In season: Use quince to make membrillo, jams
Remember that on their wedding day, the owl and the pussycat “dined on mince, and slices of quince, which they ate with a runcible spoon.”
Not much of a feast, I thought as a child, because our property had two quince shrubs whose fruits with their yellowish-white, hard, astringent flesh were, I thought, worthless.
Too bad I didn't know about cooking them. When cooked and sweetened, quince develops a fine fragrance, turns a pretty-in-pink color, softens, and has a delicious flavor. It's used for jams and preserves, marmalades, stewed with meats, made into sweet pastes, and is an adjunct to apple and pear sauce.
Since classical times, quinces have been used to make sweetmeats. The first marmalades were made from quince in Portugal. The Portuguese word for quince is marmelo. Because the fruit has great amounts of pectin, it can be boiled with sugar and then poured into little molds of varying shapes. These confection-like jellies are called cotignac in France, membrillo in Spain, cotognata in Italy. They're usually coated with sugar or served plain with manchego cheese as a tapas.
Quinces are seldom found in markets, but you may occasionally run across them at farmers markets or roadside stands in the fall. Alternatively, keep an eye peeled for someone's quince tree dropping its fruits.
Most folks don't know how to use them, and a raw bite is no treat, so they tend to go to waste.
Their season runs from September to December, so they're coming into their maturity right now.
They are much more frequently used in Europe, and are common in the cuisines of the northern range of the Middle East, from Turkey and the Caucasus through Iran, where they are indigenous. Persian cooking, especially, uses them in its meat-and-fruit dishes.
Most of the quinces in Sonoma County are a variety called ‘Pineapple' that Luther Burbank introduced in 1899.
It's a light-yellow fruit, about the size of a softball, and looks like a lumpy apple. Burbank thought it had a flavor reminiscent of pineapple. I don't get that, but it is delicious when cooked with some sugar.
In the 19th century and earlier, most homesteads grew quince to extract its fruits' pectin so jams and jellies set up properly.
Membrillo is the quintessentially Spanish jellied sweetmeat that accompanies a chunk of cheese.
4 pounds quince, washed, peeled, cored, roughly chopped
1 vanilla pod, split
2 strips (1/2 inch by 2 inches each) of lemon zest (only the yellow peel, no white pith)
- Granulated sugar
3 tablespoons fresh-squeezed lemon juice
Place prepared quince pieces in a large saucepan and add water to cover.
Add the vanilla pod and lemon peel and bring to a boil.
Reduce to a simmer, cover, and let cook until the quince pieces are fork tender (30-40 minutes).
Strain the water from the quince pieces. Discard the vanilla pod but keep the lemon peel with the quince.
Purée the quince pieces and lemon strips in a food processor, blender or food mill.
Measure the quince purée in a large measuring cup. Whatever amount of quince purée you have, that's how much sugar you will need.
So, if you have 4 cups of purée, you'll need 4 cups of sugar.
Return the quince purée to the large pan. Heat to medium-low. Add the sugar.
Stir with a wooden spoon until the sugar has completely dissolved. Add the lemon juice.
Cook on low heat, stirring occasionally, for 60-90 minutes until the quince paste is very thick and has a deep reddish-pink color. Be careful not to scorch.
Preheat oven to a low 125 degrees. Line an 8x8 baking pan or pie pan with parchment paper (do not use wax paper, it will melt!).
Grease the parchment paper with a thin coating of butter. Pour the cooked quince paste into the pan. Smooth out the top of the paste so it is even.
Place the membrillo paste in the 125 degree oven for an hour or longer to help it dry out to the consistency of firm jelly. Make sure the membrillo has set all the way through. Remove from oven and let cool.
To serve, cut into squares or wedges and present with manchego cheese. Take a small slice of the membrillo and spread it on top of a slice of the cheese.
To store, wrap the membrillo in plastic wrap and store in the refrigerator.
Jeff Cox is a Kenwood-based food and garden writer. Reach him at email@example.com