Monday, November 7, 2011

membrillo, or quince part one

I adore this fruit.
There are a few foods I feel this way about. Rhubarb. Leeks. Celeriac. When I have a pile of quinces on the counter, I feel newly in love, tingly, unsure of what will happen next. I feel like I've discovered them. And I always have.
This is something I want to do more, that is, adore my food. We talk all about being connected to the source of our food, thinking consciously about the social implications of our food, blah, blah, blah.  And I don't blah because I don't agree- of course I agree! But I think that for me, the heart of it is somewhere else. I want to love the food itself.

Simple as that might seem, let's think about it together for a moment.
Have you ever come across a food that stunned you with its beauty? Was it the fertile curve of an eggplant? The flowering spike of an artichoke? Was it the swirling marble of a perfect cut of meat? The pale glow of a triangle of wonderful cheese?

And then, catching yourself admiring that very ingredient, you prepared it--washed it, chopped it, cooked it to a perfect softness in whatever way was appropriate... and then, you ate it?

How did it taste? And how did it feel?

When I eat quinces, I feel like I am consuming art and perfume and beauty. I feel like I am eating history.

 And then, instead of cooking because I have to, I'm cooking because I am in love with this fruit. (Which, incidentally, can not be eaten raw, so cook it we must.)

Last week, when we were buried under the snow, a friend asked me what to do with quince. Her tree, it turned out, had dropped most of its fruit under the weight of the blizzard, and she could not keep up with them. Quince chutney! I told her, and poached quinces! And without trying to sound too excited so as to give myself away, I offered to dispense with some of the beloved fruit in my very own kitchen in exchange for the results of my labor.

And that is how I came to these particular quinces.

When quinces sit in the kitchen, they perfume the entire house. My mother, who does not like most smells, kept asking, "What is that sweetness?" and I told her quince! My sister hovered in that corner of the kitchen in particular, smiling and breathing in. And for those few days before I had my way with the fruit, I walked in the door and breathed deep. And like a lover who has come back to her beloved, I dropped my bag and, shoes still on, made my way to the kitchen for a deeper inhale before I fully arrived in the space of home again.

These quinces, 12 pounds in all, met two different fates. I was having a party, and dreamed of serving sweet cubes of membrillo with cheese, and so that was one.
And then, of course, there was jelly. That will be part two, soon, soon.

My friend Nikki showed up at the party with her fantastic pear ginger vodka. I held out the tray of membrillo with manchego, and confessed that although I was in love with the rosy little squares, I might just never make them again. She's a cook too, and she laughed, I think, because she knew what it was to spend hours and hours making a 9x9 square of quince candy.  And although I said it then, I think I'm taking it back. Because for my beloved quince, it's always worth it. And if you are having the right kind of day filled with stirring and warmth in your kitchen, this will be worth it for you too.

Membrillo (quince paste)
with help from here, and here too

makes one 9x9 square pan's worth

(note: Most people peel and core their quinces when making membrillo, but I opted to keep both the peels and cores in the mix, as that is where most of the pectin comes from, and it's less work for you. Most of the fiber was removed in the food mill step, but the end result had just the slightest amount of additional texture from the pith of the quince. I admit that I love it! But if you want a smooth, smooth candy, then core the quince.)

4 pounds quince, scrubbed of pubescence (the lovely fur), and roughly chopped
peel of 1/2 lemon
1 vanilla bean, split
4 cardamom pods
4 cups sugar
1/4 cup lemon juice

Put the chopped quince into a large pot and just barely cover with water. Add the lemon peel, vanilla bean, and cardamom pods to the water. Cover, bring to a boil, and then lower the heat to a simmer. Cook until the quinces are very soft, about 45 minutes.

Use a slotted spoon to transfer the quinces to a food mill (or you can press them through a sieve if that is what you have and you want to work really really hard).  Remove the vanilla bean and cardamom pods as you go and set them aside. Pass the mixture through the food mill. You want the puree to be fairly smooth (mine was not, because my food mill has big holes), and so, if needed, transfer to a blender or food processor to make it smoother.

Wash the pot, and return the puree to the pot. Add the sugar and lemon. Put the vanilla bean and cardamom pods back in the pot.Then cook over low heat, uncovered, stirring often, until the puree gets quite thick and turns a rosy shade of reddish orange. This will take somewhere between 1 1/2 hours and 3 hours. I know this is a long time. You need to keep an eye on it and stir every few minutes, so this is a recipe for a rare day when you can just be in the kitchen making things. Perhaps you are also making jelly? Or dinner? Either way, the quince will merrily cook as you bustle around it--it doesn't need your full attention. Feel free to taste when you stir. It will keep you going all afternoon.

Preheat the oven to as low as it will go. For me, this is 170 degrees.  Line a 9x9 baking pan with parchment, and then grease the parchment with butter. Transfer the puree to the prepared pan, removing the vanilla bean and cardamom pods as you do.

Bake for about 1 hour. Remove from the oven, and let sit for a few hours before cutting into squares.
It will get more solid as it cools.

Store in the refrigerator in a covered container. I am told that it will keep for up to 2 months or so, but I'll let you know if it makes it that long.


  1. Our Armenian neighbors love quinces so much that they do, in fact, eat them raw! They gave us a couple of fruit last year, which I added to apple pie (very tasty), but I imagine we will receive more in the future since they planted half an acre of quince trees this spring.

  2. Gorgeous! Can't wait to transform my own waiting quinces into this beautiful treat. The rest I'm braising with lamb...

  3. I've just discovered your blog, and I'm really enjoying it! Gorgeous gorgeous photos!

    I've never had quinces, but maybe I'll look for them!

  4. How nice to find other quince lovers! And to hear of people with quince trees of their own...

  5. I should have followed your recipe and not Alice Waters'!! Her proscribed 45 minutes of cooking did, indeed, turn into twice that. And no baking. Then the sugar-coating--and the oozing. I have turned them over onto a new piece of parchment and am air-drying: day 3. Fingers crossed.

  6. For we who brave day-long kitchen marathons, I smile and laugh in appreciation. That party was *the best* and you know, I'm still thinking about your membrillo squares and manchego cheese because as you said, in the end, it was so worth it! p.s. Next time I'll brave a larger role...

  7. If you were to make this as a gift, how would you package it?

  8. Well, this wouldn't want to be out of the fridge for more than a day. But I think if I were to gift it, I'd cut into cubes and layer between parchment paper in a gift box. (Take-out boxes are my style here). Even better? include a little block of manchego cheese.