Some foods look as unusual as they sound, such as…quince?
I didn’t know much more about quince than having seen the odd photo in an old cookbook here and there…and odd is the right word. It looked rather unappetizing. A strange hybrid of a pear and an apple, a light green almost like an unripe granny smith. I wasn’t particularly interested in trying it, but that was fine because it’s not as if I was happening upon baskets and baskets of them.
When I studied abroad in Spain, I finally tried quince in the form of membrillo paste. I was just as suspicious of this sliceable jelly as I was of the fruit, and especially of eating it with cheese. But, as my friend Amber would tease me when we were there, all you had to do to get me to try something was to remind me that it was the “local specialty.” (Although that’s true, I didn’t eat jamon serrano for the first few months I was there because I had decided for some reason I didn’t “eat” pork. Yes, that was stupid). Though it shouldn’t have been a surprise, I was amazed to find that membrillo pairs perfectly with my favorite Spanish cheese, manchego (a cheese that fortunately is not too hard to come by in the US–as far as imported cheeses go at least).
Now of course hunting down some “weird” fruit is just the kind of thing I like to do, and the fact that membrillo is something that reminds me of my “international woman of mystery” days only upped the ante for me.
What’s more, the fact that I have been looking for quince for over a year turned this hunt into something approaching a quest. Julia suggested I check at local orchards, and lo and behold, I noticed that one of our apple u-pick options also sold quince! Off we went to Westwood Farms!
So in addition to 20lb of apples (post(s?) forthcoming), I grabbed 4 pounds of quince (quinces? What is the plural? Who knows). Since I’ve been a little fixated on this whole membrillo paste thing, I decided to make up a double batch. It’s usually not advisable to double batches of fruit preserves, as you have less surface area to evaporate excess moisture, and this is all the more true when it comes to simmering something down into a paste. And, it turned out to be a problem, but one that was easily remedied: I split my oh-so-slowly cooking puree between two pans when I started to despair of ever leaving the kitchen, and that helped things along tremendously. (I also stirred a lot, even at the beginning when it was not necessary, as this supposedly encourages evaporation).
You’ll notice that though the raw fruit (which is quite astringent and not for eating fresh) is pale green and white inside, the paste is brown. According to Linda Ziedrich, this is a result of oxidation. Mine did not transform into the rich burnished red that you’ll see sometimes with membrillo, but it still took on an appealing rosy brown hue. And the homemade product was so much better than anything I’ve bought in stores–the intense, sweet paste released floral notes that I’d never noticed before.
It’s amazing to me that you can cook fruit down into a sliceable paste like this. But I’m more amazed that I now have several slabs of homemade membrillo in my fridge (where it should keep several months). I may have overdone it a bit in making a double batch, as I have a LOT. On the other hand, as part of a bocadillo (sandwich) made with Spanish ham and manchego on a french bread bun, I think it could go rather fast.
Membrillo (quince paste/quince cheese), adapted from Linda Ziedrich’s The Joy of Jams, Jellies, and Other Sweet Preserves,
- 2lb quince (about 3; mine were huge so I needed even less)
- 1 cup of water (I used water to cover since I had doubled the recipe)
- 2 cups sugar
Rub any white fuzz off of the quince–this down mostly comes off when the fruit is ripe but some may remain.
Quarter the fruit (no need to peel) and cut out the blossom end. Simmer with the water for about 20 minutes until soft. Let cool slightly. You can now continue with the recipe or let stand for 8-12 hours with the lid off, which can help along the oxidation process (and bring out that rich red color; I let stand about 8 hours).
When you are ready to continue, cut the seeds out of the fruit and puree using a food mill, an immersion blender, or a food processor. (I used a food mill, assuming it would separate out the seeds for me. Not exactly–although this was mostly successful, a few seeds had softened so much they too passed through the food mill. Just a warning).
Add the sugar, bring to a simmer, and stir until the sugar is dissolved. Continue to simmer, cooking gently and stirring from time to time at the start and more and more frequently. (Note that stirring helps with evaporation). At the end you’ll need to stir constantly to prevent scorching and burning. Ziedrich notes that it will be so thick you’ll have to hold the pan while you stir at the end, which was true for me too. See my photos, and how rather than a liquid the almost finished paste moved together as a single mass. This took almost 2 hours in total, though it probably could have gone faster had I not doubled the recipe.
Pour the paste into an 8 x 8 pan lined with parchment paper, and allow to cool. I then put it in an oven on its lowest setting for about an hour, leaving the door ajar, and then allowed it to continue to dry overnight in the oven (turned off!). Any dry, warm spot will do. When the paste is dry, put it in a heavy plastic bag and store in the refrigerator.
Notes: I loved Ziedrich’s recipe, which has ideas for variations using cardamom or rose water (how’s that for playing up the floral notes?) Another great resource for making membrillo, with some excellent troubleshooting tips that I luckily did not need, is over at Simply Recipes.
You can also bake with quince. If I get my hands on any more specimens, I will try one of these options from Martha Stewart Living.