with poached quince recipe
NOTHING bland about this poached fruit! Cherished and cultivated for its intense floral fragrance since the time of the Akkadians, the quince has a smell so wonderful that the Jews even have a special blessing for it. Why would you overpower these aromas with heavy, spiced poaching liquids, tasting like gingerbread, applesauce, or pear compote? I’d rather indulge in its rare and uniquely luscious perfume unadulterated, somewhere between rose and honey, with a hint of citrus.
Food god Paul Bocuse himself only used sugar to accommodate this strongly perfumed fruit for jellies or paste.1 Quince does require some taming, as most varieties are not pleasant to eat raw – gritty, astringent and equipped with mildly poisonous pits. But how can you unleash the quince’s characteristic seductive flavor other than through the classic but labor-intensive process of making of jelly or paste, called membrillo in Spain, cotignac in France and cotognata in Italy? Not only is there an alternative, but it has a lot less sugar and is even fruitier in taste.
There’s a good reason that the quince’s culinary potential seems at the peak in its jelly form, as it exploits the high amount of pectin that the fruit contains, especially in its pits. This is why it was turned into the very first marmalade ever made. (Actually, the word marmalade itself is derived from the Portuguese word for quince, marmelo.)
Quince really is a voluptuous fruit, magnificent to look at, “like a Rubens bottom,” as Nigel Slater in The Guardian put it.2 He actually did have a quince that looked like the spitting image of Bacchus sitting on his plate. Some texts suggest that the fruit of temptation from the tree of knowledge actually might have been a quince. And the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, also celebrates the creation of Adam and Eve, and quinces are traditionally on the menu.3
And for southern Central European Yiddish speakers, there is another very good reason to love quince. Its name is a good omen, as the local Yiddish word for quince is pronounced “kitta,” which sounds like “git,” meaning “good” in southern (Hasidic) Yiddish.
On Rosh Hashanah, it is customary to eat foods that symbolize, or more precisely, whose names resemble words that convey the wishes and hopes for the coming year. The fruit is most often simply boiled in plain sugar-water. It therefore tastes of nothing but its natural goodness, as it would straight out of Paradise.
Poaching quinces is an ideal minimalist solution to preserving and developing all the delicate nuances of their aroma. In Italy, quinces are often poached in wine, mostly dry white wine, but also red, even though most red wines will overpower the quinces.
Italian Jews serve this cotogne in composta or in giulebbe“4 to break the fast on Yom Kippur. Cotogne in composta means “quince in compote.” “In giulebbe” means “to be drowning in sweetness,” but it can also refer to someone terribly in love.5 Now, isn’t that befitting for Eve’s apple?
As far as alcohol goes, whisky, Armagnac and sweet Marsala are other possible pairings. But dry white wine seems the most common practice. Thus, Bacchus, god of wine, plays an even bigger role in the dish. He lifts the quince to its pedestal.
Here in Vienna, I often get a local Chardonnay or a Grüner Veltliner wine, unique to the wider Vienna region. It’s perfect for ripe quinces. If you can, get a Grüner Veltliner from a vineyard situated in the plains, more mineral than fruity, with spicy notes of white pepper and tobacco.
But a really special choice is an old, strictly Viennese specialty, a dry white wine called Wiener Gemischter Satz. Vineyards on Vienna’s famous wine hill Nussberg (literally “nut-mountain”) with its breathtaking view over the city, produce a very appropriate wine for poached quinces. Although any dry white wine of your liking will do the trick, it will obviously affect the main aroma in the final dish. So choose wisely. Use a wine that you like to drink. One of the more substantial Wiener Gemischter Satz wines, like the one from the Wieninger vineyards on the Nussberg hill, is my absolute favorite for this dish.
Now, with a ripe fruit and a good wine, all you’ll really need for perfect poached quince is a bit of sugar. Most recipes suggest all sorts of spices and herbs. Anything goes, from honey, rosewater, orange blossom,6 cloves, pepper, vanilla, star anise, orange, lemon or etrog, ginger, cinnamon, cardamom, lavender, thyme, rosemary, tarragon, bay leaves, nutmeg…7 But all this rather distracts from the fruits unique, marvelous flavors. At most I would follow an Italian tradition by adding a leave or two of tarragon, but I don’t.
