A month or so ago, I was invited down to my aunt’s property in Ben Lomond, California, where she and her husband keep a beautiful garden and orchard. She is a food stylist by trade, and was someone who (unbeknownst to her) was very influential in my being interested in cooking. Long story short, we have a lot in common, and she knew that I was just the person to gift with a bag full of quince and a recipe for membrillo, or quince paste. This was literally the first time I’d ever seen quince that weren’t cooked – they just looked to me like fuzzy pears. When they aren’t cooked, they are virtually inedible. When you poach them, or make them into preserves, they take on a lovely dark red color and soften up, opening up with sweet and floral aromas that happen to be one of Jules’ favorite things to eat ever.
I’d bought quince paste before, usually to eat with slightly salty queso fresco, or with slices of Manchego cheese. I’d never made it. In fact, my only experience with fruit preservation thus far was the one batch of grapefruit marmalade that I’d made on a whim when we got back from France in September of this year. But I was willing to try. Patience is a key thing when making quince paste, because I found that when you get to the point you think that it’s ready to set, you should probably keep cooking for another hour or so.
Membrillo (Quince Paste)
4 pounds quince, washed, peeled, cored, roughly chopped
1 vanilla pod, split
2 strips (1/2 inch by 2 inches each) of lemon peel (only the yellow peel, no white pith)
3 Tbsp lemon juice
About 4 cups of granulated sugar, exact amount will be determined during cooking
Place quince pieces in a large, heavy bottomed pot, like a Dutch oven (6-8 quarts) and cover with water. Add the vanilla pod and lemon peel and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer, cover, and let cook until the quince pieces are fork tender (30-40 minutes).
Strain the water from the quince pieces. Discard the vanilla pod but keep the lemon peel with the quince. Purée the quince pieces in a food processor, blender, or by using a food mill. Measure the quince purée. Whatever amount of quince purée you have, that’s how much sugar you will need. So if you have 4 cups of purée, you’ll need 4 cups of sugar. Return the quince purée to the large pan. Heat to medium-low. Add the sugar. Stir with a wooden spoon until the sugar has completely dissolved. Add the lemon juice.
Continue to cook over a low heat, stirring occasionally, for 1.5-2 hours, until the quince paste is very thick and has a deep orange pink color.
This next part is tricky. If you’re like me and you have a gas oven whose lowest point is 200 degrees, then you have to cook the paste a little longer and then pour into the baking pan and let set in the refrigerator. Otherwise, you can preheat your oven to a low 125°F (52°C). Line a 8×8 baking pan with parchment paper (do not use wax paper, it will melt!). Grease the parchment paper with a thin coating of butter. Pour the cooked quince paste into the parchment paper-lined baking pan. Smooth out the top of the paste so it is even. Place in the oven for about an hour to help it dry. Remove from oven and let cool.
To serve, cut into squares or wedges and present with Manchego cheese. To eat, take a small slice of the membrillo and spread it on top of a slice of the cheese. Store by wrapping in foil or plastic wrap, and keeping in the refrigerator.