Moving into what was billed as a "cottage" on Craigslist (in actuality it was a tiny free-standing one-bedroom apartment nestled between two houses in the middle of Astoria, Queens) turned out to be the defining moment of my life as a serious eater. The outdoor space I was afforded let me have a grill, and I instantly fell in love with cooking over a live fire, which has led me to where I am today. For all that I accomplished in turning myself into a decent cook in my six summers there, I look back and regret one thing I never took advantage of—a steady source of quinces.
On move-in day, I inquired about the large fruit tree in my landlord's yard, which she told me bears quinces in the fall. During my first harvest there, she left a couple quinces at my door one day, leaving me puzzled on what to do with the hard-fleshed and fuzzy fruits. I can't remember exactly what became of them, but it certainly wasn't anything great, because after that I let the white wall of smoke rising from my Weber Smokey Mountain block my vision of the bounty of great fruit that lay on the other side.
Had I known how delicious quinces get when cooked—transforming a tough and sour fruit into a soft, sweet-tart delight with an intoxicating aroma—things would have been different. Had I known how quince paste takes that flavor and pushes it even further, in the form of an incredibly delicious thick spread, I would have been picking every single one of those quince from that tree.
Dulce de Membrillo
Quince paste traditionally hails from the Iberian Peninsula—where's it's called dulce to membrillo in Spanish, or marmelada in Portuguese—but its roots can be traced back to the ancient Romans, who found that quinces slow-cooked with honey sets into solid paste. That result happens thanks to the quince's naturally high amount of pectin—the agent that gels jams and jellies.
The process to get quinces into this state hasn't changed much over the years, it's just a matter of taking the time to cook down the quince with sugar, then let the paste dry out. No matter what, it'll take a good four hours from start to finish, and that's after employing some "shortcuts."
To get the paste kick-started, cored quinces are simmered in water until they're tender enough that a paring knife can be inserted into the middle of the fruit with no resistance. Next the quinces are drained and puréed in a food processor until completely smooth. Then back into the pot they go, with an equal amount of sugar, by weight, as the puréed quinces.
This then simmers away over a low flame, requiring frequent stirring to avoid scorching the sugary sauce. As the time passes, the quince paste thickens considerably and turns from a pale yellow to a deep orangey-pink. This process takes around an hour and half, at which point, the paste needs to be dried.
Drying can be done by simply pouring the paste into a pan and letting it sit in a cool place for up to a week. To speed things up though, the oven is employed. Using the lowest setting—150°F for me—the paste can be slowly dried in the oven over an hour or two. Once set into a solid, sliceable paste, the paste is cooled and can be store in the refrigerator at least up three months, probably even more.
To Peel or Not to Peel
The process I used and outlined is fairly standard, and I saw little need to veer from what appears to be a well time-tested recipe. Still, in researching, I saw varying recommendations on whether the peels of the quince—which hold a lot of pectin—were required. Some recipes saying peeling is essential, then sometimes advise to tie the peels up in cheesecloth and let them simmer with the fruit to increase the pectin power. Others left the peels on, reasoning that they're thin enough and are simmered long enough that they're basically cooked into oblivion anyway, so why waste time peeling them. I wanted to see if one was better than the other, so pitted peeled quinces against unpeeled.
Before starting, I was pretty sure peeling was going to be a waste of time, but the results clearly proved otherwise. Both the peeled and unpeeled batches thickened up incredibly well, with the unpeeled reaching the right consistency just about fifteen minutes faster than its counterpart. That time savings came at the expense of texture and color though. The peeled quinces did produce a finer textured paste whose color was the right amount of rosy pink, while the unpeeled batch ended up a bit brown.
This was just one test, so it's not completely definitive, but based on these two batches, I'll go with peeling the quinces in the future. It also seemed like there's no need to use the peels at all—the fruit appears to have more than enough pectin to do the job right on its own.
For just two ingredients—lemon juice can be used as third to add mild bright acidity, but isn't necessary—this paste has a whole lot going on. The fruitiness is reminiscent of its more common apple and pear cousins, giving it a fitting fall flavor right off the bat. The tartness of quinces strikes a nice balance with the sugar, making neither overly sweet or sour, and there's a slight floral undertone and aroma that rounds out the whole thing.
Quince paste is often paired with manchego cheese, whose sharpness is a great match against the sweet and fruity paste. It can go great with a whole host of cheeses though, or expanded out and served alongside toast or pastries, or cured or roasted meats. There's a lot quince paste will only make better, and with its long shelf life, it's a great fall project to keep some fruit flavor going throughout the coming winter months.