I’m not entirely sure what spurred me to begin a countrywide search for Bramley Apples. It wasn’t a self-satisfied hunt for esoteric heirlooms – “I’ll raise you a Bramley Apple for your bunch of wild ramps” – but more the nostalgia of the Autumn days of my childhood gathering these rather rotund, crisply perfumed fruits from damp grass and piles of russet leaves into which they’d been blown by looming winter gales.
As a child they were mere toys, childhood curios to fill my little red rattan basket or share with the dog. I knew they were special because they often ended up as pies with gloriously thick yet tender crusts, dredged with plenty of bakers sugar and drizzled with custard or thick, fresh cream – never a scoop of ice-cream in sight (far too cold for that), but I never appreciated how special until I was thousands of miles away with a craving.
I was all too quickly snapped out of my daydreaming by an email from Jones Creek Farms – one of the few growers of this delicious heirloom variety in North America. Rather unsurprisingly their orchard is located in Washington State, and less than 60 miles away from where I live. So off we drove to the tiny Mercer Island Farmer’s Market, and there they were! Orchardist Les Price, a former University of Washington Researcher who grows many heirloom varieties on his farm, including Calville Blanc d’Hiver (a 17th-century French variety that’s perfect for tarte aux pommes), told me “The Brits go crazy for them” and that a gentleman in Florida pays close to $100 in shipping each year to receive a large box of these rough green gems. Yes, they’re really that much tastier – tarter and more complex – than Granny Smiths.
I bought as many as my conscience would allow, not wanting to disappoint fellow countrymen who might be on a hunt for the same thing. After making various pies and tarts, I decided to try a custard crumble tart for something a little less rustic. With a few handfuls of late season blackberries and a custard baked right in, this dessert is perfectly civilized for afternoon tea as well as dessert, and by all means substitute Granny Smiths!
Serve with some heavy cream, very lightly whipped or poured on straight from the jug. If you can, try to find some non-homogenized cream that isn’t ultra pasteurized – the flavor and texture will make you sing. (I love this version from Twin Brook Creamery available in Washington State)
For the Pastry (or use your favorite pate brisee/pie crust recipe)
2 ½ cups/20oz flour
1 tsp salt
1 tsp sugar
1 cup/8oz/2 sticks unsalted butter, chilled and cut into small pieces
1/4 to 1/2 cup ice water
For the Filling
1lb (about 3 medium) bramley or granny smith apples
1 cup/5oz blackberries
10oz/250ml heavy cream
1 large egg + one large egg yolk
4oz/100g light brown sugar
1 tbsp flour
1 tsp vanilla extract
For the Crumble Topping
1/2 cup/4oz brown sugar, firmly packed
1/3 cup/2oz flour
1/4 cup/2oz/half a stick butter at room temperature
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/8 tsp salt
Large Fluted Tart Pan, with removable base e.g. 8×11 rectangle ( I used two 14×4.5 rectangles)
Dried beans/baking beans for blind baking tart shell.
To make the pastry
Place dry ingredients in bowl of processor and pulse briefly to combine. Add butter and process for a few seconds until mixture has appearance of large breadcrumbs.
With processor running, slowly pour in ¼ cup of the ice water. Add more as required until dough comes together in a ball when squeezed. Divide pastry, flatten into discs, wrap and refrigerate.
To make the crumble topping
Stir all ingredients together roughly, until no flour is visible. Place in refrigerator until needed.
To make the tart
Preheat oven to 350F. Place rack in center of oven.
On a lightly floured surface, roll out pastry until quite thin. Carefully transfer to tart pan, press into corners and trim edges. Line bottom of tart with baking parchment and baking beans and bake for about 15 minutes, or until tart shell is turning a very light golden color.
Meanwhile, peel apples and cut into 1/4in cubes. Place in a medium, heavy bottomed pan with half the sugar and cook over a medium heat until just starting to soften. Stir in blackberries.
Whisk together eggs, sugar, vanilla and flour until smooth. Whisk in cream and any juices from cooking the apples and blackberries.
Place apple mixture in tart shell. Pour custard mixture over top (you may not need to use all the custard mixture).
Bake for about 20 minutes, until custard is beginning to set. Carefully distribute crumble topping over tart. Return tart to oven for 10-15 minutes until crumble is golden brown.
Place on a wire rack to cool, and enjoy warm, cold or at room temperature!