Quince paste is drying in a slow oven. It's taken 18 months to get to this point and the entire venture started as an accident. The recipe used to make it is problematic and the result is proving stubbornly sticky to the touch. Yet it's so damn delicious that I'd proudly serve it to Suleiman the Great.
When the bare root sapling that provided the quinces was planted as part of a fruit tree allee in the winter of 2010, the plant tag read "Santa Rosa plum." When the plant that subsequently flowered, leafed out and fruited looked like a Dr. Seuss cartoon of an apple tree, it was clear that this was no plum. The Seuss fruit was a quince.
Raw, quinces are odd and unappealing. The form is bulbous, the skin fuzzy, the body disarmingly hard and light, and the flesh a dry maze of what seems like tough cellulose. It takes cooking to tease out a quince's pear-like aromatics, suppleness and rich store of pectin. So, as small crop of quinces ripened this autumn, for a paste recipe, I turned to the 2002 book Chez Panisse Fruit, by Alice Waters.
According to Waters' book, the most common varieties of quince in California are either the Smyrna or Pineapple. From photographs, I'm guessing that my quince tree is a Pineapple variety. Washing, wiping (not peeling), coring and chopping its yield, a friend and I had to take it on trust that these yellow-skinned and white-fleshed fruits would indeed result in the classic rose-colored condiment.
During cooking, the quince pigments did indeed eventually precipitate from blonde to ruby without the help of Red Dye No. 2. That magic addressed, without further ado, here is a shameless bowdlerization of Chez Panisse's recipe for quince paste.
From: Adapted (at times, very) from Chez Panisse Fruit, by Alice Waters.
Makes: 160 1-square inch sugared quince jellies
4 large or 6 medium quinces (roughly 3 lbs., uncored)
3 cups water
1 ½ to 2 cups sugar, plus more for garnish
Juice of 1 lemon
4-quart pot and lid
large stainless bowl or heat-proof ceramic one
scraper and long handled wooden spoon
food mill, sieve or strainer
two shallow 8 x 10-inch pans or ceramic dishes
parchment or wax paper
baking sheet, 16 x 20 -inches or smaller (see bottom)
1. Wash, wipe excess fuzz from skin, and core quinces, cutting them into quarters, then reducing the quarters into 1-inch sections. Place in 4-quart pot, add water and bring to boil.
2. Reduce heat, cover and steam, stirring occasionally, until they are soft, about 20 minutes. The rising vapor will be redolent of pears and apples, but spicier, even a little like guava.
3. When the fruit is beginning to disintegrate, remove from heat and puree it in a food-mill or by forcing it through a sieve.
4. After capturing the puree in a heat proof bowl, return it to the 4-quart pot, stir in the sugar and cook on a low heat, ideally with a heat diffuser, for about 45 minutes. The paste has to stay in one place long enough to cook, but can easily burn, so stir vigilantly.
5. Between uber-attentive stirring, lightly grease enough parchment (I used wax paper) with vegetable or walnut oil (I had neither, so used mild olive oil) to cover the bottom and edges of at least two shallow pans or ceramic dishes.*
6. When the puree is so thick that when you stir, it leaves the bottom of the pan, blend in the lemon juice and remove the pan from heat. Decant the quince paste on the paper in each pan and spread as thinly and as evenly as possible. Leave it to cool overnight, covered with a clean dishtowel or more paper.
6. It will probably still be tacky the next day, but not so badly that you can't turn the rectangles of paste out onto an oiled baking sheet. Slide the sheet into a low oven, no higher than 150F, for an hour or two. There, with the door slightly ajar, leave it to dry out until the quince perfume you smelled in yesterday's steam is suddenly intense. Move fast to get it out of the oven at the barest notes of caramel. The paste will by now be a deep ruby color. It's almost ready for Ottoman dignitaries. Leave to cool on the sheets.
7. Cut into squares and, one by one, coat lightly with sugar and lay out for a final drying stage. Waters says that when the squares are dry to the touch they can be stored in an airtight container for some time, even as long as a year. That won't be tested in this house.
8. Serve as a sweet, fruity garnish with a cheese plate.
*Restaurant recipes involve such quantities that they are tough to adapt for domestic proportions. I suspect that something was lost in translation when Chez Panisse Fruit suggested that one 8 x 10-inch pan could accommodate the paste spread to a thickness of ¼ inch. This would only work if you threw more than half the puree away. Ideally you will have two 8 x 10-inch dishes with a combined bottom space of 160 square inches. But use what you've got.
If like me you're muddling through with a mix of irregular ceramic dishes, it will just mean that the paste is thicker. You can press it out later. Once you're spreading it in the lined dishes, do not worry about meeting the ¼-inch thickness advised by Chez Panisse. This may be only be achievable in chef-world. If you make ½-inch or even ¾-inches, you will be doing really well. As you turn out the paste to dry in the oven, or as you cut the squares to dust with sugar, you can press the paste into thinner sheets. Finished pieces may still be tacky once you've dusted them and benefit from more time in a clean dry place before storing.
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For more on quinces at local markets, see: What's In Season at the Farmers Market: Meech's Prolific and Pineapple Quince.
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