Lastly, there’s one major symbolic food pairing as far as quince goes. Once a year, I associate quince with pomegranate. First, because both are in season in autumn. Then, it is common practice to eat both on the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah. Finally a more visual clue, the flesh of poached quince turns red like pomegranate after a long cooking time. In fact, the slower the poaching, the more intense the color. And the longer you leave them to marinate afterwards in their poaching liquid, the redder they’ll get.
Turkish Jews are famous for this Rosh Hashanah combo of poached quince and pomegranate, called ayva tatlisi.8 Celebrity chef Yotam Ottolenghi recently presented this dish in his wonderful cookbook Plenty More. But however sumptuous pomegranate juice as poaching liquid may be, it too very much distracts and conceals the quince’s quintessential paradisiacal taste.
Locally, Austrio-Hungarian Jews used to prepare quinces in these three ways: Cooked in syrup, preserved and jelly.9 I go for the fruitiest and simplest, yet most effective approach: slowly poached in dry white wine, served (optionally) with the reduced poaching liquid, caramelized walnuts, mint chiffonade and some Schlag (sweet Viennese whipped cream).
As quince seems to be an endangered species, it is slowly disappearing from the stalls of our markets. Outside of Turkey, Iran and farmer’s markets, a crate of quinces will be an unusual sight. In autumn you can find them at Middle Eastern stores and occasionally greengrocers.
There are thousands of different varieties, which differ in size, shape and, more importantly, in taste. They grow in Austria too, but if you don’t buy at your local farmer’s market, most are imported.
Pick ripe, bright yellow fruits. Specimens that are not ripe will not have the characteristic taste and will take forever to cook. A ripe fruit poaches in a maximum of 20 to 30 minutes.
As quinces are not grown commercially on a large scale in Austria, they are often organic and infected by worms, so check skin for infections! Choose those with less or no black worm hole spots.
You’ll have to deal with a few bruises and scrapes, but do avoid dark soft spots. Generally, pick the ripe yellow specimens with a nice floral odor. Do smell them! Some species, like the Cydora Robusta have an intense smell, especially their skin, which will give a beautiful aroma to the dish.
How to Poach Quinces
Poaching is not boiling! Boiling is much too aggressive. Poaching means that the liquid to cook the quince needs to be at 160-180°F (70-80°C). It’s a very, very low simmer. There are no bubbles breaking through the surface at this temperature.
Why should you follow this advice? Well, if the liquid gets to a real simmer or boil, or even just 185-195°F (85-90°C), it will tear the fruit and ruin the firm texture of the flesh. We need a very gentle method so that the flesh stays intact.
If you aren’t able to maintain a constant 175°F (80°C) water bath on a burner, and you haven’t got a sous-vide cooker, your best bet will be an oven set to 175°F (80°C). Use a meat thermometer to check the liquid’s temperature.
It is very important to use the smallest pot possible that can fit the amount of fruit you are poaching. This will prevent the flavor of the fruit from being diluted in too much liquid, especially since we will use the liquid as a sauce.
Lastly, it will be a lot easier, less messy and tastier to peel the quinces once they are cooked. But it doesn’t make a big difference, as long as you add all the peels and cores to the poaching liquid. Even Nostradamus, the 16th-century alchemist, said that cooks “who peel them [before cooking] don’t know why they do this, for the skin augments the odor.”10
Recipe: Quinces Poached in Viennese White Wine
For 2 medium-sized quinces (4-8 servings):
- 1-2 bottles dry white wine like a Grüner Veltliner, a Chardonnay or Wiener Gemischter Satz
- 1 cup sugar
- 7 black peppercorns (optional)
- 2 lemon peels (optional) Try to get as little white pith as possible because that’s where the bitterness is.
- approx. 24 mint leaves en chiffonade (stacked, rolled up and thinly sliced)
- 1 cup caramelized chopped walnuts (or pistachios, almonds) see recipe below
- Sweet whipped cream, “Schlag” in Viennese (or mascarpone, vanilla bean ice-cream, thick cream)
Serve with (instead of nut topping) mandelbrodt (Jewish Biscotti) or even Teiglach
- Preheat the oven to 210°F (100°C).
- Put the sugar and the wine in a saucepan large enough to hold the quinces in a tight fit. Bring to a boil for a minute or two over high heat to dissolve the sugar and evaporate the alcohol.
- Add the peppercorns and lemon rinds together with the quinces halved, skin on, core and pits intact. Do not prepare the quinces in advance or they will brown. Simply place them in the pot with the syrup as you cut them in half. There must be enough wine to cover the quinces, though the quinces will always float. If necessary, pour in more wine.
