|Membrillo (quince paste) with Manchego Cheese and Marcona almonds|
My late Father was a professional horse trainer, and in his job he traveled and befriended people in all walks of life. So, when we wanted something – no matter how obscure – my Father knew someone who had it. Such was the case for the elusive quince (Cydonia oblonga), the ancient, yellow, lumpy relative of apples and pears that some believe was the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden. Quince is a rare find: it's not widely grown (in 2012 The New York Times reported that the USA's "entire quince crop covers a paltry 250 acres" compared to 350,000 acres of apples) and it's almost never seen in stores. My Father, of course, knew a man with quince trees on his land, and every Fall he'd invite us to pick as much of the fragrant fruit as we desired. We'd gather the quince (or, more accurately, I'd gather quince while my Father and his friend talked horses) and then spend months cooking through our repertoire of quince recipes.
Our annual quince fest usually began with poaching because most varieties are inedible when raw, but become a glorious blend of apple, pear, citrus and spice with a ravishing rosy hue when cooked. We'd use completed batches to make ice cream, custard and pudding; cakes, pies and tarts (arranging the quince slices just so); quince applesauce (fantastic with potato latkes), quince-rosewater jelly, chutney (delicious with seafood and meat, especially my Father's home-ground sirloin burgers) and membrillo, a spreadable quince paste traditionally paired with Manchego, but divine with other cheeses, too. And always, at some point, my Father would set aside some poached quince for the brandied fruit he and my Aunt Lily made every year for the holidays.
My Father and I spent the last weeks of his life talking about food, with him revealing his secret recipes (and both of us still quibbling over which of us made better pies) and reliving our days of scoring quince (and gooseberries, ground cherries, currants and more)… or stuffing ourselves with Jersey tomato salad (panzanella) while making hand-cut pasta with my Aunt Lily in Atlantic City… or blending tisanes and syrups with the herbs I've grown since childhood… or him teaching me to make Julia Child's Beef Bourguignon when I was seven… or years later buying matching woks so we could call each other and cook Martin Yan's stir fry recipes together over the phone… So many of our warmest memories involved baking bread and breaking bread.
When my Father passed away right before Christmas in the late 1990s, I inherited his giant jars of brandied quince and mixed fruit (and limoncello), still curing in anticipation of our upcoming holiday dinner; I had been ordered, by him, to not let his fruit go to waste. So, despite our grief, we ate it, laughing at how every year it got stronger, and marveling at how my Father could always find a way to slip booze into a recipe. He'd make a breakfast of oatmeal or baked eggs and we'd only half-jokingly ask, "Is there bourbon in this?"
The generous man with the quince trees passed away years ago, too, but I've continued the tradition of cooking quince every Fall. The poached quince recipe below is for our basic mix; it's flavored with vanilla bean and tastes amazing with everything. My Father and I would adjust the sugar and add different spices to our batches depending on how we'd be using the quince – rosemary, anise, clove, ginger, mint, cardamom, etc. – and sometimes my Father would add wine or spirits to the mix. For the membrillo paste recipe the sugar is added after the quince is poached. The lemon in both recipes helps the quince blush as it cooks.
Neither recipe is technically hard, but both are time-consuming: poached quince takes around three hours start-to-finish; membrillo takes around five hours and requires constant stirring for the last two or three, but I always make a party of it and have family members take turns on spoon duty.
I peel and cut each quince as I go – as opposed to peeling them all at once and then cutting them all at once – because they oxidize (turn brown) quickly. I peel the quince, cut it in quarters, remove the core, then cut the quarters into smaller slices. As I am done with each section I drop the slices into a bowl of cold water mixed with the juice of one lemon – this keeps the quince from browning. When I'm ready to use the quince I simply drain it and add it to the pot.
Be sure to use non-reactive cookware to poach your quince; I always use Le Creuset because it's ideal for low heat cooking and it's a breeze to clean.
POACHED QUINCE RECIPE - approx. 3 hours
2 cups sugar
1 cup of honey
2 quarts spring water (or filtered water)
1 vanilla bean, split
Juice from two large lemons for the pot in which you'll poach the quince
Juice from one large lemon added to a large bowl of water (for prepping the quince)
1. Measure 2 quarts of water into a large, non-reactive pot, add juice from two lemons, sugar and honey. Split vanilla bean lengthwise, scrape seeds and add to water along with the vanilla bean. Bring to boil, reduce heat to low.
2. Peel and core the quince, cut into uniform slices. As each section of quince is sliced, drop the pieces into the bowl with the water and lemon juice.
3. Once all of the quince is cut, drain the bowl into a colander, then add the quince to the pot of syrup. Simmer on low, loosely covered, for approximately 2 hours. Back in the day we used a pot with a vented lid to let a little steam out - these days I simply leave the lid on my pot slightly askew.
4. When the quince is done eat some right away (these days one of my favorite pairings is poached quince and burrata), cool the rest, then store the quince in the refrigerator for 5-6 days. Also, you can reduce the extra syrup and use it for a variety of foods and beverages - it's wonderful mixed with iced tea, club soda, Champagne or Prosecco.
MEMBRILLO PASTE RECIPE - approx. 4-5 hours
6 to 8 quinces
Sugar (amount determined mid-recipe)
2 quarts spring water (or filtered water)
1 vanilla bean, split
Juice from two large lemons
1. Place water, lemon juice and vanilla bean in pot. Peel and core the quince then cut it into slices, adding to the pot of water as you go. Bring to boil and then reduce heat to low and simmer for around 45 minutes.
2. Drain quince, let cool, remove vanilla bean but don't discard (you'll be adding it back in in a minute).
3. Puree the cooked quince in batches in a food processor, placing it in a large bowl as you're done each round (if you like, you can push the puree through a strainer to ensure there are no lumps – I don't always do this extra step, and my membrillo is still lovely). When done, measure the total amount of pureed quince, then add the same amount of sugar into the quince. My 8 quinces yielded 5.5 cups of puree, so I added 5.5 cups of sugar.
4. Place quince and sugar back into the pot, scrape vanilla bean seeds into the mix, and simmer on low, stirring almost constantly for 2-3 hours until the color deepens and the puree is thick enough that it stays separated when you run a spoon or spatula through it. Be sure to keep your heat low or the mix will burn (even when properly cooked on the lowest heat possible you may see a few dark spots of hard candy forming – just remove them and keep stirring). Be careful! The mix will pop every so often, so I hold a splatter screen or lid in front of me when I stir.
6. Place the molded quince paste in the warm oven for 30 minutes, then remove and cover with cheesecloth and let it sit in a warm, dry place to finish curing. After a day or so cut it into the shape that works for your presentation (cubes, rectangles, points, etc.) and serve with cheese; we like the combination of Manchego cheese and Marcona almonds. Membrillo can also be used to garnish savory dishes and salads, or rolled in sugar and eaten like candy. To store, wrap membrillo in parchment paper and place in an airtight container in the refrigerator – it will keep for at least 6 months, although you'll probably eat it sooner.
If you fall in love with quince and have room, consider planting your own quince tree – you can find them online in the $25-$40 range, with shipping running about the same.
Photos, recipe and text ©Reese Amorosi 2015, all rights reserved. We are thrilled when you link to our recipes but please do not re-publish or re-print (except for personal use) without written permission. For more recipes by Reese Amorosi click here.
Posted on Friday, December 11, 2015