published in a dozen anthologies and cookbooks including Best Food Writing 2015 and 2016. Her work has been featured both in print and online for various outlets, including Oprah, The New York Times, Food52, Saveur, The Huffington Post, Time Magazine, The San Francisco Chronicle, Tasting Table and Salon. Her memoir with recipes, Everything Is Out of Control, is coming out April 2020 from Farrar Straus & Giroux. She lives in Berkeley, California with her husband and two children.


Gloria G. September 18, 2017
This is beautiful, heartbreaking, vulnerable, and hopeful all rolled into one. Plus a dang good apple tart recipe to boot.
Chad C. September 6, 2017
Really beautiful.
Karen September 5, 2017
This sounds wonderful. Losing a love one does not. Thank you for your vulnerability. So much of my cooking had emotion tied to it.
About the recipe, I am trying, trying to get pie, tart crusts just right. My mom always said handle with care, don't over work and here you are "wack, wack, wack". What am I missing?
Phyllis G. September 6, 2017
Such a good question. And I totally agree with your mom. Tart dough must be handled with care. But when it's frozen and I'm in a hurry, I walk it with the rolling pin to be able to quickly roll it out. But when assembling the ingredients, I always do it by hand, making sure there are small and large chunks of butter.
Inna S. December 23, 2015
This was excellent. Very thin and delicate and full of flavor. First time pie/galette/tart maker and It worked out perfectly! I used the all butter crust recipe linked-to below. I did brown a whole stick of butter so it was easier to do and then only used part of it. Did some fresh whipped cream on the side, but would leave that out next time because I think it took away from the pie.
Brandi February 11, 2015
I just got back from visiting my sister because she and her family are suffering from loss, sadness, hardship. I was so glad to see them and hug them, and the day before I left I made them this galette. The wonderful smell and warmth and perfection of it made me so grateful to you. I thought, she's gotten the universal with this one for sure. Really amazing, thank you.
Melina H. January 31, 2015
maybe i'm just prone to leak these days, but you have me leaking again. that's what my grandmother used to call all those tears.
Cassandra B. January 29, 2015
Bless your heart. Time, and apple tart, heals even painful wounds.
Marian B. January 29, 2015
beautiful. i love this. i will make one and dedicate it to you and my mother and my grandmothers. sending a very large very squeezey hug. xx
Phyllis G. January 30, 2015
TheBostonian January 28, 2015
Your writing continues to be some of the best on the Internet. So real and raw.
HaylesYeah January 29, 2015
Phyllis G. January 30, 2015
real. raw. universal. unifying. comforting. i'm trying. i'm trying. i'm trying. thank you for continuing to read. means a lot. xoxo
nancy E. January 28, 2015
What a lovely story. Your Gramma was surrounded by love. That is the most we can all hope for. You are a good writer. Thanks.
SallyM January 28, 2015
Very well done Phyllis. My parents are in they're 90's and I have teens so I can relate. Stay strong and keep up your wonderful cooking = Love. My thoughts are with you. Sally
Phyllis G. January 30, 2015
cooking = love. so true. thank you.
Sara January 28, 2015
My grandma passed away a few days before Christmas. She loved apples. I plan to make this in her honor, as soon as I can stop crying.
Phyllis G. January 30, 2015
so sorry for your loss. love the idea of you making this in your grandmother's honor. tonight i'm going to cook cheese balls and blondies in my grandmother's honor. it helps.
wordridden January 28, 2015
An apple tart recipe has never made me cry before. Thank you for the recipe, and the beautiful writing.
Phyllis G. January 30, 2015
thank you for writing. and this apple tart made me cry as well.
tinab January 28, 2015
This tart looks delicious. I am so so sorry about your grandmother. Even when they've lived long and full lives, it doesn't make it easier.
Phyllis G. January 30, 2015
thank you.
janet January 28, 2015
beautifully written.. apple tart looks great too.
Rebecca @. January 28, 2015
Heavy cream and browned butter. How can you go wrong? I was thinking for a slightly savory take, this would be amazing with some Camembert cheese!
Phyllis G. January 30, 2015
yes! would be fabulous with camembert.