Last week I showed you my quince splurge: twenty pounds of this old-fashioned fruit that is so hard to find. I've been busy cooking it up, since quince is a fruit that needs some tender loving attention before it rewards you with its sweetness.
In case you are so lucky as to get your paws on a basket of this fruit, here is a basic tutorial on cooking it into its sweet, fragrant state, ready and willing for crumbles, pies, and spooning over breakfast oatmeal all winter long.
At first blush, quince is not inviting. It's tough, green, woody, astringent, and generally useless. It does have an aroma, though, that grows as it sits on your windowsill or in the backseat of your car, a sweet perfume that develops and deepens and tips you off to the fact there may be more here than meets the eye.
The quince is related to apples and pears, and when cooked, it takes on some of the best aspects of these fruits — pears' floral aroma, apples' firmness — while acquiring its own startlingly coral pink hue. Their color is just one of the many things that makes them such a treat.
Poaching quince in liquid with sugar is the best way to bring them into their finest. They need some added sweetness, and this also is a two-for-one deal, because you not only get beautifully cooked fruit but an aromatic syrup, too, that is good for many things around the kitchen.
I've cooked quince many times, and after consulting experts such as David Lebovitz (see his poached quince recipe here) and the Chez Panisse cookbooks, the method I share below seems to be more or less the formula everyone sticks to. You could probably use a little less sugar, or skip the honey, if you don't like it.
But everyone puts their own twist on flavoring the cooked fruit. I love a few coins of fresh ginger slipped into the poaching liquid, complementing the sweet fruit with a spicy kick. Quince also goes very well with pork and savory fall dishes, so try flavoring it with a sprig of rosemary in anticipation of draping a few slices over pork tenderloin and mashed turnips.
Read on for more ideas, too, for using up your cooked fruit. David's tarte Tatin is a must-make. But perhaps my favorite way to enjoy it is stirred into a bowl of warm oatmeal, its bright color and aroma sweetening a winter breakfast.
2 pounds quince (about 3 large)
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup honey (or another 1/4 cup sugar)
Optional flavorings: Large strip of lemon or orange peel, halved vanilla bean, star anise, whole cinnamon stick, cardamom pods, fresh ginger cut into coins
Large chef's knife
Small paring knife
Parchment paper or lid
Weigh the quince: This basic formula can easily be doubled or tripled or more, depending on how much fruit you have. These proportions are for 2 pounds.
Peel the quince: The quince can be peeled easily using a regular vegetable peeler.
Cut the quince in half: Cut the fruit in half with a large, sharp chef's knife. Be sure your cutting board is secure; the fruit is very tough and spongy and will be hard to cut.
Slice into quarters and cut away the core: Slice each fruit into quarters, then use your chef's knife to cut the core and seeds away. Again, this is tough, so be careful; the middle of a quince is woody and hard to cut.
Slice off any wormy bits: Quince are not a widely-grown commercial crop, and much locally-grown fruit will be organic, as mine were. Expect to see some veins or spots that need to be cut away. Use a small, sharp paring knife to cut away anything that seems unappetizing.
Place cut quince into a bowl of water: As you finish with each quince quarter, place in a large bowl of water to prevent browning.
Make the poaching liquid and add any flavorings: Mix together 4 cups water, 1/2 cup sugar, and 1/4 cup honey in a 3-quart (or larger) saucepan. Add any flavorings you like; I usually add a vanilla bean or, as here, star anise and whole cloves. Bring to a simmer, stirring until the sugar is dissolved.
Add the quince and cover with a parchment "lid": Slip the quince into the liquid and cover with a parchment "lid," made by cutting a round piece of parchment just large enough to cover the pan (see tips for this here). If you don't have parchment you can cover the pan loosely with a lid instead. The goal is to keep most of the liquid from evaporating while cooking the quince, but to still let it reduce a little bit into a sweet syrup. Bring to a boil then reduce the heat and cover with the parchment or a lid.
Simmer for 40 to 50 minutes: Cook at a bare simmer for 40 to 50 minutes, or until the quince is turning pink and is tender.
Refrigerate in the poaching liquid: When the quince is pink and tender, turn off the heat and either strain and use right away, or refrigerate the quince in the poaching liquid for up to 7 days.
Freezing: The quince can also be frozen, with its liquid or without.
The Syrup: Don't throw out that beautiful liquid! It's a wonderful byproduct of cooking quince. You can stir it into drinks or Champagne, or reduce it further and drizzle it over cakes or ice cream.