Transmutable Fruit

You never forget your first quince. I first saw this strange fruit while driving through rice paddies on the western outskirts of Matsumoto, in mountainous central Japan. The trees themselves were small and scraggly, their knotted branches laden with the golden, apple-like fruit. Though tempted to jump out of the car and gather a few, I continued on, only to discover that quinces were practically impossible to find at Japanese markets. Even here in New York, quinces are remarkably difficult to come by, appearing only sporadically in the autumn. Yet as any quince aficionado knows, finding the fruit is only the beginning, for they take as much perseverance to procure as to prepare.

To the uninitiated, a quince looks like a squat pear or misshapen apple. As the fruit ripens, its flesh emits a fragrance unlike that of its blander, more familiar cousins – heady and floral, it beckons from across the kitchen, practically begging to be eaten. Sadly, this fragrance is merely a trick: thanks to their high tannin content, quinces are astringent and inedible when raw, a fact that no amount of room temperature ripening can undo. In the presence of heat, however, the fruit undergoes a remarkable transformation: its hard, white flesh softens and sweetens, turning a lovely shade of rusty red. (Tomoyuki Maita, the proprietor of Matsumoto’s Chez Momo, has a few photos that reveal this alchemical process.)

Thankfully, if you can find enough quinces, there is no shortage of ways to enjoy them. Cooked into a thick paste with plenty of sugar, the pectin-rich flesh becomes membrillo, a Spanish treat traditionally served with Manchego cheese. Lightly poached and pureed, it becomes the base for a spectacular autumn tart. Here, I took two takes on this notoriously stubborn fruit. The first, inspired by wagashi, uses membrillo as the starting point for a Japanese-esque sweet, with kinako (きな粉 – roasted soybean flour) and matcha (抹茶 – green tea powder) providing a hint of bitterness in contrast to the sugary paste within. The second preparation, a confiture of quince poached with fresh ginger and homemade candied Meyer lemon zest, is my homage to Chez Momo’s Maita-san and his remarkable array of handmade jams and preserves. (Fittingly, the recipe itself came by way of confiturier extraordinaire Christine Ferber, who was the inspiration for Chez Momo.) Spooned over thick, tangy yogurt, the rosy fruit takes on a whole new dimension of deliciousness.

Of course, I would be misleading you if I said these recipes were easy. Quince, by its elusive and stubborn nature, requires patience and persistence to unlock its charms. But if you have both (and are lucky enough to find the fruit itself), you’ll be richly rewarded by this remarkable, transmutable fruit.

Quince paste with sugar, kinako (きな粉), and matcha (抹茶)

Quince Paste (Membrillo)  – 花梨のペースト「メンブリージョ」

Adapted from Kate Zuckerman’s The Sweet Life

Makes 4 dozen small candies

2  1/2 pounds quinces (about 4 large fruits)

4 cups sugar, plus additional for coating

2 strips of lemon peel, each 1/2 inch wide by 1 1/2 inches long

Juice of 3 lemons, plus additional as needed

Kinako (きな粉 – roasted soybean flour) and matcha (抹茶 – powdered green tea), for coating

Peel the quinces and cut off the fuzzy stem. Cut each quince into eighths, leaving the cores intact. Bring 3 cups water and 3 cups sugar to a boil in a large saucepan and add the quince. Bring to a simmer and cook over low heat until the quince begins to turn a rust red color, about 1 1/2 to 2 hours. Add the lemon peel and continue cooking for about 20 minutes.
Remove the lemon peel and pass the quince pieces through a food mill or strainer, discarding the pulp and seeds, then blend with the syrup in a food processor or blender. Pour the quince puree back into the saucepan, and add 1 cup sugar. Bring the mixture to a boil over medium heat, whisking often. Cook for 10 to 20 minutes on medium high heat, whisking continuously. As it cooks, the puree with bubble, thicken, and darken in color. After about 10 minutes, test the temperature of the puree with a candy thermometer. When the puree reaches 221°F, add the lemon juice and cook for a few more minutes.

Test the set of the candy: dribble a small amount of quince puree on a cool surface and let sit for a minute or two. If the candy doesn’t easily peel off the surface, add a little more lemon juice to the pan and cook for a few more minutes. Continue testing the candy until it sets, then pour onto a large cookie sheet and let cool.

Once the candy has cooled, cut into small squares (or another shape) and coat with sugar, kinako, or matcha. The candy will keep in an airtight container at room temperature for about 1 month.

2 thoughts on “Transmutable Fruit

  1. Emma, I’m so pleased to remember and return to your blog. A dear friend of mine has recently found out that she and her husband will be moving to Tokyo. I bought them a copy of Peko Peko (and finally bought that copy for *myself* I’ve been meaning to get). I hope you’re doing well in NY; I expect I’ll be up there at least once this year–perhaps you can give me restaurant recommendations?

    Big cheers for your lovely blog continuing. I’m so inspired by the quince recipes this time! And your writing is gracious and just a pleasure to read on its own.

    • Rasha, what a pleasure to hear from you again! I can’t thank you enough for purchasing Peko Peko; I hope you and your friend enjoy the stories and recipes it contains as much as I do.

      Needless to say, I’d be delighted to give you restaurant recommendations for your visit. (Of course, it would be wonderful to see you, too.) Hope you’re well, and please stay in touch!

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