It’s almost here, I can smell it in the air – QUINCE season. In late summer through autumn a peculiar, yellowed green, hard lumpy fruit called quince starts to ripen. Not delicious to eat fresh or raw, it’s almost rock hard puckeringly tart flesh is not refreshingly crisp like an apple.
The quince or Cydonia oblonga is the sole member of the genus Cydonia in the family Rosaceae (which also contains apples and pears, among other fruits). It is a deciduous tree that bears a pome fruit, similar in appearance to a pear, and bright golden-yellow when mature. Throughout history the cooked fruit has been used as food, but the tree is also grown for its attractive pale pink blossoms and other ornamental qualities. Quince is one of those mystery fruits that not everyone knows quite what to do with. Often a backyard quince tree drops its hard, lumpy fruit, unloved onto the ground to rot. Sacrilege. The benefit is however, that with the right conversations and good neighbours, jelly loads of quince can often be obtained free of charge or very cheaply at roadside stalls.
In my personal opinion, quince paste is one of the greatest foods in existence. Garnet chunks of luscious, tacky, quince paste – paired with a fine cheese and salty crackers is pure indulgence. In Spain, this paste is called membrilllo and is paired with a salty tangy sheeps milk cheese called manchego. In Sicily, candied quince paste is called cotognata and often made in decorative molds, which can be turned out to serve with cheeses. Historically quince used to be a core (I am sorry for the pun) part of cuisine in so may cultures, it is often a surprise that they are now so relatively unknown. Quince are one of the greatest joys of autumn and a rare treat to be cherished. This recipe is an excellently thrifty use of quinces – with one batch making both quince jelly and quince paste.
For more information on the history of quince – click here for a Taste of History with Joyce White
As many quinces as you can beg borrow or scrump
Sugar – roughly equivalent in volume to your cooked quinces
A couple of lemons
Large stock pot or jam pot
A food mill/mouli or large meshed sieve
Ladle or spoon
Jars suitable for preserving
Slice pan or muffin tray
Jam making thermometer
Jelly bag or cheesecloth
Wipe the fuzz or bloom off of your quinces (I am not too fastidious) and then slice them into halves, you can cut smaller but really its unnecessary extra effort. Also if you cut the pieces too small, then your paste can become a little flavourless because all of the flavour is spent on the jelly stage of cooking.
Place your sliced quinces into a large stock pot with a generous squeeze of lemon and cover well with water. Use a lid – this is very important as at this stage you don’t want to lose any liquid. Bring the whole pot to the boil and continue to simmer until the quinces soften and the liquor around them has well and truly taken on the flavour and colour of the fruit. A magical transformation happens at this stage, and your quinces will turn from an unassuming yellowish colour, to a deep and rich reddish orange. The level of the transformation will depend on the tannin content of your fruit. Quince contain anthocyanins which are bound up in the natural tannins found in the fruit. It is these tannins that make the fruit unpleasant to eat raw. However, when quince are treated with heat and/or acid, the tannins are broken down and the anthocyanin red pigment is released.
Drain the liquid from the quince pieces, reserving it into a suitable sized container. Set aside the quince pieces at this stage in any lidded container, it’s jelly making time. Rinse your stock pot, and then pour the reserved liquid back into it measuring it a cup at a time so that you know how much liquid you have, straining it through a cheesecloth or jelly bag. Jelly bags are an additional expense but well worth getting if you plan on making jelly often, they make it easy to produce a beautifully clear and jewel like jelly. They also save a lot of messing around with hot liquids.
It turns out that making jelly is a bit of a science, and is very easy to get wrong. Luckily quince is a fruit that is predisposed to becoming jelly as it has a lot of pectin and acidity. The goal of making jelly is to heat the fruit to a necessary point to extract the pectin and then create an environment in which the pectin will form a mesh to trap the liquid. We do this by adding the right amount of sugar and then heating the liquid to the correct temperature. For more information on pectin, check out this article.
The first step, once we have measured the correct amount of liquid is to add equal parts sugar to liquid. You can add as little as 7/8 cup of sugar per cup of liquid, but it is often easier to remember a 1/1 ratio. The next step is to heat the liquid on a medium heat until it starts to boil, you then need to turn the temperature down and simmer the liquid until it reaches setting stage. You will need to skim the surface from time to time to remove the scum. Setting is achieved when the liquid reaches the correct temperature and sugar saturation. It can be hard to spot but as the temperature rises above the boiling point of water (95°C), you will notice the consistency of the jelly/juice begins to change, as it boils it may bubble and foam upwards. This is usually when the temperature is approximately 6 to 8 degrees higher than boiling point at your altitude which is anywhere from 103°C to 105°C at sea level. You can test this by keeping a plate in the freezer and testing a teaspoon of the jelly on it. If the jelly wrinkles, then it is ready to set.
It is possible to over boil your mixture which destroys pectin, and you will end up with caramelised quince syrup instead. This is no great hardship, but it is not the outcome we want.
Once the jelly reaches setting point, it can be poured into sterilised jars and seal. I usually sterilise my jars in the oven or dishwasher, depending on what else is in my kitchen. This from the Spruce article covers three easy ways to sterilise your jars.
Making the Paste:
For this step I find it essential to have a food mill or Mouli. You can use a food processor or a sieve and a potato masher, but I only recommend these options if you enjoy suffering. If you don’t have a food mill, I bet one of your friends does. I bought mine secondhand for $10 and it was a really really good life decision. A food mill allows you to pulp most fruits and vegetables efficiently, whilst removing the seeds and chunky bits. If you use a food processor you need to core your fruit. If you use a sieve and masher, you obviously have far more spare time than any human should have. Get a food mill. No regrets.
Whichever way you choose, once your quince pieces are a uniform mush, you need to put it into a heavy bottomed pot and add equal parts sugar to your mix. The next step is high risk because it involves heating the mixture to a gelling point without letting it burn. A crockpot is great for this step, but ours broke. Heat the mixture on a low temperature and stir regularly to stop it from catching. If it does catch (mine always does) then curse a bit and transfer the mixture into a new pot and continue to heat. Once the paste reaches a uniform temperature where the mixture is blopping away merrily. It is time to transfer into flat trays or low wide mouthed jars. In Sicily they have specific ceramic moulds to set their paste in which look lovely when the paste is turned out onto a plate.
I use a selection of old style enamelled pie tins which have been lightly oiled to stop sticking. You can use muffin trays, brownie pans or any other fun shaped tray you have at home. If it is a very big tray – it is a good idea to line it with greaseproof paper.
Once the paste has been divided up into containers, you need to cook it at a very low temperature overnight. I usually do it in my oven at 50°C on fan bake – with the door cracked. You can use a dehydrator if you have one as well.
Once cooked the quince paste should be a little leathery and if stored in airtight containers it should keep all year.