Wednesday, 16 November 2016

Quince Cheese

English Quince

Quince, a fruit of the Cydonia oblonga tree, is gritty, hard and astringent.  Only its fragrance hints at what it can become with cooking.  Bringing out the delectability of a quince takes time, effort and sugar.  These three added ingredients result in a luscious ruby coloured fruit confection.

There is one variety of quince, the Mulvian which was mentioned by Pliny the Elder, that can be eaten without cooking but it's not one most of us are likely to encounter.  Sugar is the key to palatability.  Tasted by the English during the first Crusades of the 11th century, most sugar later arrived here in the form of conical sugar loaves.  Sugars boiled and mixed with finely powered flower petals were considered to be good for colds and other ailments.  Mostly sugar was reserved for the royal table or the greatest households to produce spiced and sweetened confections for close of dinner digestives.  This, as Peter Brears in Cooking and Dining in Medieval England reminds us, is a practice we still indulge in with after dinner chocolates and liqueurs and other sweet morsels.

By the 15th century, Brears tells us, the confectionary served to end a meal centred around sweetened apples, quinces, wardens (an old variety of cooking pear) in dishes like Pears in Syrup.  Honey as a sweetener was also employed and Brears gives recipes for Chardequince, Chardedate and Erbowle – employing cooking quince, dates and pears respectively.  All three recipes bearing, to my mind, a very close affinity to what in England we’d now term a fruit 'cheese' or paste.  Of these fruits the quince transformed into a paste is a love shared with other nations.  In France they have their pate de coing, Italy has cotognata, Spain is well-known for its membrillo and Portugal has marmalada.  Recipes are all very similar, though the Portuguese paste is made looser than others and was the original marmalade. 

Quince Cheese

Some quince fruits are more fragrant than others.  I have no science to back up my preference but personally, when I buy, if it's not fragrant it doesn't go in the bag.  As I write, two English-grown quince are perfuming my workspace.  How to describe the scent?  Sensual, almost musky with rose and tropical fruit notes.  Apple and pear fragrances are in there too.  It almost breaks my heart to think of taking them to the kitchen to be cooked - almost. 

Quince Cheese is simple to make but does require constant attention in the puree stage of cooking as it burns easily.  With basically only two ingredients, the recipe is straightforward.  Some like to cook the quince whole but I prefer to chop it up.  The 'cheese' is a thick paste which sets to a firm consistency.  It's good paired with many cheeses but particularly goat and blue cheeses, melted into a lamb or game stew or tagine, or cubed and rolled in granulated sugar to serve as that end of meal digestive.  Moro restaurant uses membrillo instead of egg yolk to make the 'quince aioli', serving it with their delicious roast pork.  The recipe can be found in Moro the Cookbook by Sam and Sam Clark.  

Quince Cheese

1.5 kg (3 lb) quince
Around 1.1 kg (2 lb 4 oz) caster or granulated sugar (see method)
Lemon juice as desired

Line with greaseproof paper whatever dishes you want to use as moulds  - I use 2 loaf tins so I have slabs of 'cheese' which I can slice as needed and end up with around 1.8 kg (3 lb 12 oz) of 'cheese' in total from the quantities above.

Wash the quince well and cut into chunks, peel, core and pips included, and place in a large pan.  Cover with cold water and bring to the boil. Simmer until the fruit is soft. Strain and put the fruit through a mouli or mash then press through a sieve.

Weigh the puree and put in a large pan with the same weight in sugar.  Cook on a low heat, stirring almost constantly for the whole cooking time as it can 'catch' and burn easily.  Allow the mixture to bubble slowly until it turns a deep amber colour.  This will take at least 45 minutes.  When you drag a spoon through and the puree doesn't close up straight away, it's ready.  Taste and add a little lemon juice if you find it too sweet.

Pour the mixture into your lined loaf tins or dishes to a depth of about 5 cm (2 inches). Leave to stand in a dry place, at room temperature, for about 24 hours to cool and set.

Turn out and wrap tightly in fresh greaseproof paper, baking parchment or, even better, waxed paper.

The 'cheese' should keep in the fridge in a container for at least 6 months but check it from time to time as the more moist the mixture is, the less well it will keep.  I have been able to keep mine for longer with no noticeable deterioration to it at all.

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