We all have our comfort zone. A position in which we feel both at ease and at our best. Mine is at the sidelines, looking in. I observe. I consider the details, take a step back to get the bigger picture, then focus on the details again. I analyze. I draw lines, see connections, fill in the blanks, write down my conclusions. I don't usually interact with what is going on, nor do I feel the need to voice my conclusions out loud. The written word is my safeguard.
When I was working on my PhD, the best and most successful moments were those spent in that comfort zone: analyzing photographs, reading up on the artist pictured in it, looking for historical references, considering how the photograph was made, ... The most difficult moments were those when I had to step out and talk to the people who had made those images. The idea that I had to interview one of these talented artists or photographers, whose work I'd already written about at length, was just so intimidating. It scared the hell out of me.
I remember taking the train down to Lille, France, to interview Gautier Deblonde, a photographer who's made some of the most intriguing photographs of contemporary artists' studios. I had already sent him one of my papers about his work, so my heart had shrunk to the size of a pea and my nerves were mile-high. Those hours on the train were agonizing. When I got to his house, though, Deblonde turned out to be one of the nicest, most down-to-earth photographers I had ever met. I was amazed at how honest, open and interested he was. I was amazed at how fast my initial feeling of "getting this over with as quickly as possible" faded away.
The thing that put me at ease, was that Deblonde welcomed me as if I were a long-time friend. We sat at his kitchen table, drank coffee and talked about everything from our education to his life as a photographer to the images that had shaped his work and my studies. It wasn't an interview, it was a conversation. One that went on for so long that Deblonde ended up making us lunch and, later, dessert. I don't remember what lunch was, but I have a distinct memory of the dessert: a small round of puff pastry, topped with tiny pieces of mango, sticky and sweet from the buttery caramel that enveloped it all.
I learned a lot during that day in Deblonde's kitchen. I learned about his work, his inspirations and his process. I learned that interviews don't have to be intimidating. I learned to trust. And I learned to love tarte tatin, a dessert that had never appealed to me before. It's funny how one situation, one experience can change the way we look at things forever.
• This recipe is loosely based on my aunt's traditional tarte tatin recipe, using mangoes instead of apples. To balance the flavors, I reduced the amount of sugar in the recipe and added some freshly ground pepper.
• It's easiest to make this in a tarte tatin pan or a large cast iron skillet. Since I have neither, I make the caramel in a regular frying pan and then transfer the whole thing to a tart tin (not one with a loose bottom).
Mango Tarte Tatin
adapted from family recipe
makes a 24 cm/9 inch tart
250 gr puff pastry, store-bought or homemade
3 large mangoes, ripe but still firm
juice of 1/2 lemon
120 gr unsalted butter, cubed
160 gr granulated sugar
freshly ground pepper
1. Preheat oven to 200˚C. If you don't have a tarte tatin pan or a large enough skillet, grease a 24 cm/9 inch tart pan and line it with parchment paper. Set aside.
2. Roll out the puff pastry to about 3 mm thickness and leave to rest.
3. While the puff pastry rests, prepare the mangoes. Peel the mangoes and cut them into fairly thick (about 5 mm) wedges. Sprinkle with lemon juice and toss, then strain through a fine mesh sieve to remove excess liquid.
4. In a large pan or directly in your tarte tatin pan or skillet, melt the butter over medium heat. Divide the sugar over the melted butter and leave to caramelize. You can shake the pan to distribute the sugar more evenly, but don't stir it.
5. Once the mixture starts bubbling, add the mango pieces to the pan. Shake to distribute and leave to caramelize on medium heat for about 10 minutes. In the meantime, cut a 26 cm/10 inch circle from your puff pastry.
6. If you're working in a regular pan, transfer the mango and caramel to the prepared tart pan and distribute evenly across the bottom. If you're working with a skillet or tarte tatin pan, just take it off the heat. Sprinkle with a few cracks of freshly ground pepper, then top with the puff pastry. Tuck it in along the sides.
7. Bake the tarte tatin for 45 to 60 minutes, until the pastry is crisp and golden brown and the caramel is amber and bubbling around the edges. Leave to cool on a wire rack for about 10 minutes, then invert onto a serving platter while it is still warm and the caramel is still runny.
This tarte tatin is best served warm with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.