Quince are a difficult fruit to get to know. Every autumn, I buy one or two with the best intentions.
I tell myself I'll poach them or make a lovely marmalade or perhaps a batch of membrillo (Spanish quince paste). They generously perfume our kitchen with their floral honeysuckle aroma for a week. Then the scent fades, and N starts asking when I'm going to do something with those hard fruits. "Soon," I reply, "I have some great ideas." Then another week passes, and the guilt builds. Then a third week of neglect. I start to regret ever having bought those damned, overly demanding fruit. Then a fourth, and I can barely stand to look at them. Their very presence seems to expose my every shortcoming and weakness. Eventually, they rot and I happily throw them away.
So it was with some apprehension that I brought home my usual two quince this year. N saw them and muttered, "hmmm, quince." Not usually one to hide her opinions, she uncharacteristically bit her tongue, while I averted my eyes and changed the subject.
There they sat. Waiting. I snapped a picture for my blog. Then a week, maybe two passed. The aroma started to fade....
Happily, this year is different! I followed Paula Wolfert's unusual Turkish-style recipe in The Slow Mediterranean Kitchen which calls for slow-roasting the quince for 5 hours. The transformation was unbelievable! My homely, hard quince turned into a pair of ruby red slippers. The powerful aroma transformed into the most exotic flavor, tasting as if an entire garden of red roses had been distilled into a single bite. A reminder that cooking can be magical!
A little bit of research in Harold McGee's book demystified the process and put a damper on my romantic notions. I'll attempt to summarize the Professor's explanation. Quince are inedibly tannic in their raw state. When they are cooked, the same chemicals that cause this astringency on our tongues break down and bond with oxygen chemicals to form anthocyanins, the plant pigments that cause fruit and vegetable to appear red.
As I was saying, the quince turn red through some inexplicable, mysterious, magical process. Perhaps they are blushing, knowing that the one who tastes them is about to fall in love.
When I served the roasted quince for dessert the other night, falling in love is exactly what happened to N. She was astonished and entranced by the beguiling taste. She was convinced I had added some secret ingredient like rose water or cardamom or vanilla. Believe me, folks, she is a tough critic and she was enraptured.
Or perhaps she was just stunned that I actually cooked the quince this year.
Paula Wolfert's Slow-Baked Quince
(adapted from her recipe in The Slow Mediterranean Kitchen)
2 medium quince
⅔ c superfine (baker's) sugar
⅔ c water
1½ T lemon juice
Preheat oven to 250˚F (120˚C).
Peel and halve the quince. Using a melon baller and a paring knife, carefully core the quince halves. They are incredibly hard, so be careful when using the knife to remove any stray bits of stem. Reserve all the peel and trimmings. Combine the sugar, water, clove and lemon juice in a shallow baking dish, such as a casserole (preferably one with a lid). Stir with a whisk to dissolve the sugar. Add the reserved trimmings and the quince halves, cut side down. Peel the apple. Using the largest wholes on a box grater, coarsely grate the apple over the quince halves. This will prevent the quince from drying out while baking.
Cover and bake for 5 to 7 hours until the fruit softens and turns pink or, if you're lucky like I was, crimson.
According to Paula Wolfert, not all varieties of quince turn quite so red. She recommends serving the quince halves with clotted cream and toasted almonds. Although I tried it that way, both N and I preferred them with vanilla ice cream. Either way, strain and then spoon the sweet cooking juices over the fruit. Leftover juices make a great spritzer mixed with water or, even better, a great version of a Bellini or Kir Royale mixed with Prosecco or Champagne! Cheers!