The thing sitting on my desk was about three inches tall and probably about four inches in diameter. It was golden-delicious-apple-yellow in color, bumpy and irregular in shape. Was it some sort of Asian pear or a mutant heirloom apple? Both my guesses were wrong: it turned out to be a quince.
Oregonians are very familiar with apples and pears, but quinces, which are similar to both, are not an everyday fruit, even though they grow well in our temperate climate. The taste of quinces has been described as the most complex, aromatic, concentrated apple or pear you've ever eaten.
Quince paste is probably the most popular use of quince; it is made around the world, from the Middle East to the Mediterranean to South America. In Italy, quince paste is called cotognata, and its making is a bit of an obsession. The French call it cotignac and the Spanish call it membrillo.
To make quince paste, pureed fruit is stirred over heat until it is thick and concentrated. Sheets of the translucent paste is cut into cubes or triangles and tossed in sugar for a special after-dinner treat.
At one time quinces were quite popular in American gardens and were used for making jams and jellies and adding to apple butter. Quinces have a very high pectin content, making them ideal for preserves.
Quinces are not a convenience food. Unlike an apple or pear that you can eat right off the tree, quince are inedible raw. The yellowish-white flesh is hard, dry and astringent and must be cooked. When cooked, it becomes soft and flavorful and turns a lovely pink color. The few steps in preparation are easy, but the cooking takes a long time.
Even small quantities of quince add flavor to other foods and they are perfect for adding to long cooking dishes because they hold their shape so well. They are cooked with braised meats in many cuisines.
Quinces ripen in September and October, and fruit can usually be found stored through December.
If you are not lucky enough to have a quince tree in your yard, choose fragrant quinces at the market that are bright yellow or golden in color with no green. They should be firm with no soft spots or discoloration. The degree of fuzziness is a varietal characteristic, and fruits lose their fuzz as they ripen. Quinces will keep a week or two at cool air temperature if they have good air circulation and they will keep longer if refrigerated.
To prepare quinces for cooking simply rinse them under cold running water and rub off any fuzz. When making jam, jelly or paste, there is no need to peel or core them, as you will press the pulp through a food mill or sieve to remove any debris. Quinces that you will poach or cook in other ways should be quartered, peeled and cored beforehand.
Like apples and pears, quinces will oxidize quickly. But since it will turn color when it cooks anyway, the extra color won't be noticed. The final color will vary from pink to red, but some varieties will remain pale yellow.
Look for quince at your local market and make a batch of delicious quince paste. It is the perfect accompaniment for the Manchego cheese in the Five:30 recipe at top. It could become your signature hostess gift this season, too!
Bon Appetit! Eat from the garden!
3 pounds quince (about 6 medium)
3 cups water
2 cups sugar plus more for coating the pieces
Juice of 1 lemon
Wash the quince and wipe off any clinging fuzz. Cut them in quarters, remove the woody core, and cut the quarters into roughly 1 inch pieces. Put the quinces in a 6 quart pot, add the water, bring to a boil, cover, and stew over medium heat, stirring occasionally until the fruit is soft, about 20 minutes. When the fruit is completely tender and has started to break down, pass the mixture through a food mill or sieve.
Return the puree to the pot, add the sugar and cook over low heat, stirring constantly, for about 45 minutes. The mixture will cook into a paste, bubbling thickly; when it's done, it should be thick enough to mound up, but still pourable. If the mixture starts to burn in the pan before it has completely thickened, turn off the heat and let it rest for a few minutes, the part sticking to the bottom will release when you start stirring again. When the mixture reaches the right consistency, stir in the lemon juice and remove from the heat.
Line a shallow pan measuring at least 8 x 10 inches with parchment paper. Lightly oil the paper with light vegetable or almond oil. Pour the paste onto the paper-lined pan, spreading it into an 8 by 10 inch rectangle, about 1/4 inch thick. When it has cooled completely, invert the sheet of paste onto another piece of parchment paper. Let the paste dry uncovered overnight. (If it is not firm enough to cut at this point, try drying it out for an hour in the oven at 150ºF or the lowest setting. ) Once the paste is cool and firm, cut it into 1-inch squares and toss them in sugar. Store uncovered in a dry place. When the paste is dry to the touch, it can be stored in an airtight container for as long as a year.
Makes eighty 1-inch square pieces.
Chez Panisse Fruit
Randall welcomes your food questions and research suggestions. She can be reached at 503-635-8811 or by e-mailing bran
A five ingredient hors d'oeuvres ready in 30 minutes or less.
Makes 30 to 40 hors d'oeuvres
A unique, delicious fall hors d'oeuvres. You can make your own quince paste using the recipe below, or purchase it readymade at the grocery store.
½ pound wedge chilled Manchego cheese, rind cut off
¼ pound chilled quince paste, in a block (homemade or purchased)
¼ cup sliced almonds toasted and cooled
Equipment you will find helpful: adjustable blade slicer or mandaline.
Square off curved side of cheese wedge with a knife so it fits slicer, then slice cheese into generous 1/8 inch thick rectangles (about 8). Arrange in one layer on a sheet of parchment or wax paper.
Cut quince paste into 1/16 thick rectangle slices with a slicer or knife and put on top of cheese slices, piecing quince paste slices together to cover cheese evenly.
Press almonds decoratively into quince paste on top.
Cut stacks into serving pieces about 1 ½ inches by ½ inch rectangles or into 1 inch squares, trimming edges.
Napoleons can be made 1 day ahead and chilled, arranged close together and layered between sheets of plastic wrap, in an airtight container. Bring to room temperature before serving.
Cook's notes: If the quince paste is difficult to slice thinly, it can be finely chopped, then mashed and spread on cheese layers.