- Return to the boil, then turn down the heat to let it sit on the lowest setting possible, while you cover the quinces with a cartouche (a circle of greaseproof parchment) and a lid.
- Put the pot with the quinces in the preheated oven. Set the oven to 175°F (80°C) ). If you have a meat thermometer, place it in the pot. The liquid should stabilize at no more than 175°F (80°C)! Let the fruits poach overnight for a minimum of 6-7 hours to get soft and slightly colored. They will take an average of 10-12 hours to take on deeper shades of ruby. Generally, the longer you leave them, the more intense the color. But the color will differ depending on variety and ripeness of the fruit.
- Let the poached quinces cool in their juice and refrigerate overnight.
- Halved or quartered quinces with core and skin on is the preferred minimalist way to present them. It makes for a visually appealing presentation, because you see what you get! I nonetheless rather follow the Jewish Italian way, brought down for instance by Claudia Roden. It consists of coring after poaching but still leaving the skin on (you could get rid of it easily at this stage, if you prefer to do so). Slice the quinces. Strain and pour the liquid over the quinces.
Serve the poached quince chilled with sweet whipped cream (Schlag), caramelized walnuts (see recipe below) and the chiffonade of mint.
Caramelized walnuts (or pistachios, almonds)
Yields 2 cups
Adapted from David Lebovitz’s website’s Caramelized Peanuts.
- 2 cups (275g) raw or roasted walnuts (or pistachios, almonds)
- 1 cup (200g) sugar
- 1/3 cup (75ml) water
- a sprinkle of coarse sea salt
- In a wide, heavy-duty skillet, mix the walnuts with the sugar and water.
- Cook the ingredients over moderate heat, stirring almost non-stop, until the sugary liquid begins to crystallize. (You’ll think you made a mistake, but you didn’t.) It will take a few minutes.
- Keep stirring until the sugar gets sandy and dry around the walnuts.
- Lower the heat and keep going, scraping up any syrup collecting in the bottom of the pan and stir the walnuts in it, coating them as much as possible. As you go, tilt the pan, removing it from the heat from time-to-time to regulate and control the heat and the syrup, so you can coat the nuts with the liquid as it darkens without burning the walnuts or the syrup. This is the only tricky part. If the mixture starts to smoke, simply remove it from the heat and stir further, coating the nuts.
- Right before the walnuts are done, sprinkle them with a flurry of flaky salt, stir them a couple of times, then tilt the walnuts out onto a baking sheet or a marble countertop.
- Let the walnuts cool completely, breaking up any clumps as they cool. Store in an airtight container. The walnuts will keep for up to a week.
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- In Paul Bocuse: The Complete Recipes you’ll find the famous recipe for his quince jelly with nothing but sugar added.
- His recipe can also be found in the second installment of Nigel Slater’s The Kitchen Diaries.
- Quinces are also often used on the second night of Rosh Hashanah, to say the customary blessing of Shehecheyanu.
- Joyce Goldstein, in her Cucina Ebraica, presents a very simple recipe for Quince in syrup. Claudia Roden, in her books The Food of Italy, Middle Eastern Food and The Book of Jewish Food adds lemon peel and juice. Edda Servi Machlin uses the cotognata’s liquid of the poached quince to make gelatina in The Classic Dolci of the Italian Jews. I also saw an Italian video for “Marmellata Mele Cotogne Sfarjel” for Rosh Hashanah in the tradition of the Jews of Libya.
- Giulebbe is an archaic Italian word derived from the Arab word “juleb”, which in turn derives from “gul-ab,” where gul = rose, and ab = water. I found this in Quince apples poached in syrup (“mele cotogne in giulebbe”), where Amelia Pane Schaffner explains why she makes poached quince in rose water instead of wine.
- See Pierro Camporesi in his detailed note on quince to Pellegrino Artusi’s La Scienza in cucina e l’Arte di mangiar bene (Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well).
- The Flavor Bible evidently lists even more combinations.
- Read more about poached quince in Gil Marks’ Encyclopedia of Jewish Food.
- András Koerner, in A Taste of the Past: The Daily Life and Cooking of a Nineteenth-Century Hungarian-Jewish Homemaker, recollects his memories of Riza néni preparing the fruit from the huge quince tree in his great-grandparents’ garden, on which his mother’s swing hung from one of the branches.
- I found this with plenty of more on quince in Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking (p.359).
Give this a try, it’s worth the effort!